John Ferguson, the first Komet to make it to the National Hockey League, died Saturday night at age 68 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Ferguson came to the Komets in 1959 as a raw rookie left wing and quit playing in 1971 as one of hockey's greatest winners with five Stanley Cup rings.
In his book, ``Thunder and Lightning'' Ferguson wrote that ``This may sound hard to believe, but the Fort Wayne Komets were the toughest team I ever had to make, throughout my entire career. They had a lot of veterans and very few spots for a rookie to crack the lineup.''
Komets coach Ken Ullyot had wanted the forward ever since Ferguson had played against Ullyot's Prince Albert team in the Western Hockey League in the mid-1950s. Ferguson would later be known as perhaps the National Hockey League's toughest player ever, but he struggled mightily in the first half of the season in Fort Wayne with only two goals by Christmas. He started playing much more physically in the second half and scored 30 goals as the Komets had their best season ever in 1959-60.
Ferguson spent only the one season in Fort Wayne, scoring 33 goals and 65 points with 126 penalty minutes. Then he moved to Cleveland of the American Hockey League for three seasons before joining the Canadiens in 1963.
Ullyot knew Ferguson would make it to the NHL.
``He was a very good student,'' Ullyot. ``He was strong and he stood out with his ability. He just needed to work on a few things.''
Though he was small by today's standards at 5-11, 190 pounds, Ferguson was also very tough, leading the NHL in fights twice early in his career.
``He never looked for a fight and never hit a guy dirty,'' Komets linemate Eddie Long said. ``He played the game first and then he fought. Everybody saw him fight once and left him alone. He really worked at the game.''
Ferguson used those skills for eight seasons to protect Montreal stars Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion, earning almost 1,500 penalty minutes in his career. He also scored 145 goals and 303 points in 500 NHL games. His highest penalty minute total for a season was 185 minutes, mid-range for today's most-penalized players.
After shocking everyone by retiring in 1971 at age 32, Ferguson later coached the New York Rangers for two seasons and became the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets.
Ferguson is survived by his wife Joan, son John who is general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and daughters Catherine, Chris and Joanne.