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When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Ferguson

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL for nearly 30 years. For the last 12, he has been the managing editor of the team's game day magazine and now you can share his exclusive inside access.

by John Iaboni
September 22, 2003

Growing up in west-end Toronto on a street consisting primarily of Maple Leafs fans it was easy to detest John Ferguson. After all, he played for the rival Montreal Canadiens and his hard-nosed approach made "Big Bad John" public enemy No. 1 for Leafs loyalists.

Ferguson broke into the National Hockey League in 1963 when this west-end kid was all of 12 - and scared to death of this imposing figure. By the time Ferguson retired in 1971, with five Stanley Cup rings and long-standing reign as top policeman in the NHL, I was a few months away from starting my first year on the NHL beat with a fledgling newspaper called The Toronto Sun.

John Ferguson is taking the challenge head-on in Toronto.
(Graig Abel Photography)
In 1972, I had my first personal encounter with Ferguson when he served as an assistant to Harry Sinden with Team Canada. I soon discovered a surprisingly approachable chap and realized what drove him through all those marvelous years with the Canadiens was his incredible desire to win at all cost.

How much did he hate defeat? Well, there was the time during a Team Canada intra-squad game when Ferguson, coaching the losing side, was asked how it felt falling short to Sinden's team. Ferguson glared at his questioner - wily Jim Hunt - and walked out of press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens!

In the ensuing years, I've gotten to know John Ferguson even more. He's a solid hockey mind, a respected professional, a terrific interview and one of hockey's great guys. His decisions aren't always right, but, true to form, he's not afraid to do what he believes.

He's never been able to add to his Stanley Cup collection as an executive, something he'll attempt again this season in his capacity with the San Jose Sharks. And one thing he won't expect towards that quest is favours from his son, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Family is one thing, but the Fergusons know that hockey is business - with winning everyone's goal.

So here we are one month since John Ferguson was introduced as GM of the Leafs. What he's tasted already is baptism under fire and, so far, he's maintained his sanity and composure while displaying the kind of toughness required to cope in Leafs-mad Toronto.

Adding Joe Nieuwendyk is looking like a good move by Ferguson.
(Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Let's look at some of the things he's contended with already:

  • With speculation rampant that he's "the guy" the search committee of Richard Peddie, Ken Dryden and Pat Quinn has settled on as GM, many corners of the media knock his imminent hiring. Not qualified enough, the critics say, disregarding the fact that Ken Holland, Lou Lamoriello and Pierre Lacroix weren't seasoned NHL GMs when they were hired and look at them now. Ferguson says the criticism is bulletin-board fodder that only fuels him more.
  • On the day he's introduced as GM, the first question - dissertation? - Ferguson faces comes from a newsman who begins by stating how the inept Leafs can't fill out lineup cards and mess things up with fax machines. Said newsman must believe that seasons of 97, 100, 90, 100 and 98 points by the Leafs with Quinn behind the bench for all those seasons - and as GM for four of them - deserve an apology. Ferguson says the Leafs have a solid team that he intends to help carry to the next level.
  • Same day and the questioning gets around to larger-than-life, fan favourite Doug Gilmour. Ferguson Jr. says the 40-year-old coming off knee surgery isn't in the Leafs plans. Naturally, the new GM comes under heavy heat, blamed, in some quarters, for Gilmour's retirement shortly thereafter and is even fingered as taking away practice ice time from No. 93. Keeping his cool, Ferguson denies any such thing, paying tribute to Gilmour for his great career and service to the Leafs. Ferguson then signs 37-year-old, three-time Stanley Cup winner Joe Nieuwendyk on the eve of training camp.
  • The Leafs head to training camp in Sweden. One day Owen Nolan says he's got a wonky back; the next day Nolan backtracks and says he's okay. A day after that, the Leafs contemplate legal action against a Swedish tabloid for printing an unsubstantiated story at a local nightclub. If all this is wearing Ferguson down, he doesn't show it. The Leafs return home with a 3-0 record. Ferguson is pleased and anxious to keep his evaluations going over the next stretch of pre-season action against NHL teams.
Look, Leafs fans, I'm not saying John Ferguson is "the answer" to returning the franchise to the Stanley Cup but I do believe his credentials are superb and his bloodlines impeccable. Let time be the judge of his tenure with the Leafs.

Tough is a word in hockey, for me anyway, that is synonymous with John Ferguson Sr. It's a trait that John Ferguson Jr. will need facing the enormous challenges in the intense land of the Maple Leafs.
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