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John Ferguson left lasting impression

Canadiens forward, who died nine years ago, slammed door shut on many opponents

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL - Probably 50 years ago, because of John Ferguson, I was sent to bed without supper and docked a week's allowance.

And though I long ago forgave the Montreal Canadiens hard-rock wing who died of cancer nine years ago Thursday, on July 14, 2007, I can't say the same about my sister.

"Fergy" was one of my childhood heroes; nothing unusual about that for a Montreal schoolboy in the mid-1960s who thought the Stanley Cup was loaned autumn through spring by the Canadiens to the NHL.

I knew nothing about the chemistry of my favorite team, that a champion was the sum of its many different role-playing parts. Or that a forward need not fill the net to pull his weight.

But I did know one thing: Nobody in the NHL could close the penalty box door with the gusto of Fergy, who scored 145 goals, earned 1,214 penalty minutes and won the Stanley Cup five times during eight seasons in Montreal.

So it was probably early in the 1966-67 season, when Fergy would lead the NHL with his 177 penalty minutes, that I was demonstrating my hero's gate-slamming technique on our refrigerator door, an act witnessed, and fueled, by my sister.

"I'm sure he closes it harder than that," she told a gullible kid brother with each subsequent, jar-rattling slam.

After maybe a dozen tries, I had the force just about right when I pulled the handle for what would be the final time, the entire steel rack on the inside of the door crashing at our feet - milk, juice, butter and eggs scattered among the surrendered nuts and bolts of the Westinghouse.

After the mop came the no-supper/no-allowance misconduct.

I related this story to Fergy maybe 15 years ago, and he laughed heartily.

"You were putting your whole body behind it, right?" he said. "I always did it with just a flick of my wrist."

During his rambunctious NHL career from 1963-71, Fergy would lumber onto the ice with the potential to change the complexion of the game in a single shift, or portion thereof. His battles with the Toronto Maple Leafs' Eddie Shack, the Boston Bruins' Ted Green, the Chicago Blackhawks' Eric Nesterenko and the New York Rangers' Reggie Fleming were things of beauty, in a politically incorrect way, and seldom did they fail to turn the tide for the Canadiens on the nights they needed a kickstart.

No one knew this better than Canadiens icon Jean Béliveau, Fergy's captain and his first NHL center. In his 1994 autobiography "My Life In Hockey," Béliveau called Ferguson "the most formidable player of the decade and possibly in the Canadiens' history. ...

"For us," Béliveau wrote, "Fergy's greatest contribution was his spirit. He was the consummate team man and probably intimidated as many of us in the dressing room as he did opponents on the ice. You wouldn't dare give less than your best if you wore the same shirt as John Ferguson."

Fergy waited a leisurely 12 seconds into his NHL career to cement his reputation. Lined up with Béliveau and Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion in the Canadiens' season-opener in Boston on Oct. 8, 1963, he pounced on Green for his first of two fighting majors that night. Fergy, signed for a princely $125 per game, also scored twice and had an assist in a 4-4 tie.

But the real tales of the man's ferocity were born out of his disdain for the Toronto Maple Leafs, steeped over many years and many memorable battles.

Legend is the story of Fergy leaving a restaurant in Toronto -- his steak still on the grill -- when Shack walked in. And those of skipping golf tournaments or hockey schools that included players other than Canadiens.

The 1960s rivalry between the Original Six Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, who played each other 14 times per season, was off the charts.

"We'd come into Toronto by train from Detroit, and [Canadiens coach] Toe Blake had forgotten to pack his socks," Fergy said. "So Toe sent [trainer] Larry Aubut out to buy some, and Larry came back with a pair that had a maple leaf on 'em. Toe cursed and threw 'em out, sayin' he couldn't wear maple-leaf socks, and he shoved his bare feet into his shoes. In the dead of winter."

Fergy's intensity could consume him both on and off the ice, his blood boiling when that of others merely simmered.

But he had his light moments, too, especially enjoying his notoriety in Toronto.

"I'd skate past the Toronto bench and yell, 'C'mon, Punch [coach Imlach], send your next [fighter] out. Gimme the best you got,' " Fergy said.

"I'd go into the Toronto Stock Exchange and look down at the traders on the floor and get 'em going. They'd see me, a Canadien, giving it to 'em from upstairs and they'd get really worked up, booing and hooting at me. Every time we played there, I'd go to the stock exchange and get the boys going. You know ... just for fun."

In 2003, Fergy, then a scout for the San Jose Sharks, did the unthinkable and pulled on the jersey of Maple Leafs legend Bobby Baun during a celebrity fishing junket on the coast of British Columbia, this heinous wardrobe malfunction celebrating news that Fergy's son, John Jr., had just been named general manager of the Maple Leafs.

"I never expected to see the day I'd wear a Leafs sweater," he said, "but it's pretty exciting, John named their GM."

Fergy's love of hockey was nearly matched by his passion for standardbred racing, which he shared with a few players in his day.

In Dick Irvin Jr.'s 1991 book "The Habs," Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers recalls Fergy uttering not a word to him during the season, even if the two horsemen might have sipped a summer's pint at the racetrack.

But in March 1971, after Triple Crown favorite Hoist The Flag broke his leg in a workout, Fergy finally opened up on the ice.

"I saw Fergy coming in for the rebound off the backboards," Cheevers told Irvin. "I know there's going to be a hit, a collision, so I've got to prepare for it. I'm saying that I'm finally going to lay this guy out for a change, right on his keister.

"So I turned quickly, I go right at him, and suddenly he yells, 'Cheesy! Hoist The Flag broke his leg this morning!' Which he did. I said, 'What?' but he kept right on coming and laid me out flatter than a pancake.

"That was the only time he ever talked to me in his whole career."

That story might be among the dozens still being told, nine years after Fergy's death. His legend is celebrated and cherished far and wide by his sadly diminishing circle of friends and even the foes who long ago buried the hatchet from hockey wars waged in a very different time.

As for me? I'll raise a Molson in Fergy's memory today, right after I gently close my refrigerator door.

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