“The most formidable player of the decade, if not the club’s history was John Bowie Ferguson. But for us Fergie’s biggest contribution was his spirit, he was the consummate team man and probably succeeded in intimidating more of us in the dressing room than he did our opponents on the ice. You would not dare to give less than your best if you wore the same shirt as John Ferguson.” – Jean Beliveau
John Ferguson was the toughest man ever to wear the uniform of the Montreal Canadiens. In looking back at his eight year career with the Canadiens, one is struck by his accomplishments and by the impact that he had on the team. No man who ever played for the Canadiens was more admired by his teammates, both on and off the ice.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 5th, 1938, John Ferguson did not learn to skate until he was twelve years old.
The turning point of his professional life came two years later when Fergie was the stick boy for the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. Watching from the bench he was witness to a particularly rough game between the Canucks and the team from Edmonton. He later, watched in horror when Edmonton’s Larry Zeidel started a fight with the Canucks Phil Maloney. Unfortunately, Maloney was no match for Zeidel who pummeled him to the ice. Ferguson looked around in astonishment when no one on the bench was willing to come to the aid of their teammate.
“From the moment I hated the Canucks”, Fergie reflected later. “I vowed that would never happen with any team I might get to play for.”
Three years later Fergie went from a smallish stick boy and thanks to a growth spurt became a 5’11’, 190 pound tough guy. Fergie moved from Vancouver to begin his junior hockey career in Melville, Saskatchewan where he stayed for the next three years.
In his last year in Melville, Fergie scored 32 goals and added 34 assists in only 44 games. For the 1959-60 season, Fergie moved to International League where he starred for the Fort Wayne Comets, where he averaged close to a point a game. This performance allowed Fergie to move up to the AHL where he played the next three seasons with the Cleveland Barons.
It was in Cleveland where Fergie started to make a name for him self. But first Fergie had some unfinished business to take care of in the form of Larry Zeidel. Still fuming from the beating of Phil Maloney years ago, Fergie quickly sought out Zeidel for a fight.
“Yeah, I felt good about that battle,” Fergie reminisced later. “I gave him a few shots to make up for his treatment of Maloney.”
Just as important to Fergie’s future, was his emerging offensive totals in 1962-63. Fergie was named a first team AHL all star, after leading the league with 38 goals and 179 penalty minutes. It was at this point that the NHL came calling.
Despite interest from the Boston Bruins, and the New York Rangers, it was the Montreal Canadiens who signed Fergie to a contract that paid him $8,750 a year. Montreal had just completed a third consecutive year without winning the Stanley Cup.
Convinced that the Canadiens lack of success was due to them being pushed around by the other teams, managing director Frank Selke sent coach Toe Blake down to Cleveland to scout Ferguson.
Legend has it that Blake went down to watch Cleveland practice. During this practice Ferguson fired a puck at a teammate in anger because he was loafing. At that point Blake knew he had found his man.
On October 8th, 1963 Fergie made his NHL debut against the Boston Bruins at the Boston Garden. It didn’t take him long to announce his arrival in the NHL. At the time Boston’s Ted Green was considered the NHL’s top tough guy. Fergie opened the game playing on a line with Jean Beliveau and Boom Boom Geoffrion.
It only took 12 seconds for Ferguson and Green to drop the gloves.
In his book, “The Habs”, Brian MacFarlane described what happened next;
“Ferguson threw a solid right that landed in Green’s nostrils. He followed up with a second well aimed punch, and then a third furious blow. Green staggered back, shaken by the ferocity of Fergie’s attack, his face numb from the punches. He realized instantly that there was a new enforcer in the league, a deadly puncher who would bring grief to all who challenged him.”
After he served his penalty time, Fergie scored his first NHL goal, in the second period he added a power play goal, and then a few minutes later he set up Geoffrion for the tying goal.
A new era had begun in the NHL. Fergie was disdainful of any player not wearing a Montreal jersey, in every game and in every situation. The days of teams taking advantage of the Canadiens physically, were over. Fergie was determined to see the team succeed, and wasn’t subtle about his methods in achieving that goal.
“There was tremendous pride in those days”, remembered Fergie. “Those teams we had in the 1960’s, we all got along so well together. We played for the sweater.”
After finishing first overall in 1964, the Canadiens advanced to the finals for the first time in five years in 1965. Facing off against the powerful Chicago Black Hawks, the series stood tied at 2-2 heading into game five at the Montreal Forum. With the series momentum up for grabs, Ferguson got involved in an altercation with Eric Nesterenko of the Black Hawks. After a quick three punch knockout of Nesterenko, the momentum seemed to leave Chicago, and Montreal went on to win the Stanley Cup, John Ferguson’s first. This win kicked off the beginning of the Habs “Quiet Dynasty”, a team that would win five of the next seven Stanley Cups.
