Forget for the moment that he will remain one of the all-time greatest players in Habs history.
And you can even overlook his significant but underplayed role in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia that will never be matched.
But for nigh on 10 years, for good, bad but never indifferent, (the late) John Bowie Ferguson was the face of the once-beloved Winnipeg Jets.
Never mind the fact that Ferguson will go down in NHL history for making one of the worst trades ever for sending popular defenceman Dave Babych to Boston for forward Ray Neufeld. But the former Jets GM simply bled blue for that Winnipeg team.
The cigar-chomping Fergie, who became known for punching walls inside his box during games, landed in Winnipeg during its World Hockey Association heyday after being fired as the NHL’s New York Rangers GM.
With the likes of Kent Nilsson, Morris Lukowich, Terry Ruskowoski, Barry Long and Lars Erik Sjoberg leading the way and exciting the fans on Winnipeg Arena ice, Ferguson was the GM of record when the Jets won the last Avco Cup trophy.
Ferguson would then oversee the Jets’ transition to the NHL when Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec City and Hartford were absorbed into the ultimate hockey league. But the other NHL teams ravaged the Jets, allowing them to protect but two players. And the Jets really never recovered.
Aside from the Babych deal, which would haunt him for years afterwards, Ferguson was also much-criticized for picking tough-guy Jimmy Mann in the first round of the NHL draft (Edmonton’s future hall-of-fame defenceman Kevin Lowe went two picks later). But he seldom got credit for acquiring the likes of defenceman Randy Carlyle, centre Laurie Boschman and drafting players like Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Dave Christian and Teppo Numminen. (And there is still disagreement over who decided to draft Teemu Selanne — Ferguson or his successor, Mike Smith.)
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 (with Lowe on the blueline).
Ferguson and Bobby Hull, who came out of retirement to join the NHL Jets, had a strained relationship and he finally let Hull go to finish his career elsewhere. But he enjoyed better relationships with many others. In fact, he even convinced former Montreal teammate Serge Savard to come out of retirement to play for the Jets. And Carlyle credited the man for saving his career when Fergie acquired him from Pittsburgh for a first-round draft pick.
“He’s a good man,” Carlyle told the L.A. Times recently. “Everybody knows the rough-and-tumble John Ferguson, but once you get to know him, there’s another whole side.”
For example, Fergie hired his old friend, Tommy McVie, to coach the Jets to that Avco Cup title and the NHL Jets. He also befriended local Investors Group financial advisor Ted Foreman, who convinced him to invest in a local junior squad (South Blues). Although he later fired McVie, both remained among his closest friends until the end. In fact, Foreman proudly accepted the task of handling the eulogy at Ferguson’s funeral.
“He was tough but he is a man with the biggest heart in the world,” McVie told Sun Media before he replaced Ferguson as the headline speaker at a Never Alone Luncheon in Winnipeg earlier this year.
Former Winnipeg Sun reporter Bob (Doc) Holliday befriended Ferguson while covering the Jets for CJOB and while also promoting wrestling.
“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.”
Ferguson was also very close to the late Ken (Friar) Nicolson, once known as the Voice of the Jets, and even named a racehorse in the radio broadcaster’s honour.
And when Fergie was not displaying his volatile temper, he showed a great sense of humour.
“He loved practical jokes and it didn’t matter if he was playing one on someone else or they were playing one on him,” Holiday said. Fergie’s wife, Joan, stuck with her dedicated husband throughout the years and they raised a boy, John Jr., now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and two daughters together. Jets owner Barry Shenkarow fired Ferguson suddenly on October of 1988 and replaced him with Mike Smith, whom Fergie had hired. Some say that broke his heart.
Although Ferguson was not out of work long, he and his family always reminded anyone how much they had enjoyed living in Winnipeg. And Fergie was much saddened when the old arena was razed to the ground.
Ferguson would become GM of the Windsor Raceway, where he bought a new home, then became director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators from 1992 to ‘95. After that, he became a scout/consultant for the San Jose Sharks.
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.