Friday, January 18, 2013

Murray Henderson: 1921-2013

It is one of the most powerful hockey images ever captured and preserved on film.

A single frame containing a wide-range of human emotions.

On one side, a reflective Aurel Joliat sits on a chair with a look of total disbelief engulfing his face. He is dressed in his Montreal Canadiens uniform. His skates are laced and his gloves are gripping his hockey stick.

Joliat's attention is clearly focused on the dressing room stall next to his. The seat of the unoccupied chair is covered with a pair of hockey pants and gloves. A team sweater hanging behind the chair shows the number 7.

Deep in thought, Joliat is mourning the death of fellow Montreal Canadien ace Howie Morenz.

Since his passing on March 8, 1937, no Canadien player has been assigned the number worn by the Habs icon.

The empty chair represented the loss of a teammate, leader, and friend. In the same vain, it provided a sense the spirit of Howie Morenz still filled the locker room.

This ritual of honouring and remembering a deceased hero has been passed from generation to generation.

Thus, it was fitting the NHL Oldtimers paid tribute to Murray Henderson in the same fashion.

Murray Henderson left this planet on January 4, 2013, a mere three days prior to the first NHL Oldtimers Lunch of the new year.

"Murray will miss and be missed by the NHL Oldtimers' Monday Luncheon group," noted the obituary advising of his passing.

Prior to everyone passing through the doors and settling in for the lunch, organizer Al Shaw placed a collage of photographs on the table next to Murray's chair. And there was no mistaking Murray Henderson's chair.

On his 90th birthday, as per tradition, Murray was presented with a newly decorated chair. One with a freshly polished name plate which identified its owner and the fact he played with the Boston Bruins.

One after another, Murray's pals and admirers made their way to his chair, pausing to observe the photos and recall special moments spent in the company of this true pioneer of the NHL Oldtimers Lunch.

The empty chair symbolized a great feeling of loss. Murray would never again grace us with his presence. But, a degree of comfort and a smile could be harnessed from glancing at the vacant chair and drumming up special memories of Murray.

It wasn't difficult to picture Murray enjoying a beverage before lunch and soaking up the atmosphere around him.

When we celebrated Murray's 90th on September 12, 2011, there was no difficulty measuring the high regard held for him both inside and outside of the hockey community.

Teammates who skated with Murray in the thick of battle, Milt Schmidt and Johnny Peirson, sent their congratulations from Boston. Jim McGovern, who served with Murray during World War Two in the R.C.A.F. was on hand to reminisce about battles of another nature.

Murray John Henderson entered this world on September 5, 1921.

By family association alone, it seemed as though he was destined to become a National Hockey League player.

Uncle Charlie, Uncle Lionel, and Uncle Roy, all made the big show. Uncle Bert, also became part of the family hockey business, but an eye injury prevented him from advancing.

In hockey reference books, these gentlemen - Charlie Conacher, Lionel Conacher, Roy Conacher, and Bert Conacher - can be found under the letter "C". Although Murray wasn't born with the Conacher name, he didn't miss out when it came to the gene pool.

"Murray is certainly part of the Conacher family," Peter Conacher told me in September of 2011. "Because of that, hockey came naturally," said Pete when chatting about his cousin. "Murray's mom was my dad's sister." Pete's father is the legendary first superstar of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Charlie Conacher.

Pete Conacher, and his cousin, Brian Conacher, both played in the National Hockey League. Brian, is the son of Lionel Conacher.

When Murray was a young boy, his father was a good friend of Ed Wildey, who ran hockey programs in Murray's hometown of Toronto.

Under his "diligent training and the rest of the Wildey tuition system," Murray Henderson was ready for the NHL, noted the Toronto Daily Star in 1945.

Over three seasons, Murray gained experience participating in junior hockey with Wildey's Toronto Young Rangers.

Like many who dreamed of graduating to the NHL, Murray's aspirations of a pro career took a backseat to the Second World War.

When not patrolling the sky as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Murray was patrolling the blue line for their hockey team.

One game, above the others, stands out when examining Murray's time on defence with Toronto R.C.A.F. The date was December 29, 1942. Hockey fans gathered at Maple Leaf Gardens to watch R.C.A.F. take on Navy. Thanks to Murray Henderson's brilliant play the Air Force coasted to a 7-1 victory.

In this contest, Murray connected for two goals and two assists.

"Henderson is about the most improved player in the current season." reported the Toronto Telegram in their game story.

"It is hard to figure he was just another junior two years ago, and only as late as last winter, a green senior performer with Eddie Powers' senior Marlboros," added scribe Bunny Morganson.

After his discharge from the service, Murray completed his climb to the top and joined the Boston Bruins.

A big solid defenceman, Murray skated in 405 regular season tilts with the Bruins.

He notched his first NHL goal against Montreal's Bill Durnan in the Forum on December 15, 1945.

"Murray Henderson opened the scoring for the Bruins when he took Milt Schmidt's pass at the Habs' blueline and rifled the puck into the rigging behind Bill Durnan," described The Gazette when chronicling Murray's first National Hockey League tally.

Following his stint on the ice in Boston, Murray hooked up with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League in 1952-53.

"He was a player-coach and the problem was he was a better player than any of the players he had," Don Cherry told the CBC. Murray became Cherry's first mentor when the future Bruins coach turned pro with the Bears.

The late Ray Gariepy, who made the NHL in 1953, included Murray when he commented about those who were instrumental in teaching him how to play defence. "I had the advantage of playing under John Crawford and Murray Henderson," said Gariepy.

Upon leaving the game, Murray returned home to Toronto and applied his talents to earning a living in the liquor trade.

"Murray, Wally Stanowski, Hughie Bolton, and myself, we travelled together with the NHL Oldtimers and we had a lot of fun times in the car on the way to games," stated Pete of the good old days. Often surrendering their weekends to participate in charity games across the Province of Ontario, it was their way of of giving back to the game they so loved.

Now, along with Pete and Bert Conacher, all of us who attend the monthly NHL Oldtimers Lunch can reflect on the fun times spent with one Murray Henderson.

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