Murray Henderson, who patrolled the Boston blue line for eight seasons in the 1940s and 50s, did not have big-league dreams in his youth despite a lineage that seemed to indicate success with skating. His mother, Catherine, was the eldest of ten Conacher children, a brood that ultimately sent brothers, Lionel, Charlie and Roy to the Hockey Hall of Fame but young Murray had no aspirations beyond playing senior amateur in and around his home town of Toronto.
His first strides in organized hockey took place under the watchful eye of Ed Wildey, who ran the Toronto Young Rangers. A long-time fixture on the amateur sports scene and an avid promoter of physical fitness Wildey did not have the financial resources available to him that other junior teams enjoyed and often dealt his better players away to keep the Young Rangers afloat.
Playing for Wildey meant a lot of early mornings.
“We used to practice every morning at the Gardens,” he remembered. “Then I went off to school or to work afterwards.”
Henderson spent three seasons with the Young Rangers, suiting up alongside future NHLer, Jim (no relation) Conacher, one season and long-time friend Herb Carnegie in another before being sold to the Toronto Marlboros, where he finished up his junior career without being courted or signed to a c-form by any of the pro organizations.
“I wasn’t good enough, to put it bluntly,” he said. “There were a lot of really good hockey players around and I didn’t show enough for anyone to be really interested. I guess I was a late bloomer.”
Enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Henderson continued to play, lacing them up in both military and industrial leagues where most of the other players had spent significantly more time in pro hockey sweaters than in military garb. Among his defence partners with the Toronto RCAF squad were recent NHLers Doug McCaig, Eddie Bush and Ernie Dickens.
Henderson held his own with and against the pros and observers began postulating that he might be destined to reach the same heights as his uncles.
While he did have time to hit the ice while in an RCAF uniform, Henderson spent the bulk of his time in the air. After earning his pilot’s wings in Brampton and further training on the Atlantic coast, he spent a year in British Columbia, flying out over the Pacific Ocean on an almost daily basis to help keep the coast clear of enemy submarines and ships.
“We were stationed at a place called Bella Bella,” he recalled.”It’s about half-way to Alaska. We used to fly out patrol, maybe 500 miles out into the Pacific, weather permitting. If the patrol lasted eight hours we got a half day off. If it lasted fifteen we got the whole day.
“We didn’t see much action,” Henderson continued. “We had early radar and we would pick up the Russian freighters going back and forth. We’d be above the clouds and we’d have to come down. They’d have to throw up the flags of the day to identify themselves and then we’d leave them alone.”
Henderson’s RCAF tenure came to a sudden and premature end due to the death of his father in late 1944. The flyboy was returned to civilian life and found himself in demand in an NHL depleted by wartime military enlistments.
A tip from Uncle Charlie to Boston’s head scout, Harold “Baldy” Cotton, resulted in an invite to Beantown. Following a short conditioning stint with the semi-pro Boston Olympics of the EHL Henderson signed with the Bruins in late February of 1945, becoming a member of the Bruins blue line corps, a post he’d hold for the next eight seasons.
“Towards the end of the year there was an ice show or something like that at the Garden and the Bruins were on a do-or-die road trip,” he said. In those days it was always a fight for the playoffs. Toronto Detroit and Montreal were almost always the first three so we, Chicago and New York fought it out for fourth.”
Henderson made his first NHL appearance against the Detroit Red Wings. His initial shift is vividly etched in his mind. Over sixty years later he still remembers it as if it happened today.
“My first trip out onto the ice at The Olympia, our end was way down the rink from our bench and I broke my stick. In those days you had to go right to the bench to replace it – you couldn’t keep playing without one like they do today. By the time I got to the bench and got a new stick, the puck was in our net. They walloped us 10-6 or something like that.”
The Bruins made the playoffs that spring and fell to Toronto in the semi-finals with the rookie d-man appearing in all seven games.
When the war ended and the bulk of the departed players returned, Henderson had already established himself as a bona-fide NHLer. Toronto’s Conn Smythe, perhaps peeved that the Leafs had allowed a local boy to slip away, filed a protest with the NHL claiming Art Ross had signed Henderson before he had been discharged from the RCAF, something that contravened league rules.
“I only knew what was going on through what I read in the papers. In those days the players were the last to know. It was a hot topic for a few days but it got smoothed over somehow and that was the end of it. I never did know any of the details,” Henderson said.
The six-foot, 180-pounder effectively and efficiently nullified enemy forwards, playing a tough game while remaining largely within the bounds of what was tolerated by on-ice officials.
Averaging a dozen points a season, pretty good numbers for what passed for a two-way defenceman in his era, Henderson’s first Boston address was a boarding house on the banks of the Charles River. Run by a woman named Ruthie Hatch, it was also the winter home to a half-dozen other Bruins.
Henderson was designated a Bruins alternate captain at the start of the 1946-47 schedule, despite having only a single full season of NHL play behind him, and gained favour with what was perhaps the most demanding fan base in the league.
While no official league individual honours accrued to him, Henderson was singled out by Boston Garden faithful for his play in the 1947-48 campaign. Following the 1947-48 campaign he and fellow blue line favourite, Pat Egan, were presented with wristwatches courtesy of the leather-lunged fans in the upper reaches of the rink. It might mean more to the soon to be 89-year-old than any All-Star team selection would have.
