It was 50 years ago today, on September 28, 1972, that Paul Henderson scored to win for Team Canada. As I indicated in the story I posted three weeks ago, I know that goal — that series — is a big reason why I became the sports fan I remain to this day. I played plenty of sports, too, over the years, and I also know — perhaps like most of us who don’t become professional athletes — that my greatest moments came when I was still a kid.
I suppose my greatest personal accomplishment was winning the Grade 9 scoring title in the Zion Heights intramural football league early in the 1977-78 school year. In a five-game season, I scored nine touchdowns and three two-point converts for a total of 60 points. I was a tight end. We didn’t throw the ball much, and I scored most of those points running the “end around” play. Good as I was that year, our team lost the championship game, and as Richard Jacobson would constantly remind me over the years, I couldn’t block him.
Truth was, I couldn’t block anyone! I didn’t like blocking. I didn’t like getting hit either. I just wanted to run and catch. I’m sure my friend Jody Munro will remember the Zion game when I was taken down hard (pretty close to a tree along the sidelines, as I recall). I rolled over and moaned, “Now I KNOW I’m dead!”
Not surprisingly, it was touch football where I really excelled.
The team championships I won came in hockey a few years earlier. When I started playing house league hockey in grade four, I was pretty terrible. My brother David, who is two years younger, also started playing that year and wasn’t very good either. But that summer, we went to the Roger Crozier Hockey School in Barrie, Ontario, near our cottage on Lake Simcoe. It was only for a week, but we learned from some NHL players (Dale Rolfe of the Rangers and Andy Bathgate, who was retired at that point) among other instructors. Both of us improved greatly!
That coming winter, I played for John Elliott Real Estate in my second year as an atom in the Willowdale Boys Club. I was now an indispensable offensive defenseman. (I remember one day, when a forward got hurt, and I volunteered to play the wing in his place, our coach said, “you play good enough offense from defense.”) I won the trophy for Most Improved Player that year, and helped my team win the league title.
The next year, I began my minor peewee season with Jerrett’s Funeral Home. (Honestly!) We started strong, but this was still house league. They liked to keep the teams well-balanced, and after a few weeks the league often made trades to keep things even. I remember getting a call from the convenor of the league saying the coach from Andrew Morrison Real Estate wanted me. It was my choice, and I agonized over it. (I think, after that year, they no longer gave kids the choice when they made trades.) I didn’t want to go, but I remember my father saying, “The coach wants you. He thinks you can help his team.”
So, I said yes.
It was a great call!
Maybe the team would have improved anyway, but I helped them win the championship that year. This was a pretty strong team, led on offense by the coach’s son, Carey MacIntyre, and Ross Takahuchi. I played defense with Blake Jacobs. He was the Charlie Huddy to my Paul Coffey. (In those days, I’d have thought of myself more as Bobby Orr — although I knew I wasn’t that good!) Our goalie was Andrew Spitzer; the best in the league.
During that season with Andrew Morrison (1974-75), I had what I consider to be my own personal Team Canada story. (Andrew, if you read this, I’d love to know if you remember!)
At some point during the winter, we played an exhibition game against a team from Keswick, Ontario. Keswick was (and still is) a very small town about an hour north of Toronto. I guess we were snooty, big city kids (even though we all lived in the northern suburbs). We thought, “no way these country bumpkins are going to beat us!”
I think we played on a Sunday morning at Mitchell Field, which was an outdoor arena where our teams often practiced. The Keswick kids killed us! I think it was 7-1. I remember being outclassed and exhausted — which must have been how Team Canada felt after that stunning first game loss to the Soviets.
Some time later, we went up to Keswick for a return game. This one was played in what I remember as a pretty large indoor arena, after which we all had dinner together in a banquet room attached to the rink. I don’t remember the score of this one (it may have been 4-3), but we played so much better and we beat them by a single goal.
My personal highlight came late in the game, as we were hanging on to our one-goal lead. A Keswick player was on a breakaway. I closed in on him, and then launched myself along the ice to attempt a diving hook check. It was a play I’d pulled off before, having first seen it demonstrated in an instructional film at Roger Crozier’s.
As I reached my stick between this guy’s skates, he started to teeter off balance. I managed to hook the puck away, but I definitely remember thinking, “If he goes down, they’re going to call a penalty shot.” He didn’t — he probably should have! — and I pulled it off. The crisis was averted, and we won the game.
I didn’t score the winning goal, but I still remember that play as my Paul Henderson moment.
And those games as my own Canada-Russia series.