Let’s have a conversation about Paul Henderson and the Hockey Hall of Fame. A lot of people, including the Members of Parliament in Canada who unanimously voted to pass a motion to urge the Hall of Fame to enshrine him, think he belongs in it along with the game’s greatest players.
Sure, let’s induct Paul Henderson. And while we’re at it, we’d better find room for Jack McCartan, Roger and Billy Christian, Mike Eruzione, Robert Reichel, Petr Svoboda, Sandra Whyte-Sweeney and, after she retires, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. Start a campaign for those eight to be inducted and your trusty correspondent will yell for Henderson’s inclusion from the highest hilltops. Otherwise, it’s simply a case of Canadians thinking their accomplishments in the hockey world are more important than those of players from other countries.
Because all those people either scored goals or made saves that were every bit as important as the three game-winning goals Henderson tallied in Games 6, 7 and 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. More important, actually, because all their achievements were accomplished on the world’s biggest stage and resulted in gold medals, rather than in an exhibition tournament that raised money for the NHL pension fund and allowed Canadians to continue to puff out their chests over their so-called world dominance because they had defeated the Commies by the slimmest of margins.
Nothing about Henderson’s NHL career suggests he should even receive cursory consideration for the Hall of Fame. Nothing. So we’re left with his heroics in the Summit Series, a one-off during his career that was indeed memorable and impactful. But if that’s how we’re going to judge induction into the Hall of Fame, we have to cast a much wider net. Henderson scored 236 goals and 477 points in 707 career NHL games for a career mark of 0.67 points per game. Reichel, on the other hand, scored the shootout-winning goal in the semifinal of the 1998 Olympic tournament against Canada, and had 252 goals and 630 points in 830 games for an average of 0.75 points per game. He also happens to be one of the greatest Czech national team players in history. And Svoboda, who scored the only goal in the Czech Republic’s 1-0 win over Russia in the gold-medal game, was a steady, reliable defenseman for 16-plus seasons in the NHL and, unlike both Henderson and Reichel, was part of a Stanley Cup-winning team with the Montreal Canadiens in 1985-86.
Yes, the Summit Series was a very, very big deal. But was it any bigger than the first Olympic tournament in which the best players in the world participated? Perhaps if you’re Canadian it is, but to suggest 1972 was more impactful that the 1998 Olympics is a case of nationalism run amok. Is it any bigger than the first time the best women in the world met in the Olympic Games, or the 1960 and 1980 Games when the least likely teams to ever capture gold medals?
The same Games in which Reichel and Svoboda scored goals heard around the world, Sandra Whyte-Sweeney was making her own mark on history. In USA’s 3-1 over Canada in the gold medal game of the women’s tournament, all Whyte-Sweeney did was assist on her team’s first two goals, then score the clincher into the empty net. Not only that, Whyte-Sweeney represented her country in the World Championship three times and while playing at Harvard was the Ivy League player of the year in both her junior and senior seasons.
In the 1960 Winter Olympics, USA defeated the Soviet Union 3-2 to push their record to 4-0-0 and clinch the gold medal. Billy Christian scored the tying and winning goals and his brother, Roger, assisted on the game-winner. Both Christian brothers spent the two decades after those Olympics playing for the Warroad Lakers and amateur hockey juggernaut in Minnesota. Twenty years later, Eruzione scored the decisive goal in a 4-3 win over the Soviet Union that put the Americans in a position to win gold. Craig had the best save percentage in the tournament. Heck, Billy Christian’s son, Dave, registered eight assists in seven games before going on to an NHL career in which he would record four 30-goal seasons and 10 20-goal seasons.
Billy Christian, McCartan, Craig and Reichel are alongside Henderson in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame. Henderson is also a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Like many of the others, he was a good, not truly great, player, who made a lasting one-time contribution to a moment in history that is forever etched in our memories. Any way you cut it, that’s not enough to get a person into the Hockey Hall of Fame and that’s why the selection committee has resisted the pressure to enshrine him in the first place.