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C M Y K b2
WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, SUNDAY, JULY 22, 2007
WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES
Two of the National Hockey League’s toughest: Ferguson drops the gloves with Boston’s Ted Green.
“He was the heavyweight champion of the NHL,” McVie said.
“He probably could have been the heavyweight boxing champion of Canada if he wanted to.
He had Muhammad Ali quickness in his hands. Quicker than anything I’ve seen.”
Alas, this is also a story of heartbreak; be it Ferguson’s rueful demise with the Jets in 1988 or the
melancholy of his final months in Windsor, where
the man was buried yesterday. The funeral was a
beacon to the hockey community, with a mourners list of not just NHL legends, but childhood
friends from Vancouver to fellow horse track
junkies to dear friends like Foreman.
“Because he never forgot (his friends),” noted
former Jets owner Michael Gobuty. “He was
always there. Always.”
Not anymore, though.
Once John Ferguson said, “I’ll bet if we left
here right now nobody would miss us.”
Thirty years later, it turns out Fergie couldn’t
have been more wrong.....
T’S undoubtedly the most hilarious story in
Winnipeg Jets history, but it also sheds light
on John Ferguson’s most overpowering qualities: Intensity and loyalty.
Or as Tommy McVie calls it, “the most
amazing night in hockey.”
The entire city was in a buzz on Dec. 15, 1979,
when the vaunted Montreal Canadiens made their
first visit to the Winnipeg Arena.
It was to be the first time a Jets contest would
be broadcast coast-to-coast on Hockey Night in
Canada. To mark the occasion, it was dubbed
Tuxedo Night, and all the Jets staff was decked
out in tuxedos. Including McVie, the Jets coach in
the team’s inaugural NHL season. And Ferguson.
And the Zamboni driver.
The cherry on top, of course, was Bobby Hull,
who had been talked out of retirement and back
into a Jets jersey.
“It was the biggest night in the history of Winnipeg hockey since we won the last Avco Cup,”
ventured McVie, on the phone earlier this week
from his home in Vancouver, Wash.
It’s just that McVie never counted on the fireworks.
Turns out, since HNIC was airing the game, it
started 30 minutes earlier. The opening faceoff
was 7 p.m.
Someone should have told Hull, who arrived
late. So McVie, the no-nonsense bench boss,
advised Hull that he couldn’t dress. Those were
the rules. No exceptions, not even for the Golden
“I couldn’t pull a young kid out of the lineup
who wanted to play the Montreal Canadiens all
his life,” McVie reasoned, in his trademark baritone voice, where each word is coated in gravel.
“That’s the only decision I could make.”
Hull protested, but eventually stormed out a
side door of the Arena.
McVie knew exactly what was going to happen
“So down he comes into my office,” McVie
recalls of Ferguson, his boss and childhood
friend. “And he says to me casually, ‘Where’s
“He came in late,” the head coach replied, “so I
told him he couldn’t play.”
Ferguson was getting serious now. “Quit screwing around, Tommy. Where is he?”
“I told you, he went out the side door,” McVie
Ferguson was getting red now.
“Do you know this game is going right across
Canada?” the GM screamed.
“I don’t give a f--- if it’s going around the
world,” McVie protested. “He came in late! The
team was going out on the ice.”
Naturally, Ferguson, whose outbursts were the
stuff of legend, lost it completely, putting the first
of what would be countless holes in walls or doors
of the Winnipeg Arena with his foot.
“And he’s jumping around yelling and his face
is, well, it was a scary thing,” McVie remembered.
Before leaving McVie’s office, Ferguson bellowed, “I’m going to ask you one more thing and
then you’re on your own.”
“What is it?” McVie replied.
“Do you know he’s one of the f---ing owners of
Demurred the coach: “Holy s---, I didn’t know
But wouldn’t you know it: The Jets with their
humble lineup — which included the likes of Morris Lukowich, Willy Lindstrom and Peter Sullivan
— would prevail over the defending Stanley Cup
champion Canadiens 6-2 that night. Outshoot
them 48-18, in fact.
After the game, Ferguson was elated. Cigar in
hand, he turned to McVie with a priceless grin.
“When we were growing up,” he told his coach,
“I knew you had big balls. But I didn’t think you
brought them to the rink in a wheelbarrow.”
That was Ferguson in a nutshell. Undyingly
loyal. Fierce. Temperamental.
“He was such an emotional, high-strung guy,”
said McVie, who first befriended Ferguson when
they were teenagers growing up in the roughand-tumble East Side of Vancouver in the late
1950s. “When it came to competition... his intensity level was at least three to four times higher
than anybody I played for or against.”
But nothing superseded friendship. Nothing.
“It didn’t matter how much we disagreed,”
McVie said. “Because John Ferguson loved me
and I loved him. It’s way deeper than friendship.
Way deeper than that.”
McVie isn’t alone. In fact, John Ferguson seems
to have had more “best friends” than Stanley
Cups — and he had five of those in his eight-year
career with the Canadiens (1963-71).
“He was really true to his word,” offered Billy
Sutherland, a former minor-league teammate of
Ferguson in the early 1960s who later served as
the Jets assistant coach during the 1980s. “If he
said something, it was like gold. He was as true as
true could be. If you were his friend, you were his
friend for life. But you didn’t want to be on the
other side of him.”
Sutherland never forgot that when his home in
Toronto was ravaged by fire in the late ’60s, Ferguson was the first to call. “Anything you need,
just let me know,” Fergie said.
