Mystery man

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:13 AM ET

There is ample belief inside the hockey industry that the Leafs stole one of hockey's brightest young execs when they hired him away from the St. Louis Blues in August 2003. And yet, in the third year of a four-year contract, John Ferguson is defined more by what we don't know about him than what we do.

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There are some things you don't know about John Ferguson Jr., the Leafs ultra-serious general manager.

He laughs at the Naked Gun movies. Laughs out loud.

"I laugh a lot," he said. "I really enjoy humour. I enjoy the Naked Gun, the Naked Gun 2 1/2, Second City, Saturday Night Live, standup comedy.

He has high-placed friends who revere him.

"He's a great guy. He's on my short list of people I want to spend time with," Anaheim Mighty Ducks general manager Brian Burke said.

Here's the thing about Ferguson.

There is ample belief inside the hockey industry that the Leafs stole one of hockey's brightest young execs when they hired him away from the St. Louis Blues in August 2003. And yet, in the third year of a four-year contract, John Ferguson is defined more by what we don't know about him than what we do.

Part of that is because of the way he talks.

You can never get the sense that you know what he is thinking or what he is about. Ferguson speaks slowly and marinates each word in legalese. Guarded is to Ferguson what hard is to stone.

"He's a smart, smart guy," one longtime Ferguson-watcher said. "He knows the verbal trap doors. As he's talking, he's figuring out how the sentence will play out three days from now."

That's very nice, but the Leafs are a point out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference and are in danger of snapping a six-year string of playoff seasons. The short- to medium-term prospects for the club look dim.

For the many people who monitor the Maple Leafs with more passion and vigour than they do their own savings account, the question is clear enough: Just who is John Ferguson Jr. and does he know what the hell he is doing?

John Ferguson Jr. is, of course, the son of John Ferguson, the Montreal Canadiens' legendary enforcer and one of the game's best-liked personalities.

The senior Ferguson was a tough guy who could play, an incendiary competitor who also was skilled enough to average 18 goals a year with the Habs. He moved from a playing career to a 15-year tenure as a general manager with the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets and an ongoing, decade-long scouting and administrative term with the San Jose Sharks.

John Jr. was born in Montreal and when his dad retired in 1971, senior coached junior for two seasons. The family moved to Long Island and on to Winnipeg when John was 12.

"Mr. Big Fergy was a great guy," said Costa Cholakis, a Winnipeg kid who grew up around the block and now owns a successful flower business. "He was the sort of dad who would come home for lunch and put you in a headlock if you happened to be around."

What Cholakis remembered best was whether it was sports or simply walking down the street, John Jr. played bigger than he was.

"Fergy, no matter what the game, he always protected me," Cholakis said. "He always protected the little guys."

Toughness, signified by the giant Ferguson's battered nose, ran in the family.

"I never taught him how to fight," John Sr. said of his son. "He could always throw them. I never worried about his safety."

But John Jr. eschewed the path of the palooka, fighting his way through the junior ranks for a shot at the pros. Instead he chose Providence College, a prestigious Catholic school in Rhode Island.

"I wanted to get on with it," Ferguson said. "I had always taken my studies seriously and fared very well academically. Providence was prepared to offer me an athletic grant in aid, a scholarship, right away."

Providence also offered him access to two figures who would become cornerstones of his network: Burke, who met Ferguson while a broadcaster for the school, and athletic director Lou Lamoriello, now the GM of the New Jersey Devils.

"He (Lou) was one of the biggest reasons I went to Providence College," Ferguson said.

Lamoriello has built the Devils into a model franchise and he enjoys an unchallenged reign in the eyes of his critics and admirers as the NHL general manager most addicted to control.

"That's who John wants to be," one media critic said of the close relationship between Lamoriello and Ferguson. "He wants to be Lou."

Ferguson, a married father of two known for putting work first, second and third, smiles at the characterization of Lamoriello as a control freak with no life outside hockey.

"I can certainly see that perception," Ferguson said. "But what I see are three Stanley Cups, his longevity and his ability to make decisions in the best interest of the organization."

