I came to like Fergie

EARL MCRAE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

At Families First Funeral Home in Windsor tomorrow night, they'll be coming to say farewell to the dead John Ferguson who I once hated, but came to like a lot more than I've liked a lot of people I've liked in my life.

I hated John Ferguson not because he was an enforcer, not because he was the toughest guy bar none who ever threw a pair of fists in the NHL, not because I don't like fighting, I do.

I hated him because he was a Montreal Canadien, and anyone who was a Montreal Canadien I hated, and I hated them because they were so damn good, and I hated them because they kept showing how so damn good they were to my Boston Bruins.

And I hated John Ferguson even more the night he didn't show compassion and mercy, but instigated a fight against the great Bobby Hull -- who Ferguson knew had his previously broken jaw wired shut -- leaving Hull's face bloody and battered.

John Ferguson, in his eight seasons with the Habs, was the primetime Mike Tyson of NHL fist fighters. There hasn't been a better or one then or since. Not even close. Bob Probert and George Larocque, also majestically acclaimed for their fistic dominance? Ferguson would have killed them with his huge, heavy, pile-driving, concrete fists.

Ferguson was so fistically cocky and confident that in 1970 he offered to take on George Chuvalo in the ring. The Habs brass vetoed it. It would have been Ferguson's only combative folly. His funeral would have been 37 years ago.

I first met John Ferguson when he joined the Senators in the early '90s as player personnel director. The brushcut was gone, but he was still the scary-looking guy with the sledgehammer nose, beady, dark eyes, and concrete jaw, the right winger who scowlingly roamed the ice like some evil, carnivorous bird of prey, but who could also score goals, having twice scored 20 or more with the Habs in an era when 20 goals a season was the benchmark of scoring talent.

Our introduction was over a column I'd written in which I referred to the Senators' Mark Lamb, who was as gentle as one, as Baa-Baa Lamb. Humour is in the funnybone of the beholder -- Ferguson thought it was hilarious. Every time he saw me after that, the first thing out of his mouth was a "baa-aaa-aaa-aaa" followed by laughter.

A MAN'S MAN

I had lunch with him a couple of times at the old Villa Deli on Bank St. across from the Civic Centre. The John Ferguson I got to know was of the finest quality. Funny. Witty. Kind. Candid. Earthy. Guileless. Unaffected. Real. A man's man in the best sense of the term.

We once talked about his earlier lacrosse career. He was a superstar in the Western Lacrosse League.

"I loved lacrosse more than hockey. I was a far better lacrosse player. But there was no money in it."

I asked him about the only hockey fight he allegedly lost -- to relative pacifist Simon Nolet of the Philadelphia Flyers, who broke Ferguson's nose.

'I WAS KILLING HIM'

"Bulls--t. I was killing him. Their goalie, Doug Favell, came up behind me and pinned my arms back. What could I do? Nolet got a shot away. Bloodied my nose. Big deal. You call it a loss? Nolet was a bloodier mess than I was."

I asked him about the time -- long after his retirement and in an oldtimers game in Peterborough -- he allegedly got into a pier-sixer with an opponent, and in the penalty box when the aged commissionaire tried to stop them attacking going each other, Ferguson picked the little, old guy up over his head and tossed him across the ice.

"It wasn't all the way across the ice and he wasn't hurt. He should have known better."

John Ferguson left the Senators after two seasons, many years passed, I never spoke to him again, and then a few years ago I phoned him at his home in Windsor about a hockey matter, the nature of which I can't remember.

"Hi John," I said, "It's Earl McRae."

"Baa-aaa-aaa-aaa," he bleated.


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