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Ulmer: Still Undefeated In My Book

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club’s greatest leaders.

There are eulogies today for John Ferguson.

The former NHL great – there’s a title the would renounce - died on Saturday of cancer. He was 68.

An arch-enemy to the Maple Leafs, Ferguson was a villain drawn in the broadest possible strokes. He was an unbeatable piledriver of a fighter who also routinely recorded 20-goal seasons when 20 goals defined a player as a top-drawer scorer.

The stories on the web sites and in the newspapers were written, often through tears, by his legion of friends.

They describe his incendiary competitiveness. Removed from the on-ice wars for decades, he finished his check, even it was just a press-box waste basket.

They describe his sense of courtesy and kindness.

The last time I saw him was in a posh Montreal restaurant. He laid a beefy hand on my shoulder. I was with another newspaperman. “Yes,” Fergie smiled, “the newspapermen always know the best places to eat.” He chatted for a minute and then was off and when we returned to our meal, we felt imperceptively surer, better. We had been validated by his acceptance, uplifted by his courtesy. That’s what he did for people.

But there has been a mistake, a consistent one, in the coverage, either in the body of the stories or in the headlines.

John Ferguson did not lose a battle to cancer.

John Ferguson never lost a battle.

Had he been felled by a heart attack, would we have said he lost his battle to a heart attack?

If we must paint the end of a man’s life as a battle lost, then make them all battles lost. With that view comes the conclusion that every life’s ending is a triumph for death.

Winston Churchill, at 90, lost his battle to old age, Hitler to the effect of a bullet.

The notion of a lost battle is exclusive to cancer because, I suppose, of the emaciating, inscrutable, relentless advance of the disease.

But the guy sitting at the table that night in Montreal, the writer of this piece, has survived Cancer. Fergie did not. Does that make me a winner and him a loser?

Sometimes with cancer, it is your time. It’s often unfair and always arbitrary. It is cruel and irrevocable.
You take the treatments because you want to live, because you want more time. You take the treatments because it’s the only way of finding out, really finding out, whether this is your time.

If it is your time, you are no more a winner or a loser than someone whose time has not come. You did not lose a battle.

It was Fergie’s time and it came way too early. But for the final words on this magnificent man to include the word lose is worse than aberration. It is heresy.

John Ferguson grew up poor and, after the age of nine, without a dad.

He made himself a hockey player. He fought all comers. He pushed a team with plenty of gleam but no grit to five Stanley Cups in eight years.

He was behind the bench at the 1972 Summit Series and won a WHA championship with the Winnipeg Jets. His counsel was sought until his final days.

This man never lost a fight in his life. Not in the beginning, not in the middle, not in the end.

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