“The forward I like the best on the club is John Ferguson. 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
Ferguson was much more than just a fighter in his career though. In his eight year career Fergie twice scored 20 or more goals, including a career best 29 goals in 1968-69 which culminated in him scoring the Cup winning goal against the St. Louis Blues. During that 1969 playoff run Fergie set a league playoff record with 80 penalty minutes. However, he only led the league in penalty minutes once during his career.
“The point is that Fergie wasn’t, and didn’t have to be, a non stop brawler. His hard earned reputation preceded him, and he could keep the opposition in line without spending all night in the penalty box.” – Jean Beliveau
In the 1960’s as the Canadiens won cup after cup the legend of John Ferguson grew and he became a larger than life sporting figure. After establishing himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the NHL, Ferguson was able to entertain offers for endeavors outside of hockey.
The most intriguing of these propositions was the offer to fight Canadian heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo in a three round exhibition at the Toronto CNE grounds.
“I was really eager to do it”, Fergie recalled later, “but when I asked Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock for permission, he said, ‘Are you crazy? There’s no bleeping’ way I’m going to let you get in the ring with Chuvalo.”
1969-70 represented another productive year for Fergie. Seven of his nineteen goals were game winners, but injuries caused him to miss 22 games, and this helped contribute to the Canadiens missing the playoffs for the first time in Fergie’s career.
Disappointed and starting to spend more time on his outside business interests, Fergie began contemplating retirement. Having accomplished so much in his NHL career, Fergie feared hanging on too long, and perhaps seeing his legend dim.
The Canadiens front office didn’t take Ferguson’s retirement seriously and expected when the 1970-71 season began that he would be there. Surely, they took it a little more seriously when on October 6th, 1970 (four days before the season opener), he announced his retirement from hockey.
Realizing his value to the team, Sam Pollock immediately began trying to change Fergie’s mind. Pollock knew that the Habs were a team in transition and needed the veteran leadership and toughness that Fergie could provide.
After a little over a month of retirement, Fergie announced his return on November 14th, 1970 and three nights later received a rapturous standing ovation from the fans at the Montreal Forum.
“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
1970-71 would turn out to be Fergie’s swan song with the Canadiens and the NHL. It resulted in the fifth Stanley Cup ring of his eight career year. It was truly the end of an era for the Canadiens. Before winning the Cup, Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau had decided to retire at the end of the year.
In his autobiography, Beliveau reminisces about the plane ride home from Chicago, after winning the Stanley Cup.
“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.”
John Ferguson retired as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the NHL. He never looked back, not that he wasn’t tempted.
Fergie was approached by Harry Sinden to come out of retirement and play in the 1972 summit series between Canada and Russia. Fergie seriously considered the offer, before deciding to become the assistant coach of the team.
Before the series began it was widely assumed that Canada would walk all over the Russians. As everyone now knows, that isn’t how it happened. As the series became a battle of survival, a test of will, and the greatest hockey series ever played the stakes rose to an impossibly high level.
In game six, facing elimination Canada was in dire straits. Having to win the next three games on Soviet ice, team Canada was seeking a way to stop the Russian star, Valery Kharlamov.
With a tap on the shoulder and a word in the ear, Fergie instructed Bobby Clarke to go out and slow Kharlamov down. Following Fergie’s order, Clarke went out and broke Kharlamov’s ankle. With Kharlomov sidelined, Canada went on to win the series.
Fergie never made any apologies for his actions.
“I’ve never played in a series that mattered when the going didn’t get rough. My view on this: I don’t care how we win, as long as we win.”
Even with his outside business interests, Fergie never left hockey behind, serving in various positions with the New York Rangers, the Winnipeg Jets, the Ottawa Senators, and since 1995 as a senior scout with the San Jose Sharks.
In 2005 Fergie was faced with his toughest opponent yet; cancer. And for a while he appeared to beat it, but it fought back with a vengeance. Sadly, even though he fought valiantly, Fergie lost his fight on July 14th, 2007 at the age of 68.
“When you had Fergie as a friend,” former teammate and good friend Serge Savard recalled, “he was a friend for life. You know, we won a lot of Cups with that guy … I loved the guy.”
On a personal note I had the privilege of meeting John Ferguson a year ago in Toronto at an autograph signing. Having always heard of his legend, I was surprised that he wasn’t a huge, towering figure. When I got up to the front of the line, I was immediately struck by the size of his hands. When I shook his hand, my hand was completely engulfed. Here before me, was the toughest player ever to wear the Canadiens uniform, smiling, and nice beyond words. I will always treasure that special moment.
Nobody ever wore the uniform with more pride and passion.