Rest in peace, Fergy: Cancer claims Canadiens great

0-fergy.jpgJohn Ferguson: The one and only, battling in front of New York Rangers goalie Gilles Villemure.
Courtesy B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame

Hardrock Canadiens forward John Ferguson, a five-time Stanley Cup winner with Montreal, died today at his home in Windsor, Ont., following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 68.

To his opponents, Fergy was the fiercest competitor who could lay you out with a look, no less a hook. He was a towering presence on the Canadiens of the 1960s, a role player who also had a surprisingly nice touch around the net, scoring 145 goals in 500 regular-season NHL games. (He’d likely have scored more, of course, had he not also earned 1,214 penalty minutes.)

And to those who were privileged to call him a friend, including one of his dearest friends, Serge Savard, Fergy was a man with a heart as big as the race horses both men loved, a player to whom the game was everything, the template for the policeman that every NHL team would employ to keep the peace, or stir it up, as the case may be.

There was only one Fergy. He lived his life to the fullest, and enriched those who crossed his path. The Canadiens, and hockey, have lost a great one today.

Fergy’s obituary, written by Gazette hockey writer Red Fisher.

Here’s a look at Fergy by Legends of Hockey’s Joe Pelletier.

A photo gallery
at Legends of Hockey. Use the arrows to navigate.

More biographical and statistical information.

Fergy’s role in the historic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series.


Courtesy B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame (Fergy inducted in 1998)



A big, friendly mug that would also strike fear in opponents’ hearts.


Fergy chases the puck along the boards with Toronto’s Ronnie Ellis.


Battling along the Forum boards with muscular Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Horton.


With a fellow hardrock and great friend, Canadiens teammate Bryan (Bugsy) Watson, in 1967-68.


The picture that scandalized a city: to honour his son being named GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2003, Fergy pulled on former Leaf Bobby Baun’s jersey during a fishing trip. The digital photo was sent to us by Geoff Godden, and Canadiens fans swamped us with calls and email, believing we had electronically dressed Fergy in a Toronto sweater. “Fergy would NEVER wear that sweater,” fans charged. But he did, and Fergy thought the uproar was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard.


A few stories on Fergy, beginning with the one featuring the Leafs jersey:

Despite years of pummelling players in Leafs crests, former Canadiens enforcer John Ferguson has gone over to the dark side after his son was named Toronto’s new GM last week

Published September 6, 2003

The Gazette

Sitting down? John Ferguson is now a proud, true blue-and-white Toronto Maple Leafs fan. And if that news didn’t drop you like one of Fergie’s roundhouse rights, you need to bone up on a time when the Canadiens-Leafs rivalry was one of the most bitter in all of sports.

Ferguson’s son, John Jr., was named general manager of the Leafs a week ago. Word reached Fergie the night before the announcement was made, while he was taking part in the Legends of the Game Fishing Classic on the coast of British Columbia.

The news didn’t find him by press release or by phone, but rather when Hall of Fame Leafs defenceman Bobby Baun took the jersey off his own back – and Fergie tugged it on with a broad grin.

In Montreal, some things just don’t look right.

Like this.

Yesterday, celebrating his 65th birthday by driving to Travers City, Mich., to scout an NHL rookie tournament for the San Jose Sharks, Fergie considered the nearly unthinkable circumstances and burst out laughing.

“After 65 years,” he said, “I can change my allegiance.”

But Fergie clearly understands the magnitude of this. Here’s a man who pounded out his entire knuckle-sandwich NHL career and won five Stanley Cups in a Habs jersey, from 1963-71.

His distaste for the Leafs, and his hatred for their free-swinging enforcer, Eddie Shack, was the stuff of legend. He earned many of his 1,214 career penalty minutes by whaling on guys wearing the Toronto crest.

The Canadiens vs. the Leafs of that era was beautiful hockey and all-out war, both a ballet and a demolition derby that spawned books, university theses and the fascinating 1996 CBC documentary Forever Rivals.

“Shackie and I get along good now,” Fergie said, “but I remember the time (Canadiens teammate) Dickie Duff and I were in Bigliardi’s Steak House in Toronto when Shack walked in.