As a player, Ferguson brought big-league instincts and desire to Providence but he was a middling prospect.

"His skills were just fair," Burke said. "He was hard-nosed, smart, positionally sound."

He was also academically diligent. Ferguson was an an academic all-American and he graduated magna cum laude with a business administration degree.

Ferguson then embarked to a four-year apprenticeship as a player in the American Hockey League, first with the Montreal Canadiens organization in Fredericton and then with the Ottawa Senators' affiliate in New Haven.

Unlike many big-time GMs, Ferguson lived through the brutal realities of the borderline minor-league prospect.

"One night (with Fredericton) I got cross-checked. I lost parts of four teeth across the top and two in the bottom. There was a one-inch gash in the mouthguard and they were sitting right in there," recalled Ferguson, who returned to the game and scored the winning goal.

He spent four hours in the dentist chair the following day.

Teammates remember Ferguson as leader who was constantly aware and looking out for those around him.

"We called him the Wizard," said Tom Saggisor, a linemate of Ferguson for two years in Fredericton. "Nobody had a better retention of details. He took leadership seriously.

"I'll tell you what I mean. Paul DiPietro was on our line. One day, Fergy took Paul to the bank and he said 'Paul, this is why we're going to get you a bank account.' Paul had paycheques all around his dresser and he needed help with his money."

Saggisor, now a senior managing director for the Royal Bank of Canada, said the Wizard always was looking out his teammates.

"Fergie broke his hand in a fight so he was going to be out for six weeks. They told him to go home (to Providence), but a bunch of us depended on Fergie and his truck to get us around. So he left it. Paid the insurance, trusted us with it, and got a car back home in Providence so he had something to drive. For us, that was huge."

Unwilling to hold on to the thin hope of playing in the NHL, Ferguson began the climb up through the side door. He gained a law degree with honours from the Suffolk University Law School, a top end Massachusetts school. He worked for a player agent -- Brian Lawton -- for a year, was a summer intern at the NHL offices and scouted for three years for the Senators.

Those stints brought him to the attention of St. Louis GM Larry Pleau who was looking for an assistant general manager.

"He had the mix," Pleau said. "He had played. He had the legal side. He was young. He was enthusiastic and well-spoken. You could see he was going to be a general manager. It was just a matter of time."

Ferguson ran the Blues' AHL affiliate in Worcester for five years and negotiated contracts for the parent club. His record there was generally good. Ferguson, for example, pushed hard for the draft selection of Barret Jackman, who later won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

The Blues, like the current Leafs, were stuck with low positions in the draft but were among the leagues' best-regular season performers. Pleau and Ferguson signed then 30-year-old Keith Tkachuk to an inflationary five-year, $45-million US deal in 2002 and Tkachuk performed well.

Ferguson had less luck with goaltenders. He was bullish on goalies Brent Johnson and Curtis Sanford. Sanford is playing well for the Blues, but after five years in the minors he remains an uncertain commodity. Johnson caught on with Washington this year as a backup.

Observers say Ferguson saw promise in pint-sized Eric Boguniecki where Pleau did not.

Boguniecki delivered a 22-goal season for the Blues in 2002-03 and is now enjoying serious ice time with Pittsburgh. He was a good acquisition.

Like any team, the Blues had more success with players drafted higher up.

Czech centre Peter Cajanaek has been a bust but he was an eighth-round flyer. Christian Backman, drafted 24th overall in 1998, is logging 20 minutes a night with the big club.

The Leafs began looking for a general manager when Pat Quinn agreed to give up his title of coach and GM after the 2002-03 season. Quinn had contract language that gave him a direct pipeline to Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. chairman Larry Tanenbaum.

"The senior managers at MLSEL resented Pat Quinn's power," a longtime observer said. "They didn't like him thumbing his nose at them."

Company CEO Richard Peddie said the move wasn't about kowtowing Quinn but creating an equitable workload. With increased complexities in virtually every element of the job, from managing the CBA to scouting, dividing one person between two jobs stopped making sense, he said.

