Alton McDermott was around nine years old when he realized just how
important his grandfather is.
“It was probably my fourth-grade class,” he says. “I walked in on the first
day and my teacher was a huge hockey fan, and there was a picture of him
and [Yvon] Cournoyer above our whiteboard. That was the first time I
noticed he was global and he wasn’t just a big deal for our family.”
The photo was from the 1972 Summit Series and the ‘him’ was Paul Henderson,
who, as far as Canadian hockey heroes go, would certainly be classified as
a ‘big deal.’
McDermott, a rookie forward with the Oakville Blades, is one of Henderson’s
seven grandchildren, and wears the same No. 19 his grandpa wore during a
17-year pro career. (His younger brother, Logan, wears No. 72 in honour of
the Summit Series.)
The 76-year-old Henderson has been a fixture at Blades games this season,
home and away. McDermott says his grandpa jokes that “he likes watching our
games more than the Leafs.”
Henderson scored 236 goals in the NHL, added 140 more in the WHA and, of
course, scored the game-winning goals in Games 6, 7 and 8 of the Summit
Series, so there’s no shortage of knowledge to share.
But that’s not the role he chooses to play in McDermott’s career.
“I am his cheerleader,” he says. “The coaches can coach him, and I will
point out all the good things he does. I tell him to go out there and play
his best every shift, and at the end you’re going to win some games, you’re
going to lose some games. But as long as you’ve given it your best shot,
then you can feel good about yourself.”
Henderson may be Canadian hockey royalty, but he’s just like any other
grandparent. He and his wife Eleanor spent the winter in hockey rinks
across southern Ontario, and anywhere else family activities took them.
“We have seven grandchildren, and whatever they’re interested in, we’re
interested in,” he says. “We want them to know we’re proud of them. But we
enjoy it, too. We get the schedule and we go. Our family is priority. We
just try to stay involved, and we love doing it.”
McDermott thrived in his first full season of Junior A hockey, reaching the
20-goal plateau and helping the Blades win OJHL and Dudley Hewitt Cup
titles to return to Canada’s National Junior A Championship for the first
time since 2010.
And while there haven’t been too many down moments in a season where the
Blades lost only 12 of 78 games through the regular season and playoffs,
Henderson admits there were a few times he needed a little ‘quality
control’ before sharing his thoughts.
“There are times I’m very tempted to say something, but I would run it past
my daughter, and I ask my wife, too,” he says. “So I seek advice before I
give advice, but most times I say nothing.”
With the Henderson bloodlines come a certain amount of pressure, although
McDermott is quick to embrace it. (It also helps, he says with a laugh,
that he doesn’t have to wear the name on the back of his jersey.)
For him, it’s more about trying to be the man Henderson is off the ice than
the player he was on it.
“People around our family, they know my grandpa more for the person he is
and not so much the hockey player,” McDermott says. “If I can do half of
what he has done, help people and be known as a man of great character,
I’ll be doing alright.”