Tough exterior, soft heart

TED WYMAN AND JIM BENDER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:17 AM ET

He will forever be remembered as one of the toughest players in NHL history, and a fiery-tempered executive who continued to make an impact on the league years after his playing days were over.

Yet, those who knew him best tell a different story about John Ferguson, who lost his battle with cancer yesterday.

"Everybody knows the rough-and-tumble John Ferguson," Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, who played defence for the Jets when Ferguson was the general manager in Winnipeg, told the L.A. Times recently. "But once you get to know him, there's another whole side."

The cigar-chomping Ferguson, who became as well known for punching walls as a GM as chucking knuckles with opponents during his on-ice career, played eight season in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and set a new standard for tough players with skill. He scored 145 goals and added 158 assists to go along with 1,214 penalty minutes in 500 career games and won five Stanley Cups.

After his playing career, he got into coaching, starting with a significant but underplayed role as an assistant in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia. There, he was involved in one of the most infamous incidents in Canadian sports history when he reportedly suggested to Bobby Clarke that he do something about Valeri Kharlamov and Clarke went out and broke the Russian player's ankle.

In 1975, Ferguson was named GM and coach of the New York Rangers and in the 1978-79 season he became general manager of the Jets and led them to an Avco Cup in their final WHA season before leading them into the NHL as an expansion team. For 10 years, for good, or bad but never indifference, he was the face of Winnipeg's NHL team.

He got credit for acquiring the likes of Carlyle and centre Laurie Boschman and drafting players like Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Dave Christian, Teppo Numminen and Teemu Selanne.

Although Ferguson's Jets never made it to the Stanley Cup final, they were usually competitive. They just had the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers. All the while, Ferguson wore his heart on his sleeve and bled Winnipeg Jets colours, just as he did when he wore the colours of the Canadiens.

"He was tough but he is a man with the biggest heart in the world," Former Jets coach Tom McVie told Sun Media at a recent luncheon in Winnipeg.

McVie, who grew up with Ferguson in Vancouver, was once fired by his buddy but remained close friends with his former boss for years after.

"He's just a great man," McVie said.

Ferguson himself was fi red by the Jets in 1988 and was out of hockey for a few years, choosing instead to work as general manager of the Windsor Raceway. He got back into the game in 1992 as director of player personnel with the expansion Ottawa

Senators, and spent the last 10 years working in scouting and consulting roles with the San Jose Sharks.

Former Winnipeg Sun reporter Bob Holliday got to know Ferguson while covering the Jets and couldn't help take a liking to the excitable GM.

"He was like a big, crusty roll, hard on the outside but a marshmallow inside," Holliday said. "He had a heart of gold. Unlike the public perception of being a growly, old bear, he'd give you the shirt off his back."

Fergie and his wife, Joan, raised a boy, John Jr., now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and two daughters --Christina and Joanne -- together.

After Ferguson was diagnosed with prostate cancer back in September of 2005, he started the John Ferguson Golf Classic in Windsor to raise funds to battle the disease. The cancer, however, later spread to his bones.

Ferguson was 68.

---

JOHN BOWIE FERGUSON

Born Sept. 5, 1938, Vancouver, B.C.

FERGIE, THE PLAYER

1956-59: Melville Millionaires, SJHL

1959-60: Fort Wayne Komets, IHL

1960-63: Cleveland Barons, AHL (First all-star team, 1963)

1963-71: Montreal Canadiens, NHL (regular season: 500 games, 145 goals, 158 assists, 1,214 penalty minutes; playoffs: 85 games, 20 goals, 18 assists, 260 penalty minutes, two all-star games, five Stanley Cup championships)

FERGIE, THE EXECUTIVE

1972: assistant coach, Team Canada, Summit Series

1975-77: GM/coach, New York Rangers

1978-79: GM, Winnipeg Jets, WHA (Avco Cup championship)

1979-1988: GM Winnipeg Jets, NHL

1992-95: director player personnel, Ottawa Senators

1997-2003: senior professional scout, San Jose Sharks

2003-07: special consultant to the GM, San Jose Sharks

FERGIE, THE HERO

- Member of B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame, Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

- NHL executive of the year, The Hockey News, 1982, 1985.

- NHL executive of the year, The Sporting News, 1982, 1985, 1987.

- Honourary captain, 2006 AHL all-star game

DID YOU KNOW?

- Fergie got his start in hockey as a stick boy for the Western League's Vancouver Canucks.

- During his playing career, Fergie was once o* ered a chance to fight Canadian heavyweight boxing champ George Chuvalo, but the Habs wouldn't allow it.

- Dave Tiger Williams wore No. 22 with Toronto in honour of Fergie, who wore the same with the Habs.

- Fergie's first NHL fight came 12 seconds into his first game, against Boston's Teddy Green.

- His 1989 autobiography was called Thunder and Lightning.

- After getting fired by the Winnipeg Jets, he followed his other passion, horse racing, by managing Windsor Raceway.

- Fergie retired after just eight seasons in the NHL because he was afraid he'd seriously hurt somebody -- or worse.


Videos

Photos