Two years ago, the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee made a callous mistake. Pat Burns, sick with terminal cancer, had the qualifications to be inducted to the Hall. He won the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year three times, with three different teams, and took home a Stanley Cup ring as coach of the New Jersey Devils in 2003. He coached more than a thousand NHL games and racked up 501 wins. That puts him 16th on the all-time list of coaching victories, one ahead of the legendary Toe Blake. It's quite likely those numbers will eventually translate to a place in the HHOF for Burns, but the committee missed the boat when it failed to induct him while he was still alive to see it. Now his future entrance to the Hall will be bittersweet, tinged with regret for his family who won't get to hug him in congratulations. The selection committee was wrong two years ago, but one would hope that, upon reflection, the members would recognize their mistake and vow not to repeat it. It looks, however, as though that hope is a futile one.
Sometimes a moment in a player's life, or a single, instantly recognizable quality transcends his career and defines him forever. When we think of Bobby Orr, most of us think of him flying through the air after scoring in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. When we picture Rocket Richard, we see those blazing dark eyes as he raced in on net. Paul Henderson was defined and will forever be recognized for his role in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR. Hockey fans who weren't born for a decade or more after that epic series can still quote Foster Hewitt's "...right in front, THEY SCORE!!! Henderson has scored for Canada!!" after Henderson's game-and-series-winning goal with 34 seconds to go in Game Eight. What most fans won't remember is that Henderson also scored the game winners in Games Six and Seven as well. He tied Phil Esposito for 7 goals in those 8 games. In short, without Paul Henderson, the series that hockey people look to as a nation-defining moment would likely have been lost.
A lot of fans think Henderson's work in that series is enough to warrant an induction into the Hall of Fame. Most, both for and against his induction, agree his NHL career was respectable. It was not, however, Hall-worthy on its own merit. In a dozen full NHL seasons with the Red Wings and the leafs, he played 707 games and scored 236 goals and 477 points. In 1974 he jumped to the WHA and played seven more seasons, putting up 283 points in 360 games. As is the case with many players who left the NHL for the rival league, his career was considered somewhat tainted by the purists. If Henderson had played his whole career in the NHL, his thousand games and 700+ points would place him in consideration for a place in the Hall, and his role in '72 would have made him a shoo-in. As it stands, his NHL numbers alone aren't enough to qualify him for that honour.
The problem with looking only at numbers in Henderson's case is that '72 transcends everything else. NHL coaches are fond of saying every playoff game is equal to three games of regular-season experience. If that's true, there's no measurement for how many NHL games equal just one of those eight played that September 40 years ago. That Henderson rose so magnificently to the occasion when it mattered most is worthy of honour. Based on that series, he's been the subject of art, books and movies. In a series that shut down the country, that school kids watched instead of going to class, that people remember as a titanic struggle of "us" versus "them" that meant more that the mere outcome of a hockey game, Paul Henderson was the hero. His sweater from that series brought in a million dollars at auction. "The Goal" tops every list of every great moment in Canadian hockey history. Another sweater he wore in '72 and the stick he used to score the series-winning goal are in the Hall of Fame, but the man who scored it is not. Henderson is a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, which honours the greatest athletes the country has produced in all sports, but he hasn't been inducted into the Hall devoted solely to the sport to which he contributed so much.
Well, now Paul Henderson is dying. He's been fighting leukemia for the last three years and recently said the cancer has spread and there are signs it's getting worse. The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee has a chance to prove it learned something from the shameful way in which it passed over Pat Burns while he still lived. It can do the right thing and induct Paul Henderson before it's too late for him to know about it. When a name comes up for consideration of induction to the Hall, at least 8 members of the committee must vote in favour of induction. In Henderson's case, if you were to put his name on a national ballot, you can bet many more than the required 75% of people in approval would give him the nod.
The Hall of Fame requires the following attributes of a player member: "Playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to the team or teams and to the game of hockey in general." Paul Henderson was a good player and a good sportsman, but the contribution he made to the game of hockey was nothing short of great. He should be a Hall of Fame member, and he should be inducted now. The 40th anniversary of his famous series is happening this year, and honouring its hero would be a perfect way to mark the occasion.