21 Oct

Happy Halloween, John Ferguson

It’s that time of year once again.

When kids of all ages look forward to dressing up like ghosts and goblins and going door to door to fill up their bags with free candy, hard core Jets fans look back to 1988.

It was the night before Halloween. The Jets were winding up a back-to-back weekend series with the Los Angeles Kings and their newest acquisition, Wayne Gretzky. Before the largest crowd of the season at the Winnipeg Arena, the sleepwalking Jets roared back from a 4-1 deficit to post an 8-4 victory.

With only two winning seasons to show for nine years as the Jets’ General Manager, John Ferguson was surprisingly shocked by the news of his dismissal.

The post-game enthusiasm in the dressing room, however, was quieted when Jets’ President Barry Shenkarow announced that Vice President and General Manager John Ferguson had been relieved of his duties.

It was one of those classic “where were you when you heard the news” moments. I was leaving the Arena walking along the east side of Polo Park shopping center towards the bus stop on Portage Avenue listening to my portable radio when I heard Curt Keilback’s voice tell me that Ferguson was about to be fired.

I think there’s still a grin on my face.

It was Michael Gobuty who originally brought Ferguson to Winnipeg in November 1978. Ferguson, the man who helped pry beloved Swedish stars Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg out of Winnipeg, took the Jets’ job and assumed control of struggling club. He made a few moves, hired coach Tom McVie, and the Jets went on to capture their third AVCO Cup championship the following spring.

Upon their entry into the NHL, Ferguson continued to build up what had been a bare-bones operation off the ice up to major league standards. He also had the unenviable task of having to rebuild the roster after the NHL took its pound of flesh from the Jets and the other surviving WHA teams. He took a lot of heat for protecting Scott Campbell and letting Kent Nilsson get away, but neither player was going to save those expansion-era Jets.

Ferguson carried a reputation as a man with a fiery temper, who lived and died with every game, but he remained astonishingly patient and stuck with his “Master Plan” of stockpiling draft choices.

It didn’t take long before the Jets again became competitive. They became the most improved team in NHL history in 1981-1982 and the future looked bright.

Sadly, that was about as good as it would ever get.

As fans are painfully aware, Ferguson never delivered the Stanley Cup contender that he bombastically promised so often. Though he put his heart and soul into the job, during his nine full seasons at the helm of the Jets, the team had produced a winning record on only two occasions.

Fans, including me, were growing frustrated and angry. The calls for Ferguson’s dismissal grew even louder when the Jets got off to a slow start in 1988-1989. Finally, on that fateful Sunday evening, Shenkarow delivered the news that shocked Ferguson and delighted the faithful.

Ferguson’s successors would fare little better in the coming years. I felt insulted by the choice of Mike Smith, Ferguson’s right hand man, as his successor. It was not inappropriate to simply promote from within an organization that had not delivered any significant results over the past decade.

Nonetheless, Shenkarow’s decision to fire Ferguson at that time was entirely correct. Eternal mediocrity was not acceptable.

And that is why when I pass a house fully decked out in Halloween decor, I see John Ferguson’s face staring back at me in the jack-o-lanterns.

Happy Halloween, John Ferguson, wherever you are.