"You just can't have one person having two jobs anymore," Peddie said. "The demands are too great."

Peddie began making a list for a new general manager. He called NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Burke and Lamoriello. They kept talking about the assistant GM in St. Louis.

John Ferguson never applied for one of the most prestigious, heavily scrutinized jobs in pro sports. He was secure enough to let others do the talking for him.

"One of the approaches I took was I didn't list references at the bottom of my correspondence," Ferguson said. "I said 'call anyone I ever played with, played against, negotiated with, worked for, and talk to them.' At the end of the day I was confident I had nothing to fear. The more they looked the better my candidacy appeared."

At 35, Ferguson was plugged into the league's power brokers. And he came with another faculty valued by Peddie: A penchant for secrecy.

Ferguson endorsed the notion of issuing the vaguest possible reports on injuries. He revealed nothing and used the broadest possible generalities in speaking to the media.

Ferguson began his career in Toronto on a roll.

Signing Joe Nieuwendyk to a two-year-deal gave the Leafs an oft-injured but nonetheless dependable veteran behind captain Mats Sundin. Another free-agent acquisition, Ken Klee, acquitted himself well enough as a third or fourth defenceman.

In the Brian Leetch deal, Ferguson gave the New York Rangers a glittering prospect in Jarkko Immonen, a first-round draft pick, a second-rounder and Maxim Kondatriev, a defenceman with great upside now with Anaheim.

It was a staggering total for a player who played only 15 games for the Maple Leafs before the lockout ended any chance of him returning.

"That deal was not a rental, Leetch had a another year left," Ferguson said. "I did not anticipate a year-long stoppage for obvious reasons. It had never occurred before in the history of the game. I anticipated with that deal putting ourselves in position to make two full runs."

Ferguson's view of a short stoppage wasn't a widely held one. Losing two excellent young players and a first-rounder was a devastating mistake, probably the biggest of his tenure.

Critics have feasted on Ferguson's performance coming out of the lockout. The Leafs let Gary Roberts and Nieuwendyk go as free agents. Ferguson insists the Leafs were willing to go two years on Roberts but not on Nieuwendyk. Instead, the duo signed as a pair with the Florida Panthers where, as expected, they play well when they are not hurt.

Ferguson made the decision to sign 40-year-old Ed Belfour to a three-year deal that will cost the club $4.56 million US this year.

Should the Leafs buy out Belfour next year, as they certainly should based on his play this season, another $1.5 million will go against the salary cap. Hockey people say Belfour got far, far more than he was worth. Curtis Joseph, a comparable goalie, signed in Phoenix for $800,000. To put the dollars in perspective, an arbitrator awarded Roberto Luongo, one of the top young goalies in the game, $3.2 million.

"After the stoppage, the first No. 1 goalie available (Nikolai Khabibulin) got almost $35 million over five years," Ferguson said. "All the goalies who were projected to be unsigned, have signed. (Jose) Theodore was extended. (Marty) Turco was extended. Evgeni Nabokov was extended in San Jose.

"There are lots and lots of teams who would have taken Ed Belfour at that money. With what we had and what was available, I'd do it again."

Ferguson said it was impossible to foresee a hand injury that would knock Eric Lindros out for two months. But over his past five seasons, Lindros has averaged 38 games a season and his wrist injury, thought initially to be a moderate sprain, dragged on.

Lindros, however, was a minor risk. A one-year deal making him the 206th highest-paid player in the league, was a coup. Lindros has delivered long stretches of good play. His contract and his play have been nothing close to a problem.

Ferguson traded for Jeff O'Neill. O'Neill renegotiated a two-year-deal for $1.5 million this year and next but his often lacklustre play saw him scratched from the lineup before the Olympic break. The price, a fourth-round draft choice, was low and the potential for a rebound season seemed high enough.

"He has not had the kind of year he or we expected," Ferguson said. "That being said, I firmly believe he's a top-six, and often times a top-three forward."

