by Bob Gates
Ten years ago, Mark Chipman announced the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers, and the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 were born.
What a great opportunity to pay homage to the man who played a vital role in obtaining a National Hockey League (NHL) franchise for our fair city 30 years earlier. Yes, were talking about the man who was "larger than life" and whose motto could well have been "Go Big or Go Home," the one and only, John Bowie Ferguson. So what does John Ferguson have to do with the history of Assiniboia Downs?
Well give us a minute and we'll get there. John had a passion for family, life, hockey and horses. My, but John loved the ponies!
In May 1978, John Ferguson was the General Manager of the New York Rangers of the prestigious NHL. On this occasion, he came to Winnipeg with bags of cash with the sole intention of luring the World Hockey Association (WHA) Jets Swedish connection of Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg to the bright lights of Broadway. Yes sir, John is the man who engineered one of the biggest thefts that ever occurred in these parts. The "theft" saw our lovable WHA Jets stripped of two of its prize possessions, Ulf and Anders.
In a strange twist of fate, the Rangers fired Ferguson that same summer. It wasn't long after that the Winnipeg Jets of the lowly WHA began courting “Big John” to head-up its hockey operations. In November the Jets named Ferguson as its Vice President and General Manager. The signing was an integral part of the Jets successful entry into the NHL in 1979.
In one of his first interviews John was questioned about the signing of the popular Swedes a few months earlier. The quote from John went like this: "I guess I owe Winnipeg one, or maybe two."
Were there other things going on behind the scenes? Consider that Michael Gobuty was one of the owners of the Jets. Once John was dumped by the Rangers, Gobuty pestered him relentlessly about joining the Jets. They say the two discussed hockey ad nauseam and when that got tiresome they talked horses. It wasn't long afterward that Jim Wright announced that Assiniboia Downs had been sold to Gobuty effective April 1981.
Coincidence? I don't think so.
When John retired from the Montreal Canadians in 1971, it's safe to say he never dreamt that there was a life waiting for him in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but for 10 years Winnipeg was John's home. He raised his family in Tuxedo, built an NHL franchise in a building that was the envy of no one and had Gobuty's racetrack at his disposal.
John raced thoroughbreds at the Downs from the early to mid-1980s. Initially, he used the services of Don Gray, then Brian "Hutch" Hutcheon to train his horses. In time his eldest daughter, Chris took over the conditioning of the stable.
Compared to his harness racing ventures, Ferguson only "dabbled" with thoroughbreds. In the early 1970s he dove headfirst into the jugheads. John got involved in the breeding of standardbreds and enjoyed great success. He would eventually sell most of his mares, except for Lady Kin Hanover, the dam of Merger, who John bred. Merger was syndicated for $8 million and won harness racing's celebrated Little Brown Jug.
Who knew? John was one the driving forces behind the foundation of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and was inducted in 2016 as a "Standardbred Builder."
“Fergie” had an intimidating presence and was a regular visitor to the backstretch. His favorite pose was standing in the doorway to his daughter's office in Barn 1, usually holding an unlit stogie. Another common sight were the Jets players who accompanied him on his shedrow "meetings" with Chris. Notable sightings included Randy Carlyle, Dale Hawerchuk and John's buddy, Serge Savard.
How about a couple of local stories about John and his time at the Downs?
Ken Miller was the track announcer here from 1983 to 1989. Miller said he met John in the summer of 1983, the first year he called the thoroughbred races. Ken said that one day in the race office "One of the toughest guys to play in the NHL, John Ferguson walked up to me and called me by name." John wanted Ken to know that he could call races at any track in North America.
Ken believed that John saw racing was an escape from the trials of running the Jets. He said that whether you saw John in the track kitchen or at the barn, he loved to talk horses, never hockey, always horses.
Phil Hayek, the trainer of one of the finest Manitoba-breds to ever grace a racetrack, Northern Spike, remembered a yearling sale at the old Highlander Curling Club on Ellice Ave. where John invited him for lunch. He said people stared and pointed out Ferguson. It was a foreign experience for young Phil, and he asked John how he handled all the attention. John explained that you just got used to it and generally people were respectful.
A simple lunch, a man remembers your name and pays you a compliment. It may not have been much, but it stayed with Ken and Phil. The kind of thing that was commonplace in John's life. It was what John did, not hundreds, but thousands of times.
Who knew? Our own CEO, Darren Dunn walked hots for Chris Ferguson in 1983 or 84. Darren had started the year as a groom in another barn, but the work dried up and he was on the move. Enter Darren's brother Daryl, who worked for Chris. The Ferguson barn needed a hot walker, so the brothers worked together that summer.
Dunn said that John would usually arrive at the track in the morning after the Jets' practice. You could see his vehicle, bearing the license plate "Jets 1" coming from a mile away. Darren described John as an imposing man with the biggest hands he'd ever seen.
In the fall of 1988, it all came crashing down, when Barry Shenkarow announced that John’s employment with the Winnipeg Jets had been terminated. When all was said and done, John was a class act and reacted as only a gentleman would.
On July 14, 2007, John lost the one and only fight of his life, to cancer. He will forever be remembered for leaving nothing in the locker room. He did things his way and did them going a thousand miles per hour. By that time, Winnipeg was far removed from his life, but our city, the Jets and the Downs lived on in his heart.
Looking back, maybe John did owe us a solid, but that slate has long since been wiped clean and stamped "PAID IN FULL."