Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: The Goal of My Life (2012)

By Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

We read "The Goal of My Life" because we want to know Paul Henderson's reaction to the question, "Is that all there is?"

And to understand why we ask, we have to understand something about Canada, and hockey, and fame.

Henderson was living a relatively normal life until 1972. He was a good, but not great, player in the National Hockey League. The winger broke in with Detroit in 1963, and eventually was traded to Toronto. Henderson was one of the best players on some ordinary Maple Leaf teams of the late 1960's and early 1970's. He played on a line with Norm Ullman and Ron Ellis.

Then came 1972. Canada agreed to play the Soviet Union in a special eight-game hockey series that fall. The professionals of Canada had never met the Soviets before, and there was considered curiosity about how such a matchup would. go. It was also in the middle of the Cold War, so such "cultural exchanges" were rare and those on the other side of the Iron Curtain represented a great unknown in many ways.

The Soviets took about two periods in Game One to show that they were for real, winning that first game by a score of 7-3. By the end of Game Five, Canada trailed in the series, 3-1-1, and only the most loyal of Canada's hockey fans believed that a comeback was possible. But it was, and Henderson was a major reason why. He scored the game-winning goals in Game Six, Game Seven, and - most famously - Game Eight to give Canada the series. It's indicative of Canada's love of hockey that Henderson's goal became one of those "where were you when...?" moments north of the border.He went from hockey player to national hero in record time.

Once the series was over and the celebrations were finished, Henderson probably had figured out that the rest of his life was going to be an anti-climax. So, while we're interested in Henderson's hockey career and his thoughts about the '72 Series, we're curious about what happened from there.

Hockey fans probably know what Henderson played hockey for the rest of the decade, jumping to the World Hockey Association in 1974. He spent five seasons in the WHA, and around that time turned up his attention to his faith. Henderson became a devoted Christian in that time.

When his hockey days were finally over, Henderson looked around at possible second careers. He eventually settled on work in his faith, mostly through The Leadership Group which offers a hand to men trying to lead a more spiritual life. Plenty of athletes make such a turn in their lives, for reasons as individual as their personalities. Although it's not really discussed, there are hints that Henderson has done some motivational speaking over the years to pay some bills. And who in Canada wouldn't want to hear what it was like?

The book, then, essentially is split in two. The first 150 pages or so stick to hockey, and it's always good to read a first-person account of great moments in a particular field. Henderson's comments don't have a great deal of bite for the most part, but there are interesting stories about the journey.

One anecdote is revealing. Henderson was once asked about Bobby Clarke's famous slash that broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle in game six. His reply was, "It was the low point of the series." Clarke wasn't happy about the answer. Henderson apologized and gives a longer explanation in the book, saying that what looks good in the heat of the moment may not be good behavior in hindsight. But he adds that it was a "loaded question" and "This is one of the many reasons today re very wary around certain writers." It's a curious moment.

The final 80 or so pages of text are mostly spent on Henderson's faith, including several pages of comments from people who have worked with Henderson on his religious projects. The reader's interest level may depend on his own background and set of beliefs. Henderson's own faith received quite a stern test recently when he was diagnosed with cancer, but happily he seems to be at peace with whatever happens.

Those looking for a mere hockey story from Henderson won't find it in "The Goal of My Life." Lives don't come that neatly packaged. It's an interesting enough tale, though, that at its core does show how at least one person reacted to sudden, overwhelming celebrity.

Three stars

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