Canadiens hardrock John Ferguson (right) in classic 1960s dressing-r00m shot with his friend and captain, the great Jean Béliveau.
Mac Juster, Montreal Star files
Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of late Canadiens policeman John Ferguson, who died on July 14, 2007 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
If you saw Fergy play, consider yourself fortunate. If you didn’t, do yourself a favour and dig into him a little. He was a tremendous presence on the Canadiens teams of the 1960s, the winner of five Stanley Cups in seven playoff seasons with the Habs.
Today, here’s a tribute I wrote to Fergy that was published on July 16, 2007, two days after his death. He’ll never be forgotten.
Four decades ago, because of John Ferguson, I was sent to bed without supper and docked a week’s allowance.
And while I long ago forgave the Canadiens’ hardrock winger whom we sadly lost to cancer on Saturday at age 68, I’m not so sure about my sister.
Fergy was one of my childhood heroes; nothing unusual about that for a Montreal schoolboy in the mid-1960s who thought the Stanley Cup was loaned autumn through spring by the Canadiens to the National Hockey League.
I knew nothing about the chemistry of my favourite team, that a successful club was the sum of its many different role-playing parts. Or that a forward need not fill the net to pull his weight.
But I did know two things:
That John Bowie Ferguson’s real middle name surely was Mayhem, and often I was treated to plenty of it before bedtime at the end of the second period on Saturday night;
And that nobody in the NHL could close the penalty-box door with quite the gusto of Fergy, who earned 1,214 minutes in the sin-bin while scoring scored 145 goals and winning five championships during eight seasons in Montreal.
So it was that I was demonstrating Fergy’s gate-slamming technique on our refrigerator door, encouraged by my sister.
“I’m sure he closes it harder than that,” she urged a gullible kid brother with each subsequent, jar-rattling slam.
I had the force just about right after maybe a dozen tries when I pulled the handle for what would be the final time, the entire steel rack on the inside of the door crashing at our feet – bottled milk and juice smashing among the surrendered nuts and bolts of the Westinghouse.
After the mop came the misconduct.
I related this story to Fergy a few years ago, and he laughed heartily.
“You were putting your whole body behind it, right?” he scolded. “I always did it with just a flick of my wrist.”
During his rambunctious NHL career from 1963-71, Fergy would lumber onto the ice with the potential to change the complexion of the game in a single shift, or portion thereof. His battles with Toronto’s Eddie Shack, Boston’s Ted Green, Chicago’s Eric Nesterenko and the Rangers’ Reggie Fleming were things of beauty, in a politically incorrect way, and seldom did they fail to turn the tide for the Canadiens on the nights they needed a kickstart.
No one knew this better than Canadiens icon Jean Béliveau, Fergy’s captain and his first NHL centreman. In My Life In Hockey, Béliveau calls Ferguson “the most formidable player of the decade and possibly in the Canadiens’ history. …
“For us,” Le Gros Bill writes, “Fergy’s greatest contribution was his spirit. He was the consummate team man and probably intimidated as many of us in the dressing room as he did opponents on the ice. You wouldn’t dare give less than your best if you wore the same shirt as John Ferguson.”
Fergy waited a leisurely 12 seconds to cement his reputation in the NHL, lined up with Béliveau and Bernie Geoffrion in the Canadiens’ season-opener in Boston on Oct. 8, 1963. A dozen seconds in, signed for a princely $125 per game, he pounced on the Bruins’ Ted Green for his first of two fighting majors that night.
He also scored twice and had an assist in a 4-4 tie.
Legend are the stories of Fergy leaving a full plate in a restaurant when an opponent walked in, or skipping golf tournaments or hockey schools that included players other than Canadiens.
His intensity consumed him, his blood boiling when that of others merely simmered.
Not that he didn’t have some fun with it.
“I’d skate past the Toronto bench and yell, ‘C’mon, Punch (coach Imlach), send your next (fighter) out. Gimme the best you got,’ ” Fergy said a few years ago, discussing the fierce Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry of the time.
“I’d go into the Toronto Stock Exchange and look down at the traders on the floor and get ’em going. They’d see me, a Canadien, giving it to ’em from upstairs and they’d get really worked up, booing and hooting at me. Every time we played there, I’d go to the stock exchange and get the boys going. You know … just for fun.”
In his pugilistic prime, Ferguson even entertained the idea of boxing three rounds against Canadian heavyweight legend George Chuvalo, a plan quickly shot down by Canadiens GM Sam Pollock. Imagine those two noses in one boxing ring.
In Dick Irvin’s book The Habs, Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers recalls Fergy, a fellow horseman, uttering not a syllable to him during the season, even if Ferguson had bent his self-imposed no-fraternization rule and they’d had a summer sip at the racetrack.
In March 1971, Triple Crown favourite Hoist The Flag broke his leg in a workout, a topic of brief conversation in Cheevers’s goal crease that night.
“I saw Fergy coming in for the rebound off the backboards,” Cheevers told Irvin. “I know there’s going to be a hit, a collision, so I’ve got to prepare for it. I’m saying that I’m finally going to lay this guy out for a change, right on his keister.
“So I turned quickly, I go right at him, and suddenly he yells, ‘Cheesy!’ I stopped and he says, ‘Hoist The Flag broke his leg this morning!’ Which he did. I said, ‘What?’ but he kept right on coming and laid me out flatter than a pancake.
“That was the only time he ever talked to me in his whole career. He told me about Hoist The Flag breaking his leg.”
And now, another great Canadien is gone too soon.
Today, tales of Fergy are being related far and wide by his huge circle of friends and even the foes who long ago buried the hatchet from hockey wars waged in a very different time.
I’ll think of him, too, as I gently close my fridge door.
Below: John Ferguson in a playful moment in the summer of 2003, after learning that his son had been named GM of Fergy’s arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Gazette readers were irate, cursing us out and accusing us of sacrilegiously having Photoshopped a Leafs jersey onto him. We hadn’t.