‘I have new fire in me’: Doneil Henry out to prove doubters wrong in CPL

Anyone who’s been watching Canadian soccer the past 10 years knows of Doneil Henry. Not everyone, though, can really say they know him.

Henry is the tall, physical centre-back who’s been such a loyal soldier for the Canadian men’s national team since 2012. He’s played at Gold Cups and in World Cup Qualifying. He’s the guy who levelled Chucky Lozano a minute into Canada’s fabled Iceteca win over Mexico. He’s the guy who stood in the middle of that melee with Panama at BMO Field.

Now? He’s a Halifax Wanderer.

Not only is the news of Henry’s arrival in the CPL a watershed moment for club and league alike; for Henry himself, it’s a crucial new chapter in his career. The 30-year-old North York native arrived in Halifax on Monday full of motivation to prove to some of his doubters who Doneil Henry still is.

“I have new fire in me, I have my why,” Henry told this week. “It’s not about me, it’s gonna be the team atmosphere, but I’m definitely going with my mind knowing that I’m definitely going to show people that I have so much left to give. When you see me out there, you’re going to see the same passion, the same fire, because I can’t give you less than that.”

RELATED: CanMNT veteran defender Doneil Henry signs with Halifax Wanderers

Throughout his career as a professional — whether at national team level, in MLS with Toronto FC or the Whitecaps, or overseas in places like South Korea — Henry has always brought that exact brand of bold honesty. He’s never been one to mince words, or to dance around an issue, which is part of what’s made him such a beloved figure among teammates.

That was never more evident last November. Henry, who had been ever-present throughout Canada’s World Cup Qualifying campaign and a key leadership figure in a locker room that called itself the “brotherhood,” felt his calf seize up in warm-ups before a pre-tournament friendly versus Bahrain. The prognosis wasn’t terrible — he might, with luck, be able to heal enough to play a very small role in Qatar. Henry, though — on what he admits was one of the hardest days of his life — told John Herdman that his spot on the 26-man squad would be better off given to someone else.

“Imagine building something from the ground up, seeing it happen, finally believing it, being days away, and then: It’s taken from you,” Henry said. “To be a part of that group, knowing that I felt like there was someone way better than me in a better position to fill the roster spot, I would do that because that’s what we instilled in this team from day one: leaving it in a better place.

We talk about the shirt and what it means to us; I knew that I wouldn’t be fit enough to go out there and play against the likes of [Luka] Modric or a strong Belgian team, this is the reality. I’m a realist, I’m not gonna sit here and be an optimistic person who feels like ‘Yeah, I’ll be back’ — I’m not gonna go on the world stage and get my ass torn when I knew that I was not in the right capacity to give Canada my best. I can sit back and enjoy the moments, knowing that what I did was right.”

It’s a testament to how much Henry meant to that Canada team that, despite his injury, Herdman still ensured the defender was part of his staff in Qatar.

Doneil Henry battles with Rogelio Funes Mori of Mexico. (Photo: Canada Soccer/Mexsport)

As he joins the Wanderers for the second half of 2023, Henry is preparing to enter a dressing room full of players who, recently, are starting to gel after a few months together but remain a young, raw team. Henry has been part of teams like that, but perhaps more importantly, he’s seen the process required to build the kind of culture that fosters winning.

Henry won’t be going in blind, of course; he’s familiar with Wanderers coach Patrice Gheisar, whose work with Vaughan in League1 Ontario made him a well-respected figure within the community. Some of Gheisar’s former players at Vaughan — Kamal Miller, Dayne St. Clair, Alistair Johnston — have sung his praises to their Canada teammate Henry.

In fact, Henry said it was Gheisar’s persistence that pushed his move to the CPL over the line. Gheisar had been in touch with Henry in the past few months after he left MLS side Minnesota United, checking in on him — including, a couple weeks ago, to ask how he and his family were doing just after the birth of his son.

“That’s the type of guy I want to play for,” Henry said.

Henry looked at the project in Halifax, and saw a young, hungry team with plenty of talent trying to play an attractive brand of football. In some ways, he saw similarities between Gheisar’s mission at the Wanderers Grounds and what Herdman had done in the early stages of his journey with Canada: an attempt to build a new identity and propel a team into its next generation. If Herdman laid the foundations for “New Canada,” Gheisar is building “New Halifax.”

Most important to Henry, though, is ensuring he can repay Gheisar’s commitment and passion with his own play on the pitch in Halifax.

“I feel like once I get fit, a few games, whatever it is, I know that I can motivate, I know I can bring energy to locker rooms,” Henry said. “The defensive line, getting clean sheets, knowing how to close out games. But I feel like I’m best leading when I’m doing it. I hate to talk, I hate to speak because when you speak too much it loses value. It doesn’t hit the same.”

Henry arrived in Nova Scotia on Monday evening ahead of his unveiling on Tuesday, and already he’s got a new spring in his step.

The veteran of 44 caps for his country — more than any other current CPL player, and third-most among all-time players in the league — feels that not only can he push the Wanderers over the line into the playoff picture, but that in the process he can prove why he still belongs on the national team radar.

Doneil Henry in action during the 2021 Gold Cup. (Photo: Canada Soccer/Mexsport)

Henry hasn’t received a call-up since that pre-World Cup camp, and that’s been a disappointment to him. Things haven’t gone his way at club level since he returned to North America from Korean side Suwon Samsung Bluewings in 2022, but he’s adamant that all he needs is consistent minutes to remind Canada why he’s been such a big part of the national team.

To be honest, I’ve had some unlucky times since I left Korea,” Henry admitted. “I don’t know what it is, but every single time someone gets on the phone it’s positive until they talk to whoever they talk to, and then it’s, ‘Don’t touch Doneil.’ I don’t know. But I have something to prove, I’ll say it like that.”

The main beneficiaries of this newly fired-up Henry? The players and fans in Halifax.

While speaking to in Toronto, he couldn’t wait to get out east and breathe the Maritime air. Henry has been a part of some extremely special atmospheres in Canadian soccer — the Iceteca, or the U.S. game at Tim Hortons Field (where he’ll soon be playing as a Wanderer). Likewise, the Wanderers Grounds have seen some special moments under the lights this season.

This may be, then, a perfect combination.

I’m deadly serious when I say I’m going to give Halifax everything,” Henry concluded. “I have a coach that’s behind me and shares the same vision that I want, and I owe it to myself, and to my family — but more to myself than anything.

“I’m not going to be counted down or counted out, none of this stuff yet. I have so much more to give.”

Doneil Henry celebrates one of Canada’s goals versus Panama. (Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl)