Fergie's legacy

John Ferguson Sr. was tough on the ice but gentle off it. (Sun File/Debbie Holloway)

John Ferguson Sr. was tough on the ice but gentle off it. (Sun File/Debbie Holloway)

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

The National Hockey League lost its all-time heavyweight champion with the passing of John Bowie Ferguson at age 68 this weekend.

He fought many times during his career and came out winning all the time, but he couldn't knock out a prostate cancer he fought for a couple of years and it eventually took his life.

I have known the Vancouver-born, tough on the ice but gentle off the ice man for more than four decades. In fact, our paths crossed for the first time when he invaded Maple Leaf Gardens with the high-flying Frenchmen from Montreal, Les Canadiens.

As a hockey writer for the now defunct Toronto Telegram, I sat beside him on the dressing room bench and talked to him about lacrosse.

Lacrosse?

Yes, lacrosse, because I researched his background and established that he was a fine lacrosse player. He was surprised that I didn't ask him any hockey-related questions, but felt comfortable with me for discussing his other favourite sport.

The last time I met Fergie was a couple of months ago when he attended the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs' last Stanley Cup victory against his team -- the Habs.

He looked gaunt and relatively thin, which in itself wasn't surprising.

That cursed illness left a scar on his once powerful 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame.

He still gave me a bear hug, albeit it wasn't as strong as usual, and said: "It's good to see you.

"In fact, it's good to see anyone. Perhaps we could get together for lunch."

We never did. The cancer kept him busy with visits to Princess Margaret Hospital. It's no secret what chemo treatments can do to one's body.

And when he returned to his Windsor home a short time ago, it became obvious that his days were numbered.

However, during his hockey-playing career he didn't back off from anybody. I witnessed many of his bouts on skates and if there had been a boxing referee around he would have raised Fergie's hand at the end. One particular fight stands out in my mind.

It happened in the 1960s when the Canadiens hosted the Chicago Blackhawks.

Eric Nesterenko took a run at Ferguson. That was a mistake because in the ensuing exchange Big Nester could do nothing else but plead for mercy, as Fergie spanked him like a father would spank an ill-behaved son.

Wayne Gretzky, during his illustrious career with the Edmonton Oilers, was protected by bodyguards Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley. John Ferguson did the same for Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer.

Our paths crossed many times over the years, whether it was in a hockey rink, or the Windsor harness racing track which he managed in his later years.

As co-coach with Harry Sinden, Fergie inspired Team Canada 1972 in the Super Series against the Soviet Union and discouraged the Soviet police from manhandling Canada's team leader, Alan Eagleson.

John Bowie Ferguson will be missed in Canada.

Our sincere condolences go to his son, John Ferguson Jr., and the entire Ferguson family.

Rest in peace, Fergie.


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