That was the overriding paradox of John Ferguson. After all, this was the same man who as a
hockey player would fire pucks at his own teammates if he caught them chatting with the opposition. The same man that former NHL head coach
and CBC analyst Harry Neale once said “didn’t
have a conscience” on the ice.
“Even some of the toughest players had a conscience,” Neale once told Kevin Allen of USA
Today. “They knew they had gone too far and they
were sorry they did. Not John Ferguson.”
Indeed, Ferguson was ruthless on the ice, when
he rode shotgun for the likes of Jean Beliveau
during the Canadiens’ dynasty years, meting out
punishment with those infamous fists, with fingers the size of sausages.
“He was the heavyweight champion of the
NHL,” McVie said. “He probably could have been
the heavyweight boxing champion of Canada if he
wanted to. He had Muhammad Ali quickness in
his hands. Quicker than anything I’ve seen.”
“In his day, he was there to protect Beliveau
and the rest of those guys,” added Barry Long, a
former Jets player and head coach, who spent the
last three decades working with Ferguson in Winnipeg, Ottawa and San Jose. “Now you can almost
play in sweats and shinpads, for chrissake. In his
day, it was rough and tough and mean. He was a
And don’t forget it was Ferguson, who as assistant coach of Team Canada during the violent
Summit Series with Russia in 1972, who suggested to Bobby Clarke that “Kharlamov is killing
us.” We all know what happened to Valarei Kharlamov next, courtesy of the stick-wielding Clarke,
an unsavoury incident for which Ferguson never
In fact, Ferguson’s reputation for intimidation
during his career overshadowed just how talented he was on offence, averaging 18 goals a season
when scoring 20 meant something.
But Ferguson was never underappreciated in
Montreal. Not long after Ferguson retired in
1971, he and McVie took a leisurely stroll along
Ste. Catherine Street. At least they tried to.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my bloody
life,” McVie recalled. “The traffic would stop, for
chrissakes. People would get out of their cars and
yell, ‘John Ferguson!’ He was like a rock star.
“And he was so polite and so accommodating
signing autographs. Everyone loved him.”
HAT was the Ferguson who arrived in
Winnipeg to take the reins of the Jets as
the team was about to embark on what
would become the last season of the
World Hockey Association. It was a coup
for the Jets, thanks to part-owner Michael Gobuty, who since their aforementioned dealings with
Hedberg and Nilsson had constantly needled Ferguson about coming to Winnipeg to “freeze his
“When we started to try to get into the NHL, the
merger, we needed some credibility, so we went
after Fergie,” Gobuty said, when reached earlier
this week at his home just north of Palm Springs.
“I spoke to him once a week and he would laugh
Both men shared a love for the ponies, so there
was always something to talk about. When Ferguson was unceremoniously dumped by the
Rangers in 1978, Gobuty pounced.
And with Ferguson came instant credibility for
a franchise considered an outpost known for
employing Bobby Hull and “a bunch of pretty
good foreign players.”
“The first day he strode in there with that big
nose and bigger mitts, there was that stare in his
eyes like ‘We’re here to win, boys,’” noted Long,
who retired last year and now lives in Edmonton.
“The fire and desire to win. We all had it as players, but he demanded it as a general manager.
And there were going to be no shortcuts.”
It also didn’t hurt that Ferguson, with such a
sterling NHL resumé and fresh off a stint as GM
of the New York Rangers, chose to come to Winnipeg.
“It wasn’t like he wasn’t going to stay in the
National Hockey League,” Long added. “He wanted to come. It wasn’t like it was a last-chance
Turns out, this city wasn’t unlike any person
who ever came to know Ferguson. If you loved
him, he loved you right back even harder. Even if
it didn’t always show.
From the beginning, the new GM was adamant
that players blend into the community. Hospital
visits. Trips to seniors’ homes. The team even
toured the province each summer playing exhibition ball games and signing autographs.
“He was a huge proponent of being in the community,” said Fenson, now an institutional bonds
broker living in Houston. “He was big in getting
people involved. He knew the Jets were an important part of the fabric of the community and he
wanted to build on that. Because let’s face it, our
first few years were difficult on the ice (in the
Oh, right. About that: after winning the last
Avco Cup in 1979 under Ferguson, the Jets were
ravaged by the merger, where NHL teams
plucked most of the talent and left the crumbs.
Not surprisingly, the Jets were gawdawful in
their early NHL years, winning just 29 games
over the first two seasons.
So you might wonder how a man with such a
thirst for victory could put up with all those losses? The answer: Not very well, thank you.
Ferguson was a carpenter’s dream. He punched
holes in doors. He kicked holes in walls. And, of
course, there were the tantrums in the press box,
where eventually staff had to enclose Ferguson’s
private box because of the debris that was often
tossed out in a fit of pique.
“Terrible. Awful,” replied Mark Cloutier, another life-long confidante of Ferguson, who served
as the Jets director of marketing from 1979 to
1982. “I never sat with him. He had a private box
upstairs, but I’d never go up. But my phone would
ring every five minutes.”
It would be Ferguson bitching about the refereeing. Or his team. Or how the universe was certainly working against his beloved team.
“He was in the game like a player,” said Cloutier, now retired in Ste-Agathe, Quebec. “But he
couldn’t do anything.”
“He tore up a couple rooms in that building,”
added Long. “It was through the will to win. Actually, I think it hurt his health at times. He wanted
to win so badly and seeing his team get beat physically... he’d want to be on the ice.”