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Ex-Leaf Paul Henderson: wonderful player, not a Hall-of-Famer

The new inductees to the hockey Hall-of-Fame will be announced early next week.

Former Leaf and Canadian hockey hero Paul Henderson said the other day that he shouldn’t be in the Hall-of-Fame—and he’s right.

Paul, fighting a battle with cancer these days, was a wonderful player and a solid citizen throughout his professional career. He had a remarkable run in the 1972 Summit Series, scoring the winning goal, as Canadian hockey fans well know, in the final three games of the 8-game series.

Everyone in Canada who loves hockey and was around remembers where they were when Henderson scored with seconds remaining in Game 8 to win the series for Canada.

Those were special moments. And they should be highlighted in the Hall-of Fame in Toronto. Just like the Whitby Dunlops winning the World Championships outdoors in Europe in 1958, like the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey teams, made up of collegians, who won shocking gold medals in 1960 and 1980.

But none of the players on those teams are—or should be—in the Hall as individuals.

Neither should Henderson.

That said, it’s a fun argument and it’s always an engaging discussion to have. Who belongs in the Hall and who doesn’t?  Some readers have written to say long-time Maple Leaf Bob Pulford, who I’ve chronicled on this site, should not be in the Hall. I watched him play for years as a key figure on those Leaf teams in the late ‘50 s and ‘60s, and for me, he was a Hall-of-Fame player. Barely, but deservedly.

But those arguments will always be with us.

I remember Henderson best as a young player with the Red Wings. I lived near Detroit so I followed the Wings closely. He had some great moments early in his career when the Wings came oh-so-close to beating the Leafs in the Cup finals in 1964. Henderson was particularly prominent at times with fellow kids Pit Martin and Bruce McGregor (and former Leaf Johnny Macmillan) in that series. Detroit was unlucky not to win the Cup.

I was at the Olympia the night in 1968 when Henderson took on Montreal tough guy John Ferguson. Henderson was not a fighter, but he stood up to Fergie. That helped Leaf GM Punch Imlach decide that Henderson had to be included in the deal that sent Frank Mahovlich to Detroit (with Pete Stemkowski, a young Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer) for Normie Ullman, Floyd Smith and Henderson.

In Toronto, Henderson was a nice player. He was fast, as anyone who saw him play can attest. He had good vision but was not a physical player and didn’t put up huge numbers. He played with a Hall-of-Famer center in Ullman. If Henderson had capitalized more consistently on his chances, he would have scored 600 goals in the NHL.

The Leafs weren’t particularly successful during his time in Toronto, though it certainly wasn’t Henderson’s fault. The Soviet Series was a heady experience, I would imagine, and I don’t think he ever really played his best hockey for the Leafs after that—though he was always a “plus” player in his years with Toronto, not an insignificant achievement on some not-great teams.

He jumped to the WHA for the 1974-’75 season, and played for the Toronto Toros, who became the Birmingham Bulls. He played a final part-season with the Atlanta Flames before they moved to Calgary, still an offensive threat at the age of 37. He retired after playing over 1,000 games in the two leagues. He scored about 375 goals between the NHL and WHA, a fine total but not Hall-of-Fame numbers for the type of player that he was.

If Henderson had other traits that set him apart- if he had been a Clark Gillies-type grinder, or was a Bob Gainey-style defensive forward or an MVP-kind of all-around player, or even led the league in assists at some point, anything along those lines, he would certainly merit serious discussion.

But Don Larsen didn’t make the baseball Hall-of-Fame for pitching a perfect game in the World Series, though no one else has done that before or since. Henderson accomplished a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, for sure. But it was exactly that.

He is a tremendous individual who humbly has suggested he doesn’t deserve the honor.

His Summit Series achievement has no doubt been acknowledged by the Hall and that is absolutely as it should be. It was a special accomplishment.

But the Hall is for the best of the best over the course of a long career. For Henderson, unfortunately, it’s a standard that is just a bit out of reach.

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