Saturday, September 5, 2009

“We played for the sweater.” – John Ferguson

Ferguson_John_headshot_005From the moment he suited up for the Montreal Canadiens Ferguson vowed to be "the meanest, rottenest, most miserable cuss ever to play in the NHL." The Canadiens had recruited the fierce forward because they felt the team lacked toughness, and John Ferguson delivered in spades.” – Legends of Hockey

One of the toughest players to ever wear a Montreal Canadiens jersey was born on this day in 1938.

John Ferguson grew up in Vancouver, BC. Unlike many hockey stars, he didn’t learn to skate until he was twelve years old.

He was a small in stature in his days as a pre-teen and, at the age of fourteen, he got his first job in hockey as a stick boy for the WHL Vancouver Canucks.

Moving to Saskatchewan the following year, he had a growth spurt and began playing junior hockey with the Melville Millionaires.

In his third year of junior, Ferguson scored 66 points in 44 games.

He played a year in the IHL with the Fort Wayne Comets before joining the Cleveland Barons (AHL) in the 1960-61 season.

He was offensively gifted, as is shown by his AHL First-Team All-Star selection in 1962-63, but it was his toughness and willingness to fight that drew the eyes of scouts from the NHL.

Both the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins showed interest in the young winger, but it would be Frank Selke’s Montreal Canadiens that would bring Ferguson to the NHL.

The Canadiens had gone without a Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons. Selke and coach Toe Blake felt that teams lack of a physical presence was a key concern.

The circulating story is that Blake went down to watch a Barons practice. He noticed a frustrated Ferguson firing puck at a teammate who was practicing with little effort. It was enough for Blake to convince Selke to sign him.

0-fergy-2 Ferguson debuted on October 8, 1963, on a line with Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion, against the Boston Bruins.

Just twelve seconds into the game, the rookie locked horns with the Bruins Ted Green.

In his autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, Ferguson recalled the encounter.

“As I listened to the final strains of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, I peered over at Green and said to myself ‘John, you might as well start at the top.’

No sooner had the puck been dropped and he came over after me….and POW, I landed one right on Green’s kisser. And another and another.”

By the time it was over, Green, considered the toughest player in the league to that point, realized there was a new sheriff in town.

Ferguson also had two goals and an assist in his debut.

He finished the season as the leagues’ rookie scoring leader. Despite a first-place finish, the Canadiens again failed to win the Cup.

Fergie fighting Nevin The following year, Montreal won the first of four Cups in a five year span and Ferguson closed out the 1968-69 season by scoring the Cup-winning goal. He a career high 29 goals, that season, to go with a league record 80 penalty minutes in the playoffs.

“There was tremendous pride in those days”, he said. “We all got along so well together. We played for the sweater.”

Ferguson’s reputation as an enforcer became known. Few opponents rarely touched the likes of Beliveau, Geoffrion or Henri Richard. If they did, Ferguson made them pay.

Hampered by injuries the following year, he still scored 19 goals. The Canadiens missed the playoffs that season and Ferguson contemplated retirement to pursue business interests.

He made it official on October 6, 1970, but just over a month later, GM Sam Pollock convinced the veteran to return.

The decision was well worth it for him, as the Canadiens defeated the Chicago Blackhawks for another Stanley Cup.

nhl_g_ferguson_200  It was on the trip home that Ferguson decided to quit playing for good.

Jean Beliveau, having already announced his retirement prior to the end of the season, recalled the moment in his autobiography.

“I clearly remember the plane trip home from O’Hare. I sat with Fergie, sharing a few beers, contemplating the future.

The toughest played I’d ever seen had tears in his eyes.

’Jean, I can’t do it anymore’”, Fergie said,resignedly.

‘Reggie Houle carried me all through these playoffs. I can’t do it; I think I’m going to retire with you.’”

Ferguson finished with an even 500 games played, 145 goals, 158 assists and 1214 penalty minutes.

He would be asked to play in the 1972 Canada-Russia series, but elected to take a position as an assistant coach.

In light of not playing, Ferguson’s contribution to the series came in the way of a tap on the shoulder and whisper in the ear to Bobby Clarke during the sixth game.

Clarke went out and broke the ankle of Russian star Valery Kharlamov. With him out, Canada went on to win the series.

Ferguson would later go on to be a  coach, and then GM, for the New York Rangers.

He would later join the WHA Winnipeg Jets as their GM, winning an Avco Cup. He kept his position there for another decade during the team’s transition to the NHL and coached for one season.

He later worked in the front office for the Ottawa Senators and as a scout for the San Jose Sharks.

Sadly, Ferguson’s toughest opponent came in the form of prostate cancer in 2005. After two battles with the disease, he passed away in July of 2007.

Ferguson memorial 3 Scotty Bowman admires a photo tribute at John Ferguson’s funeral

Quotes and facts on John Ferguson.

  • “Ask me my choice of the ten most popular players in the last fifty years of the Montreal Canadiens, and Fergie would be near the top of the list.” – Dick Irvin
  • “He’s a throwback to the old time hockey players. He’s absolutely fearless and he’s strong. There aren’t too many Ferguson’s left in the NHL and the league is all the worse for that.” – Maurice Richard
  • “When you had Fergie as a friend, he was a friend for life. You know, we won a lot of Cups with that guy … I loved the guy.” – Serge Savard
  • “When Ferguson came to training camp, there were some skeptics who said he wouldn’t make the grade. Ferguson has happily proved them wrong.” – The Hockey News, 1963
  • Ferguson was the offered the chance to fight Canadian heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo in a three round exhibition at the Toronto CNE grounds. Sam Pollock did not allow it.
  • In light of his tough play, he only led the league in penalty minutes once in his career (1966-67). That same season he became the first player to receive a triple-minor in a game vs. Detroit.
  • His fight with Green was the fastest fighting major for a rookie.
  • Appeared in two All-Star games (1965, 1967)

1 comment:

Yves said...

Great article on a great legend.

Really enjoyed reading.