Jason Allison, another Ferguson free agent, has been statistically significant but nonetheless ineffective. A series of bonuses for games played and 70 points could make him a $4-million player.

"In a way it's the worst possible scenario for the Leafs," an agent said of Allison. "He's getting empty points and the Leafs are paying a big cost for them."

Much of Ferguson's initiatives have been off the radar. The hiring of Paul Maurice to coach the Marlies brought a young talent into the organization as an heir apparent for Quinn.

In three years, Ferguson has added seven scouts to double the size of the scouting staff and he will hire another soon. The Leafs moved their farm club here from St. John's to better monitor prospects and treat their injuries.

Even those moves have created controversy.

The dismissal of the club's long-standing trainers and doctors seemed to some designed to scapegoat the medical staff for management's failures.

While Jay Harrison, Andy Wozniewski and Staffan Kronwall have played well when called up, there is little evidence of a competitive advantage being gained by operating a farm team in the same market as its parent club.

There is, Ferguson insists, a plan to restore the Leafs. Some of it involves spending on non-cap issues. Mostly, though, Ferguson said, "the plan is to best identify, procure and manage our assets."

And that, in a nutshell, is what Leafs fans are looking at. A plan to best identify, procure and manage assets. Who couldn't get behind that?

It is too soon to say whether Ferguson is the cagey Cliff Fletcher or the paranoid Gerry McNamara. Some GMs, Burke in Anaheim comes to mind, can resurrect a team in a year but Ferguson has to oversee the transition of the Leafs to a scouting and development-themed operation -- instead of an acquisitional one. That takes longer.

But the one asset John Ferguson Jr. couldn't acquire through study or hard work is the one his father and Peddie have in spades: The gift of salesmanship.

The lack of that gift is not an incidental flaw.

GMs are nothing if not salesmen. They are forever conning each other to wrangle precious talent and selling the media, the public and their superiors to gain more time to find and develop it.

Quinn's tenure as a GM was at least as spotty as Ferguson's, but Quinn's ability to explain himself and project a sense of command mostly shield him from criticism.

Ferguson's supporters say wait till you get to know the guy.

"He's a great guy. He does have a great sense of humour," Burke said. "The media want a warm and fuzzy guy, but the things they do don't invite that kind of treatment from us. It's hard to let your guard down."

Ferguson's detractors say there is nothing to know, that the players inside the Leafs dressing room believe him to be a Peddie lackey.

As always, there will be comparisons, to the urbane Fletcher, the cryptic and the unintentionally comical McNamara and even Mr. Big Ferg.

"I knew John's dad for many years," said former Leafs executive Bill Watters, now a radio commentator. "I'm waiting for John to exhibit more of his father's qualities."

In the end, it isn't about sound clips or being fuzzy. It's about drafts and arbitration and going with your gut and not overpaying for washed-up goalies.

Maybe, as his friends and employers insist, John Ferguson Jr. has got it in him.

But right now the standings say otherwise.

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THE DEAL WITH ... JOHN FERGUSON JR.

AGE: 36.

BORN: July 7, 1969.

OTHER PEOPLE BORN JULY 7: Beatle Ringo Starr, designer Pierre Cardin, figure skater Michelle Kwan.

* PERSONALITY PROFILE: "People might find you extremely difficult to know as you can be shy and evasive in public but you are open, loyal and protective to those close friends and family you trust."

PROVIDENCE COLLEGE STATS: 115 games, 15 goals, 22 assists, 105 penalty minutes.

MINOR LEAGUE STATISTICS: 227 games, 42 goals, 231 PIMs with Peoria, Sherbrooke, Fredericton and New Haven.

BIGGEST GOALS: Scored for Canadian national team in Deutschland Cup tournament. Scored overtime goal in Moncton of AHL after getting parts of six teeth knocked out.

BECAMES LEAFS GM: August 29, 2003

CURRENT BOOK: The Broker by John Grisham.

(* BASED ON HIS BIRTHDAY ACCORDING TO BYZANT.COM INTERNET ASTROLOGY SERVICE)


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