The toughest of the tough guys
died two weeks ago, a brawler to the end. The only fight he ever lost was his
last, a 2-year bare knuckle battle with prostate cancer.
Well, I’ll take that back. It
wasn’t the only fight he ever lost. John Ferguson Jr., the general manager of
Toronto Maple Leafs, gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral last Saturday,
and said he once asked his dad if he had ever lost a fight.
“Only to your mother,
son,” was John Ferguson Sr.’s answer.
He loved hockey, he loved harness
racing, and he loved to fight. And he was very good at all three.
He fought from the first moment
he played in the National Hockey League until the last, and he was the most
feared enforcer in the game. That’s what the Montreal Canadiens hired him for,
and he gave them their money’s worth. In his very first game for them, in his
NHL debut in the 1963-64 season, he waited only 12 seconds after the first puck
was dropped to take on the Boston Bruins’ noted enforcer, Terrible Ted Green,
and whipped him. He not only won the fight, but scored two goals, and Canadian
Press reported, “From then on he was regarded as hockey’s unofficial
heavyweight champion until he retired,” which was in 1971. Between his
battling debut and his retirement, eight seasons, the Canadiens were Stanley Cup
champions five times. During those seasons Ferguson played in 500 games, and
accumulated 1,214 penalty minutes for fighting. He also, however, scored 145
goals and assisted on 158 for a total of 303 points.
He never shirked a fight, started
many of them, and was fearless. Someone dared him once to fight Canadian
heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo, and Ferguson said, “Sure.”
The Canadiens’ management, however, vetoed the idea.
Long after retirement, talking to
a reporter about his battling career in the NHL, John said, “I would think,
hey, if we’re losing, this is a good spot for a fight. I’d go punch someone
and pick up the team.”
They called him a rowdy, a
roughneck, a bruiser, but they did it with respect. He was hated by the fans of
other teams, particularly the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he loved to goad them. He
told the Montreal Gazette about away games with the Maple Leafs, when he
would go to the Toronto Stock Exchange, look down on the traders’ floor, and
“give it to them from upstairs. They would get really worked up, booing and
hooting to me. Every time we played there, I’d go to the stock exchange and
get the boys going. You know, just for fun.”
Off the ice, however, John
Ferguson was a different man. He was friendly, compassionate, and considerate. I
knew him in his racing career, as an owner and breeder of harness horses and a
track executive, a career he loved as much as hockey. It was difficult to equate
his gentlemanly qualities with his battering days on the ice.
John Campbell, harness racing’s
greatest driver, also knew Ferguson well. He knew him first as a hockey star,
and then as the breeder of a pacer, Merger, that gave Campbell some of his early
success. “I got to know Fergie and became friends with him after we bought
Merger,” Campbell told The Horseman magazine. “He was such a
fun guy to be around and you always looked forward to when you could spend some
time with him.”
Just how much of a fun guy
Ferguson could be was recounted by his son John Jr. in his eulogy. He told of
his wedding in Rhode Island in 1993, when John Sr., after a night of celebrating
his son’s upcoming marriage, returned to a house full of guests at 6 a.m. and
ran up and down the halls banging pots and pans, yelling, “Rise and shine,
rise and shine, if you’re going to dance you’ve got to pay the
The heroes of those early
Canadien championships showed up for John’s funeral — his former teammates
Jean Beliveau, Serge Savard, Jean-Guy Talbot and Guy Lapointe — along with
general managers from both coasts, including the New York Rangers, the Anaheim
Ducks and the San Jose Sharks. They all knew what hockey and its followers had
Rest in peace, old fighter. You’ll
never be forgotten.