“They were a tough crowd, that upper gallery,” Henderson recalled. “They had an outfit up there called the Gallery Gods. They got rid of a lot of players. It was a tough place to play if the crowd got on you. It was rough but they paid their money to get in.”
Henderson made the biggest splash in the papers during the postseason in 1948 when he was on the receiving end of a “punch heard around the world”.
In the fourth game of the semi-final series against Toronto, he had his nose shattered by Harry Watson, the one-sided bout also earning him five for fighting; the only major penalty awarded to him that season.
“I didn’t fight that much but you had to try to protect your teammates,” he explained. “Pete Horeck was the instigator. He instigated a lot of things. I just skated down to see what was happening and BOOM. I wound up with a broken nose. They had to set it so that finished me. By the time the nose healed the season was over.”
A left-handed shot, Henderson was called upon to counter the top right wingers in the NHL, including the two men who vied for the distinction of being the best ever to play the position.
“I think I had pretty good luck with most of them but you knew you had your hands full any time you played Detroit or Montreal. Howe seemed to play using more of the ice. He’d go back into his end more often and bring out the puck. Richard you had to watch from the blue line in because when Lach could get him the puck with a bit of room he was dynamite.”
In an era when even the elite players pondered long and hard before daring to ask for more money, Henderson took what he was offered and has no rancour about the wages he was paid.
Asked to comment on the give and take of salary negotiations with Bruins GM, Art Ross, he replied, “There wasn’t much giving when it came to signing your contract. He was pretty tough when it came to contract time. I more or less went along with what they offered. Some of the guys had salary problems with him but I think he treated me fairly well.”
Boston made it to the post season in all but one of the years Henderson patrolled their blue line but when the gear finally was packed away for good in the spring, it was time for Henderson to head homeward.
The off-season was largely down time for Henderson, who had worked in the purchasing department of Ontario Hydro in his amateur days. He spent a few months some summers working for the Board of Education setting up and running school track and field competitions.
Murray Henderson’s name even managed to find its way into Toronto sports pages well after all the snow had melted thanks to his prowess at the plate in amateur ball.
“I played for Tip Top and Peoples down in the Beaches when it was the big league in town. I always had to leave before the season ended though,” he said.
One summer was spent building a home for his family in Thornhill. Now a part of Toronto’s urban sprawl, it was a long distance call away then.
“It was one of the most productive summers I ever spent,” he remembered.” I built the house with my brother-in-law. We had bought the property the spring before. It was about 75% finished when I went to camp but my brother-in-law stuck around and finished it so when we came back the next spring we had a house to move into.”
Following the 1951-52 season, the only one in which Henderson did not manage to register at least one goal, Boston decided to go with more youth on defence and, rather than cutting the eight-year veteran loose, offered him a job in management. Henderson accepted and spent the next four years behind the bench of the AHL Hershey Bears, grooming youngsters for the big time. Many of them were on a fast track that ran from the junior Barrie Flyers through the Chocolate City and on to Boston.
Bruins sniper of the late 50s and early 60s, Don McKenney was one of the players on that track. So was Don Cherry who appeared in a single game as a Bruin.
“He was in a difficult situation when he came to training camp the first season. He had broken his ankle playing softball in Kingston and that hampered his play so he didn’t show as well as he might have,” Henderson said.
“He was a lot less vociferous in those days too,” he chuckled. “He was a good guy though. I still bump into him occasionally. He certainly has made a name for himself.”
After four years in Hershey Henderson turned down an offer of a job as a scout and opted to return to Toronto and enter the business world. He spent his second career in the beverage industry, first with Seagram and then with the William Mara Company, a spirits importer owned by George Mara, who had captained Canada’s Olympic gold medal-winning hockey team in 1948.
Still a Bruin at heart, Henderson has watched on with interest as his number 8 was passed to Fleming Mackell and then to several other Bruins before ending up in the rafters after spending eight years on Cam Neely’s back.
He keeps abreast of major developments in today’s game, regularly watching on TV as men make a thousand times what he did.
“It’s not the same game,” said Henderson. “This isn’t sour grapes or anything; it’s just my personal opinion. The puck is like a ping-pong ball now. The whole thing is to move the puck – move the puck.”
“In our days, with centremen that sometimes were a little slower but a lot smarter with the puck, they’d hold on to it until a teammate got into position and then make a pass. Now it’s speed, speed, speed. It’s a different game but who’s going to knock it? It’s a pretty successful sport.”
When he left the NHL to move into the business world Henderson didn’t hang up his skates for good. He and a number of other former NHLers, among them Harry Watson, Wally Stanowski and cousin, Peter Conacher, began getting together to work out the kinks on a regular basis and soon found themselves in demand for fundraisers in and around the Toronto area.
“We played 100 games a year, more or less,” he said.” We played every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon and had a little part in building a lot of local rinks.”
His skates now irrevocably hung up, the affable and outgoing Henderson enjoys getting together regularly for lunch with former pros from the 40s, 50s and 60s retired in the Toronto area. When fellow oldster Stanowski entered his 90th year the other luncheoneers presented him with his own personalized chair.
Rumour has it that Murray Henderson won’t have to go looking for a seat at lunch much longer.