John Ferguson was one of the toughest players ever to lace up skates in the NHL and he remained a big part of the sport as a general manager, coach and scout at the highest level. He died Saturday of prostate cancer. He was 68.
He is survived by his wife Joan, with whom he lived in Windsor, Ont. Their son, John Ferguson Jr., is general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“My father battled cancer with the same spirit in which he played the game of hockey,” Ferguson Jr., said in a release. “He showed courage, strength, class and tremendous character. He had deep appreciation for the support he’d received from so many people beginning with his initial diagnosis.
“My father’s spirit will continue to live on in all of us whose lives he touched.”
Ferguson, who was born in Vancouver, played eight NHL seasons between 1963 and 1971, all with the Montreal Canadiens, and he helped them win the Stanley Cup five times.
There was not a more determined player. He’d crash creases and he’d drop the gloves if need be. Along with his 145 goals – an average of 18 a season – and 158 assists, he amassed 1,214 penalty minutes in 500 regular-season games.
He was more than just a bodyguard for Montreal’s stars but because of his reputation as a tough-as-nails combatant – he got into his first fight 12 seconds into his first NHL game – it is often forgotten that in his first season he led all NHL rookies in scoring and was runner-up in voting for rookie of the year. He scored two goals after fighting Ted Green in that first game and from then on was regarded as hockey’s unofficial heavyweight champion until he retired.
He played much of his rookie season on a line with Jean Beliveau, who won the Hart Trophy that year.
When Ferguson scored the Cup-winning goal in 1969, he capped a season in which he scored 29 times and had a plus-minus rating of plus-30.
The five-foot-11, 190-pound left-winger was a playoff force. In 85 post-season games, No. 22 scored 20 goals and assisted on 18. He played in the 1965 and 1967 all-star games.
“There was no more passionate competitor, as a player, as a coach or as an executive, than John Ferguson,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a release.
“He was tough, he wanted the best for his teams, his teammates and his players, and his country, and would stop at nothing to try to help them win. His fight against cancer was every bit as fierce as his competitive drive on and off the ice.”
He once was dared to fight Canadian heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo and he was willing to enter the ring but the Canadiens wouldn’t give him permission.
Ferguson also was a standout lacrosse player.
He was an assistant coach on Canada’s team in the historic 1972 Summit Series. Standing behind the bench watching Valeri Kharlamov flash around the ice, Ferguson frowned and said, “He’s killing us.” Bobby Clarke went out and slashed Kharlamov across an ankle. Kharlamov’s effectiveness waned and Canada prevailed. It was another entry in the Ferguson Legend.
Ferguson was GM and coach of the New York Rangers for two tumultuous years to 1978; GM of the Winnipeg Jets, and briefly coach, from 1979 to 1988; manager of Windsor Raceway between hockey jobs; director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators from 1992 to 1995; and a senior scout for the San Jose Sharks since 1995.
“John Ferguson was one of the most beloved figures to ever represent the Sharks, as well as the entire National Hockey League,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said in a statement. “His sense of class, grace and love of the game of hockey is legendary among those who were fortunate enough to know and work with him.”
Wherever he went, Fergie, who had a great sense of humour away from the rink, made lifelong friends.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September 2005. He thought he had it beat at one point but a second battle with the disease took his life.