Love him, hate him…no one
could ignore NHL’s Fergie

Jul 24, 2007 5:03 AM

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 fiddler."

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 lost.

Rest in peace, old fighter. You’ll never be forgotten.