“Dickie and I had just ordered, but I wasn’t going to wait for my steak, not with a Leaf in the place. I just put $20 on the table and walked out.”

And now we have Fergie, who remembers a time when he would refuse to autograph anything that bore a maple leaf, wearing a Toronto jersey.

“I never expected to see this day,” he said, laughing again. “But it’s pretty exciting.”

It is with great paternal pride that Fergie boasts of his bilingual, Montreal-born son’s new job, a position he calls “one of, if not the best” in hockey.

And it’s a game that is vastly different than what Fergie knew from his days in the front office of the 1970s New York Rangers and World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets.

“When I was GM, I ran Winnipeg and (farm team) Moncton on $5.5 million a year,” Fergie recalled. “Now you’ve got one player making that.”

He says he heard none of the Toronto commentators ripping last week’s hiring even before it was announced. The critics claimed Ferguson Jr. was unqualified to lead the underachieving Leafs despite having worked his way up through the St. Louis Blues organization.

Fergie’s boy might know the Cup in Toronto only as a rumour, having been born two months after the Leafs won their last in 1967, but he has done his homework en route to becoming the 11th GM in franchise history.

“John has the background, no question. He knows players,” Fergie said. “He’s seen over 1,500 games in North America and Europe the last three years.

“(Blues GM) Larry Pleau did a great job with him and honed him pretty well, letting him take charge in St. Louis in areas that will benefit him in Toronto.

“The only advice I’ve given him is to keep his character and his ego and his greed in line. If he does, he’ll do a great job.”

Fergie is in robust health, having rebounded from emergency triple-bypass heart surgery he had in California 16 months ago, not long after having undergone an angioplasty in Montreal to clear a blocked artery.

He remains special consultant to the general manager in San Jose, Doug Wilson having replaced Dean Lombardi as GM, and Fergie and his wife, Joan, still call Windsor, Ont., their home.

“We’re in a district that’s relatively French, so you can be a Habs fan or a Toronto fan,” he said. “That’s pretty darned good.”

Fergie promises he’ll be in Montreal for at least a few games this season, and will make it a point to be in to see the Canadiens vs. his son’s new employer.

He’ll be cheering for Toronto, too, proving that family blood is thicker than that which long ago spilled from Leafs noses onto his swollen knuckles.

And if Eddie Shack is in town, he might even take him to Moishe’s and buy him a steak.


When the Canadiens visited Toronto, recalls tough-guy John Ferguson, he used to visit the stock exchange, merely to raise the ire of the traders on the floor, angered by the sight of a hated Hab

Published October 18, 2003

The Gazette

John Ferguson, the clenched-fist left wing of the Canadiens through much of their glorious 1960s, remembers the moment as though it were yesterday, and now he’s reliving it in a single, happy breath.

“We’d come into Toronto by train from Detroit, and Toe Blake had forgotten to pack his socks,” Fergie said of his crusty coach. “So Toe sent (trainer) Larry Aubut out to buy some, and Larry came back with a pair that had a maple leaf on ’em.

“Toe cursed and threw ’em out, sayin’ he couldn’t wear maple-leaf socks, and he shoved his bare feet into his shoes.

“In the dead of winter.”

To Fergie, this wasn’t especially bizarre. It was just a matter of fact, perfectly illustrating the intensity of the day’s rivalry between the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, one of the greatest in all of sports.

“I was cocky then,” Fergie said, laughing. “I’d skate past the Toronto bench and yell: ‘C’mon, Punch (coach Imlach), send your next (fighter) out. Gimme the best you got.’

“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.”

The target of the traders’ abuse hated the Leafs so completely that he once left a Toronto restaurant before his steak arrived, his appetite walking out the door just as Leafs bruiser Eddie Shack walked in.

This morning’s standings might say the Canadiens are 3-1, but their season at home really begins only tonight, when Toronto makes its first of three 2003-04 visits to the Bell Centre.

As usual, there will be a few thousand Leafs fans in the arena’s upper bowl and scattered throughout the seats; they will sound like three or four times that number, conspicuous in voice and sweater, and they’ll bring an energy that’s rarely felt in other arenas in a bloated 30-team NHL.

For millions of fans in this country, and well beyond, there is nothing like a Montreal-Toronto hockey game, a rivalry steeped in tradition since the birth of the NHL in 1917.

