Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A VISIT WITH "LEAPIN' LOUIE" FONTINATO

Prior to a recent visit with Lou Fontinato, I heard he was still tough as nails. If something was on Lou's mind, he wouldn't hesitate to voice what it was - good or bad.

And how tough was Louie back in the day? Well, in 535 NHL games, he posted 1877 penalty-minutes and in three different seasons no other player surpassed his numbers in this category. Also, off the ice, Fontinato had to be aware of his surroundings while enjoying the nightlife in Manhattan. He told us a story about always carrying a blade just in case some wise guy or punk decided to challenge him.

At the age of 83, Fontinato hasn't lost the tough-guy persona and despite health issues, we discovered he hasn't lost his touch when laying down the law.

When our group, which included Lou's former OHA (Guelph Biltmores) and NHL (New York Rangers) teammate, Harry Howell, entered his inner sanctum, we quickly got a taste of bombastic Louie.

"Harry, you stay, you other guys get the f**k out of here," Fontinato roared upon seeing us.

His boisterous greeting set the mood for the balance of our visit. The rest of us - Don Joyce, Gary England and myself -  were simply along for the ride as Louie and Harry hammed it up.

Harry Howell (left) and Lou Fontinato
It was obvious they cherished every opportunity to spend time together. Their memories maybe blurred or completely forgotten, but their decades old friendship doesn't suffer from this fact. Even in silence, their eyes show an understanding and sense of joy of what it means for them to be in the same room.

Watching Lou and Harry interact, I immediately thought of them as hockey's version of the main characters in the 1975 movie The Sunshine Boys. Their history and relationship is much different than the characters portrayed by Walter Matthau (Willy Clark) and George Burns (Al Lewis), but their demeanour is the same in many ways.

Louie, like Willy Clark, is vocal and opinionated. Harry, like Al Lewis, is the quiet sort, but without him the pairing wouldn't be as colourful.

At first glance, there is no mistaking Louie Fontinato. His greyish hair, now longer than in his playing days, and moustache are neatly trimmed. The lines on his face reveal a man who has lived a long life with up and down periods. His voice is strong and occasionally he talks with his hands.

If you put a fedora on Fontinato's head and lowered the brim over his eyes, you'd swear he could play the heavy in a gangster movie. When he spoke a couple of words in Italian, The Godfather trilogy instantly came to mind.

Then, there is the nose. Clearly, it belongs to someone who played hockey in a physical manner. It starts out flat, an indication that the bones and tissue have taken a beating. Peering down to the tip, it becomes bumpy and bends to one side.



The backstory on Fontinato's famous schnozzola can be traced to a contest during the 1958-59 season. On a Sunday evening in February 1959, the Rangers hosted Detroit with 15,168 spectators in attendance to witness the action.

Over its history, many thrilling boxing matches have taken place in the squared ring at Madison Square Garden. And the battle-royale between Fontinato and Gordie Howe on February 1, 1959, can be counted as one of them.

"The fiercest fist fight I've seen since the great battle between Jack Stewart and Johnny Mariucci maybe 15 years ago," Sid Able, the Detroit Red Wings coach, commented after Howe and Fontinato went toe-to-toe.

A slow-buring wick was ignited when Fontinato, during a stoppage in play, voiced his displeasure to Howe for engaging in trash-talk with Eddie Shack. Once play resumed, Shack and Detroit defenceman, Red Kelly, started to mix it up. On the scene as well was Gordie Howe.

By this time, a measured amount of the wick remained unburned.

"Standing some 20-25 feet away, Louie dropped his stick, shucked off his gloves and headed for the action," Marshall Dann wrote in The Hockey News.

At that juncture the burning wick triggered a major explosion.

"I saw him coming like a mad man and put out my left arm to stop him," Howe is quoted in The Hockey News. "He took it on the chops and then started swinging."

Dann, a beat writer covering the Red Wings, provided this account of the prize fight for hockey's world heavyweight championship belt:

Fontinato, a rangy defenceman, tried overhand bolo punches for a while and connected steadily on the side of Howe's head. Finally, Howe managed to get a grip on the front of Fontinato's jersey with his left hand and holding Louie in front like a punching bag, started pumping in solid uppercut rights.

Detroit goalie, Terry Sawchuk, gave this analysis of the Fontinato-Howe dust-up. "I never saw a fight like that since I've been in hockey. They just stood there slugging each other with all they had."

As for a winner, some reports indicate it was a draw, but many gave the decision to Howe, partially based on the damage he inflicted upon Fontinato's nose.


"Louie finished the game before heading (to the) hospital ward for treatment to massive facial bruises and a nose that was flattened and bent grotesquely, Dann informed his readers.

The February 16, 1959, edition of Life Magazine published a picture of Louie taken in his hospital room. The damage to his nose is hidden by tape and in the piece it states, "the nose was hammered back into shape."

Photo from Life
Fontinato told Life, "Howe needn't think he's Jack Dempsey just because he put me in here."

As Frank M. Blunk observed in his game story for The New York Times, Fontinato suffered a "possible fractured nose and a positive headache."

Visible evidence of the damage to  Fontinato's beak remains to this day, but he no longer has the headache.

On June 13, 1961, the Rangers dealt Fontinato, their resident 'policeman', to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Doug Harvey.

As a member of the Canadiens, Lou Fontinato's hockey career came to a sudden end on March 9, 1963, at the Montreal Forum. While attempting to gain control of a loose puck, Fontinato fell into the boards and broke his neck.



The Montreal Gazette expanded on the details:

Fontinato was knocked out at 18:04 in the second period of Saturday's game against the Rangers. He lost his balance in an attempt to check New York winger Vic Hadfield and went head first into the backboards. He collapsed on the ice motionless, and was rushed to hospital.

During my visit with Lou Fontinato, I couldn't help but think of those two important games from his time playing in the National Hockey League. For many in the hockey community, the contests on February 1, 1959, and March 9, 1963, define his career in the sport.

For sure, they can't be ignored. They are what they are when a player takes on the role to protect his teammates from attacks by the opposition and fights for every inch of the ice.

But there is much more when looking back at his career.

Fontinato, like when he played in the Big Apple, was considered a leader with the Canadiens and his absence created a void.

Speaking about Montreal's lack of overall leadership, Jacques Plante said during the 1963 playoffs, "Lou Fontinato helped a bit that way during the season and we certainly miss him in the playoffs." Plante went on to note, "He was no superstar but he was always hollering and helped to give the team a lift."

His value inside the dressing room, perhaps falling under the radar of the press and fans, due to the fact he did the dirty work on the ice. Fontinato wasn't a threat on offence and he didn't display a fancy style of play. But he left his mark with perfectly timed bodychecks, which jolted and thrust pain upon his targets. One can only imagine how thankful his teammates were to have him watching their backs.

Also, lost in the discussion, is Fontinato's Memorial Cup win in 1952 with the Guelph Biltmores. The Canadian junior hockey championship proved he could contribute to a winning team.

At the end of the day, it was easy to see why Harry Howell endures a long car ride to regularly visit his pal and former partner on the blueline.

Once you've meet "Leapin' Louie" you can never forget one of hockey's great character guys.













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