John Ferguson is known througout hockey circles as perhaps the toughest hockey player in the modern day NHL. He is often considered to be hockey's first "goon" or "designated sitter." Critics claimed he was only there to protect the smaller skilled players on the Montreal Canadiens. However the colorful and feared left winger was also a very solid hockey player.
His first game was in 1963 in the Boston Garden, and he played a huge role in the outcome of the game. He played on a line with Jean Beliveau and Boom Boom Geoffrion and his job was obvious - to thwart the Bruins bigger players from taking liberties against the Habs superstars.
The main concern from Montreal coach Toe Blake was with Boston's "Terrible" Ted Green, who played "with the heart and guts of a pitbull" and was generally considered to be hockey's toughest player. Green was well aware of the rookie known as Fergie and was willing to test him. Just 12 seconds into the game the two collided and dropped the gloves. Ferguson landed three quick blows numbing Green and instantly taking the title as hockey's unofficial heavyweight champion, a title he never relinquished until he retired.
Ferguson had more to prove that night though. He had the hands of a brawler but would ultimately show that he knew other tricks with those hands as well. He ended up with 2 goals and an assist.
Fergie wasn't the biggest player in the league. He stood at 5'11" and played at 190 lbs. He also never accumulated rediculous penalty minute totals. His highest PIM in a season was 156, which is pretty low compared to today's pugilists.
Fergie played exactly 500 games in the NHL, scoring 145 goals and 158 points for 303 points. He average 18 goals a season, and in 1968-69 reached a career high 29 goals and 52 points.
Ferguson not only wanted to have a long and successful hockey career, but he wanted to be known as hockey's toughest player. When he was hockey's unofficial heavyweight champ, he was offered a chance to fight Canadian heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo. Chuvalo was one of a very few people to last 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali. The bought never happened as the Canadiens refused to give Fergie permission to fight.
He was a key member of 5 Montreal Stanley Cup Championships. Make no doubt he made those who played with him a better player. Small and speedy guys like Geoffrion, Cournoyer, Beliveau, and Henri Richard played a lot bigger knowing Fergie was behind them.
Many were surprised Ferguson retired after just 8 NHL seasons. While Fergie diplomatically claimed he had many business opportunities awaiting him, he later revealed the real reason he retired from the National Hockey League - he was afraid he'd kill somebody.
"I was beginning to worry about doing some serious damage to someone" said Ferguson in Brian McFarlane's book "The Habs."
Hockey fans loved Fergie because he played with heart and emotion that all fans demand. Hockey today could use another John Ferguson.