It is 732 games old, including regular season and playoffs, and has survived the dilution of expansion, 14 prime ministers and two world wars – many more if you count the battles ignited on the ice, in the front office and among the fans of both teams.

For those keeping track, the Canadiens have 355 victories and 88 ties. In Toronto, they argue that Montreal has lost 289.

The Canadiens have won eight of 15 playoff series between the two, and hang 24 Stanley Cup banners next to Toronto’s 11. It’s about now that Leafs fans tend to brag about the Blue Jays.

Tonight’s game will be telecast nationally by Hockey Night in Canada. It is fitting, and not by coincidence, that the Canadiens have chosen tonight to honour their legendary former captain, Jean Beliveau, who signed his first contract with the organization 50 years ago this month.

With due respect to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, the Canadiens vs. the Leafs is hockey night in Canada.

The rivalry has spawned documentaries, theses, books and tavern fisticuffs, and while it wasn’t the madness it once was, it remains a highlight of the season.

The Canadiens drew first blood in Toronto last Saturday, blanking the Leafs 4-0. Usually, no matter that the teams might well be headed in opposite directions in the standings, their games live up to their hype.

“A rivalry is a way of getting along with others, even when you don’t agree,” said Ken Dryden, the vice-chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment who played Hall of Fame goal for the Canadiens from 1970-79.

“It’s an excuse to demonstrate your loyalties and passions. A good opponent gives you your toughest, most defining and most memorable moments.

“It’s fun to like one team and not another. And deep down, you do kind of like the other. You need to, in order not to like them as much as you profess to.”

Elmer Lach, who centred the Canadiens’ legendary Punch Line between Blake and Maurice Richard, recalls the battles he waged with Teeder Kennedy through the 1940s and ’50s.

“We played to the rules, so there were no problems,” Lach said, skating around the full truth. “But there was no love lost with Toronto. In those days, anybody with a different sweater was an enemy. We weren’t allowed to fraternize, not that we cared to.”

The battles have spilled from the ice to the boardrooms. Lach suggests that the rivalry took root when two keen hockey minds, manager Frank Selke and coach Dick Irvin, came to the Canadiens from the Leafs in the 1940s and built a powerhouse that would flourish for decades.

In 1948, Leafs coach Hap Day actually tried to buy Rocket Richard, to which Selke replied, “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him. Even if I suggested in fun that he might go, the fans would tear down the Forum, brick by brick.”

Many players and brass have travelled the 401 back and forth in the years since, great angst sometimes left in their footsteps.

Canadiens fans detested Doug Gilmour when he wore a Toronto sweater, but oh how they loved him in the CH. They cried blasphemy, and worse, when Dryden moved into Toronto’s executive suites in 1997.

Then in late August, the night John Ferguson Jr. was named general manager of the Maple Leafs, Fergie dared pull on a Toronto sweater. The Gazette published the photo, and six weeks later e-mail still arrives from the passionate disbelievers who insist that we electronically glued the head of the career-long Canadien onto the body of a “real” Maple Leaf.

We didn’t, and Fergie thinks the whole thing is hilarious.

Tonight, Ferguson, Dryden and Lach will be among 20 Canadiens alumni and many special guests at a pre-game dinner to celebrate the magnificent career of Jean Beliveau.

And here’s perhaps the most remarkable statistic of all, from a time when you didn’t do business with an enemy wearing the maple leaf: among these 20 men who won a stunning total of 115 Stanley Cups, only the marvelous Dickie Moore played with both clubs, 766 games with Montreal, then 43 with Toronto – but only after a year’s retirement.

Fergie recently claimed he’s now a Leafs fan, in support of his GM son, but this week he was wavering, if only a bit.

“I’m sort of sitting on the fence,” he admitted.

We’ll see tonight, when the Canadiens pull on their familiar red sweaters, honour one of the greatest names in their history, then drop the puck for their 733rd game against a rival like none other.

“Borg and McEnroe. Dempsey and Tunney. The Yankees and Dodgers. Ali and Frazier,” Dryden said. “The Leafs need the Canadiens, just as the Canadiens need the Leafs. Whether you like them or not.”


A Montreal Forum program story from the 1960s:




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