Every single Canadian who was at least five years old in back in 1972 can tell you exactly whereabouts they were on Sept 28th 1972. That’s the day Paul Henderson scored the most dramatic and famous goal in the history of ice hockey with just 34 seconds to go in the final match of the eight-game Summit Series between Canada and Russia.
The nation stood still that September afternoon. Classes were cancelled across the country and television sets were wheeled into school auditoriums for students to watch the most important ice hockey game ever.
To many, it was a lot more than just a sporting event. There were many political overtones to the series as it was seen as the capitalist way of life in North America against the Communism of the Eastern Bloc. Back in 1972, the Olympic Games were purely for amateur athletes, which the Soviet hockey players were classified as. Many of the Russian squad was recruited from the famous Central Red Army while the Canadian team was made up of professional NHL players.
After getting a look at the Russians, many who had holes in their socks and sweaters, most Canadian fans believed their country would have no problem winning all eight games even though four of them were to be held in the Soviet Union.
When the series got underway at the historic Montreal Forum on Sept. 2nd, the Russians embarrassed the Canadian team by beating them easily 7-3. The Canadians tied the series at one game each two days later at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto with a 4-1 win. On Sept. 6th in Winnipeg, the teams skated to a 4-4 tie, but Russia won the fourth and final game in Canada on Sept. 8th with a 5-3 victory in Vancouver.
Canadian hockey fans were shocked as the Soviets held a 2-1-1edge in games with the last four to be played thousands of miles away on Russian soil. They didn’t know if their team was that bad or if the Russians were really that good.
One of Canada’s better players in the first four games was left winger Paul Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Henderson, who was one of the last players to make the team, had two goals in the first four games and was playing well on a line with Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers and Ron Ellis, his teammate with the Leafs.
When the series resumed in Russia after a two-week break, Henderson showed he hadn’t lost his scoring touch and added two more goals in an exciting 5-4 loss to the Soviets. The chances of winning the series looked to be slim and none after Canada blew a 4-1 lead and watched helplessly as Russia scored five third-period goals. The only way Canada could win now was to take the remaining three games in Russia, which seemed a near-impossible task.
However, Henderson took matters into his own hands and singlehandedly saved the Canadians from an embarrassing series defeat by scoring the winning goal in game six in Canada’s 3-2 victory. He then added the game-winner again two nights later with less than three minutes to go in Canada’s 4-3 win.
The series was all even heading into game eight with each country having three wins and a tie, but Russia held the edge in goal difference. Everything in this “Us vs Them” series had come down to the final act with Canada needing a win to take the series. The Russians held a 5-3 lead in the third period in what was one of the most emotionally-charged hockey games ever. The Canadians never gave up though and came back to tie the game 5-5.
With just under a minute to go in the game and the series, Henderson jumped on the ice and headed straight for the net. A loose puck found its way onto his stick and he took a shot that was saved by Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak. However, the rebound came right back to Henderson and he deposited it into the back of the net with just 34 seconds remaining on the clock for a 6-5 win in the most famous event in the annals of ice hockey.
Henderson was an instant hero all over Canada and could have easily been elected Prime Minister if he had chosen to run for the position. He led Canada to the most unlikely of victories on hostile soil and had scored the winning goals in games six, seven, and eight. It was a miraculous feat and the moment was caught on film by photographer Frank Lennon. His photograph of Henderson celebrating the goal became the most famous photo in Canada.
Henderson finished the eight-game series with a total of seven goals and three assists for 10 points. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had become an immortal in the hockey world. Canada has never forgotten Paul Henderson and his amazing series. In 2010, the sweater he was wearing in game eight was sold by auction for over a million dollars. It was taken across the country on tour in 2011, almost 40 years after he scored ice hockey’s goal of the century.