With the recent 2012 additions to the Hockey Hall of Fame still fresh in our minds I feel the need to comment on Paul Henderson, a player who tends to get a lot of support among Canadians to get enshrined. I have an issue with this because I feel Henderson was not an elite talent in his era and would lower the bar in the extreme. Yes, it is true Henderson scored the winning goal in the 1972 Canada vs. Russia series in the 8th game as well as the game winners in the previous two games. It is also true that Henderson scored 7 goals and 3 assists in that 8-game tournament which was inferior only to Phil Esposito’s 13 points on the Canadian team and Russian Alexander Yakushev’s 11 points. There is no doubt Henderson was a man possessed at that time, scoring goals at critical times. However, he falls short overall in his NHL career. In total Henderson only has 477 points in 707 games. He never had more than 60 points in a season and only over 50 points four times. As a goal scorer he peaked at 38 goals in a season. One other time he had 30.
When he bolted the NHL for 5 years and played in the rival WHA league he also failed to make a dent. He never cracked over 66 points in a league that was clearly inferior to the NHL at the time. Yes, he performed superbly in the 1972 series and for that Canadians owe him a debt of gratitude, but the problem I have is that it is impossible to bring up Henderson’s name and attempt to build a case for him without talking about his heroics in 1972. Canadians are passionate people and we are a patriotic bunch – especially in the confines of a hockey rink – but the case for Henderson is purely based on emotion. He was primarily a goal scorer and never finished any higher than 10th overall in goals in his best NHL season. He was a fast skater but still was never considered the best defensive forward like Bob Gainey, for example, which would make me more lenient on his point production. He was never part of a Stanley Cup championship in his career despite coming close twice in 1964 and 1966, and also didn’t stand out in the postseason, registering only 25 points in 56 career postseason games.
If Henderson had a borderline Hall of Fame career to begin with I could see his performance in the 1972 series being the tipping point for a legitimate induction and few would complain. However, Henderson didn’t have any better of a career than his former Maple Leafs and Team Canada 1972 alumni Ron Ellis. No one ever bothers bringing Ellis’ name up when discussing the Hall of Fame and despite a solid career from Ellis there isn’t enough evidence to build a case for him either. I could easily name 50 players more deserving over Henderson and could even make an argument for other players on Team Canada 1972 such as Pete Mahovlich, who was a much better individual player.
Let’s look at it another way. In Game 8 of the Canada/Russia series with the score tied 5-5 and about three minutes to go, Gary Bergman broke in on a 3-on-2 break for Canada and received a nice pass from Brad Park. Bergman quickly labeled the point blank shot in between Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak’s pads but just in the nick of time Tretiak closed the pads on him and the game continued. Henderson eventually broke the tie with 34 seconds left in the game for the eventual game winner. The question I’d like to ask is if Bergman had scored the goal – which he almost did – would we elevate him to Hall of Fame status and never even mention Henderson? With or without that goal Bergman is not a Hall of Fame defenseman. He had a solid career but becoming a Canadian hero wouldn’t all-of-a sudden make him an elite player. However, had he scored that goal instead of Henderson the truth is we would never even bring Henderson’s name up in the first place. And that’s a telling point about Henderson’s career.
Henderson scored a goal that can still send a shiver down the spine of Canadians – including mine – and he will forever be a hero in this country as he should be. I just like the idea of the Hall of Fame being left for the true greats of the game. Isn’t being famous for scoring an important goal enough reverence?