Monday, September 26, 2011

Murray Henderson Turns 90

It was one of those events, as a hockey fan, you really look forward to. No, it wasn't having a pair of tickets tucked away for opening night or a trip to a local arena to watch some NHL player's workout prior to training camp.These pale in comparison to the wonderful event which took place on Monday September 12, 2011.

On this date, many in the hockey community gathered to celebrate Murray Henderson's 90th birthday! In addition to family and friends, a number of former NHL players who skated in the Original Six era were in attendance for the birthday bash. Included in this group were Enio Sclisizzi, Phil Samis, Danny Lewicki, Jim Morrison, Bob Beckett, Dick Duff and Bob Nevin.

A special guest was Jim McGovern who served in the Second World War with Murray Henderson. Both were assigned to the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Murray John Henderson was born on September 5, 1921 in Toronto, Ontario. He made his first NHL appearance in 1944-45 with the Boston Bruins. Over the next seven seasons ('45-46 to '51-52), Henderson became a mainstay in the Bruins line-up. The six-foot, 180 pound defenceman played a total of 405 big league games, all with Boston. In this period, he scored 24 goals and 62 assists for 86 points. Henderson skated in 41 playoff contests, registering 5 points (2 goals & 3 assists).

His playing/coaching career came to an end after a four year stint ('52-53 to '55-56) with Hershey in the American Hockey League.

The birthday party was part of the monthly NHL Oldtimers Lunch in Markham, Ontario.

As Murray Henderson accepted best wishes from guests, I sat down for a talk with Pete Conacher. Although they have different last names, Murray and Pete are cousins. To get an up-close perspective of Murray Henderson, the man and professional athlete, who better to chat with than a family member who just happened to have also played in the National Hockey League. Pete, suited-up for three NHL clubs (Chicago, New York & Toronto) from 1951-52 to 1957-58.

Our discussion opened with the family connection. "Murray is a Conacher," stated Pete. "Murray's mom was my dad's sister." Pete's dad being the legendary Toronto Maple Leaf forward Charlie Conacher, who scored the first Leaf goal in Maple Leaf Gardens on opening night, November 12, 1931.

"Murray is certainly part of the Conacher family. Because of that, hockey came naturally."

Considered the Royal Family of hockey, the Conacher's are represented in the Hockey Hall of Fame by Charlie and his two brothers, Lionel and Roy. Another sibling, Bert Conacher, was a prospect until an eye injury crushed his hopes of reaching the NHL. Lionel's son, Brian Conacher, also played in the NHL and was a member of the 1967 Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs.

I asked Pete if a Conacher family dinner was full of hockey talk. "No, I can't say it was. Although, it was probably dominated by sports." Pete did relay one hockey story that was a favourite. It involved his dad and Uncle Roy. "My dad, in his career, scored 225 goals in the National Hockey League," said the proud son of his famous dad. Like in most families, there was a friendly competition when it came to sports. A smile came across Pete's face when he told the rest of the story. "Roy, his younger brother, scored 226 goals in the NHL, then retired."

When Murray Henderson joined the Bruins for his first full-season in 1945-46, Pete was 13 years-old. Imagine being that age and having not one, but several relatives in the game. "Roy was still playing then, so between Murray and Roy there was a lot to follow. My dad was coaching in Oshawa, so I guess whatever game was being played I was following."

Pete does have one memory of watching Murray participate in a game. "I saw Murray play when he was with the Air Force." During World War 11, Murray and many others in the game enlisted for military service. "If I can remember correctly, they were playing the Navy at Maple Leaf Gardens and Murray was playing for the Air Force and Bob Goldham was playing for the Navy."

This shifted the topic to Murray's style of play. "He can best be described as a typical stay-at-home defenceman," said Pete. "A dependable quiet defenceman, not prone to a lot of unnecessary penalties, but could handle himself when he had to."

Pete and Murray crossed paths when Pete played in the American Hockey League and Murray was the playing coach in Hershey. "We had a game in Hershey and Murray was there and I can remember the night before the game, I went over to his house for dinner with Kitty and the children," a wonderful memory Pete enjoyed telling. "The next night was another matter. It was back to hockey."

As usual, Al Shaw of the NHL Oldtimers was at the top-of-his-game when it came to organizing the event. Acting as master of ceremonies was former Boston Bruins scout Bob Tindall. And what would a party be like without presents for the guest of honour? A number of individuals were called upon to acknowledge the special occasion.

Paul Patskou, an audio & visual archivist, gifted Murray with a marvellous DVD. The disc featured a playoff game Henderson played in on April 7, 1951. Don Cherry, showered Murray with gift items supplied by Hockey Night in Canada. Craig Campbell from the Hockey Hall of Fame, provided a terrific package of photos taken during Murray's playing career and time in the Air Force. Author Susan Foster wished Murray a Happy Birthday and passed along a message from past NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly who is a lifelong Bruins fan. The Boston organization sent Murray a vintage Bruins jersey and greetings from Cam Neely. Also, Murray received an autographed photo of Bobby Orr's Stanley Cup winning goal from 1970. There were a number of best wishes from Boston alumni, including Milt Schmidt and Johnny Peirson.

I had the pleasure of presenting Murray Henderson with a framed document containing news reports of his first National Hockey League goal. It was scored on December 15, 1945 against the Montreal Canadiens in the Forum. The December 17th edition of The Gazette described the tally in the following manner: "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."

As I pointed out to Murray, this is reminiscent of a goal that could have been scored by Ray Bourque or Bobby Orr!

Paul Patskou & Murray

Craig Campbell & Murray

Bob Tindall, Murray & Don Cherry

The Coaches Corner. Jim McGovern looks on as Don Cherry greets his former coach with the Hershey Bears ('54-55)

Never at a lost for words, Don Cherry addresses the crowd

The Birthday Kid cuts his cake

As the above photos show, a good time was had by all those in attendance.

The final word goes to Pete Conacher.

"Murray is the greatest guy. And most people have nothing but the best things to say about Murray. He's quiet and unassuming like Roy. 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. Murray is the salt-of-the-earth as far as I'm concerned."

At the luncheon, there wasn't a soul who would disagree with Pete's assessment.

Happy Birthday, Murray Henderson, and we all look forward to many more celebrations!!!

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