Louis Joseph Fontinato
Born: January 20, 1932 (Guelph, Ontario)
Died: July 3, 2016 (Guelph, Ontario)
Member: Guelph (Ont.) Sports Hall of Fame
Hockey defenceman Lou Fontinato prowled his blue-line like a beat cop who believed the law did not apply to him.
He corralled speedy rivals with illegal holds, administered full-body frisks along the boards, wielded his stick like a billy club.
Mr. Fontinato, who has died at 84, was an incorrigible scofflaw. In his first full season in the NHL, he shattered the record for penalties, becoming the first man in league history to be assessed more than 200 minutes.
Carrying a solid 191 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, Mr. Fontinato was a menacing presence on the ice. While his skating and stick-handling were crude, he was not employed as a scorer. He was an enforcer and a strongman who built a reputation as the toughest player of his era. The New York Times called him a “cheerful villain.”
“If I can whack a fellow into the boards often enough,” the defenceman once said, “he starts lifting his head to look for me instead of concentrating on the puck.”
In the end, though, he was remembered long after he retired for two incidents. In a 1959 fight, Gordie Howe performed a rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles. Four years later, the defenceman’s career ended when he was left paralyzed after a sickening collision with the boards. That he recovered from both was a testament to his ruggedness.
Louis Joseph Fontinato was born on Jan. 20, 1932, in Guelph, Ont., where he was the only boy of six children born to Maria and Liberale Fontinato, immigrants from Treviso, Italy, north of Venice. The parents arrived with only a single suitcase, boarding with Italian families until they could buy a house at 170 Ferguson St. in St. Patrick’s Ward, a predominantly Italian neighbourhood known as The Ward. Liberale Fontinato, a labourer who worked for the International Malleable Iron Company for 40 years, also owned a small acreage on the outskirts of the city that he used as a market garden. In winter, he built a skating rink next to the family home so the neighbourhood boys could play hockey.
“Weren’t we lucky to be born in the Ward,” Lou Fontinato once told the journalist Hilary Stead. “Everyone down there had a work ethic.”
He brought the same attitude to his hockey career, dropping out after Grade 8 to work in a machine shop while skating for the local junior hockey team sponsored by the Biltmore Hat Company, which was stocked with teenaged players whose rights were owned by the NHL’s New York Rangers. In 1952, under coach Alf Pike, a former Rangers forward, the Madhatters defeated the Toronto Marlboros, the St. Catharines (Ont.) Teepees, Porcupine (Ont.) Combines, Montreal Jr. Royals and Regina Pats to claim the Memorial Cup as junior hockey champions. Mr. Fontinato and several of his Guelph teammates went on to NHL careers, prominent amongst them Andy Bathgate.
Before playing a single NHL game, the towering rearguard had impressed Rangers coach Phil Watson at a training camp by engaging in a fist-fight with teammate Ivan (The Terrible) Irwin.
After almost three years of seasoning in the minor-league Western Hockey League, Mr. Fontinato made his NHL debut with the Rangers in October, 1954.
In his first full campaign of 70 games the following season, Mr. Fontinato was assessed fouls worth 202 penalty minutes, shattering the single season mark held by Toronto’s Red Horner (167 minutes in 43 games), which had been the benchmark for felonious playmaking for two decades. The standard lasted seven seasons until Howie Young’s notorious crime spree of 1962-63. It was the first of three seasons in which Mr. Fontinato led the league in penalties.
A brash style seemed reflective of a raucous new sound filling the airwaves, so young Mr. Fontinato was dubbed the Rock ’n’ Roll Kid. That nickname did not stick, nor did Rocky for his rock-hard body-checking, but his histrionic pleading after being assessed a penalty gave birth to Leapin’ Louie, which did.
Though tall, Mr. Fontinato often crouched in the opening moments of the sudden combustion that is a hockey fight. The odd stance might have served to protect his long, horsey face, featuring a prominent, oft-broken nose. From bent knees, he liked to throw long, looping right hands.
His brawling reputation attracted the attention of non-fans in 1958 when a nationally televised game in the United States featured Mr. Fontinato attacking a paying customer. After being sent to the penalty box for slashing Fernie Flaman, Mr. Fontinato was subjected to jeering and catcalls from a patron at Boston Garden. Infuriated, Mr. Fontinato jumped from the penalty box in an unsuccessful attempt to grab the fan. As the New York defenceman began fighting in the crowd, players from both teams joined the melee, as did a dozen Boston policemen.
With only six teams in the NHL and a 70-game schedule to play, rivalries were as intense as a Hatfield-McCoy dispute. One of Mr. Fontinato’s targets was Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings, a superior player who he was often assigned to shadow. The pair had a long history of antagonisms, including some vicious stickwork, when they dropped the gloves during a donnybrook at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1, 1959. While accounts of the battle are disputed, Mr. Howe clearly caused the greater visual damage, as the defenceman was left bloodied with a nose, now broken for the fifth time, looking like a ski run down the middle of his face.
Mr. Fontinato had recently been the subject of a six-page spread in Look magazine describing him as hockey’s toughest player. Life magazine replied after the game with an article headlined, “Don’t mess around with Gordie,” featuring a photograph of Mr. Fontinato’s bruised and bandaged face. “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop,” Life quoted an anonymous Red Wings player, “just like someone chopping wood.”
The fight cemented Mr. Howe’s reputation for toughness. Mr. Fontinato, immune to any suggestion he had been licked, continued his wonton ways, earning a $100 fine for a stick-swinging duel with Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich in an exhibition game. He was also fined $25 by the league for his role in a 1961 game against the Maple Leafs in New York, during which he felled Toronto’s Bert Olmstead with a punch, inspiring the melee to follow.
In 1961, Mr. Fontinato was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Doug Harvey, a defenceman who had fallen foul of Montreal management.
Mr. Fontinato’s hockey career ended — and wit it, nearly his life — in a game against his old team on March 9, 1963. The defenceman served as a one-man posse in gunning for Vic Hadfield of the Rangers, the subject of several long and unresolved disputes.
“I had given him the business earlier in the game, hitting him and elbowing him, trying to put him in his place,” Mr. Fontinato told the Globe in 1986. “The puck was shot in my end. I looked up to see who was coming to forecheck and saw Hadfield making a beeline for me. I had a trick, dropping down to one knee and letting the guy go over me into the boards, and that’s what I did.”
An awkward collision caused the defenceman to strike his head against the boards. He crumpled to the ice at the Forum in Montreal, his unmoving form causing the crowd to hush. A vertebrae in his neck was crushed and partially dislocated, leaving him paralysed. He needed an operation lasting more than seven hours and remained in hospital in a body cast for three months.
In 535 NHL games, he scored 26 goals and 78 assists to go with a whopping 1,247 penalty minutes, meaning he spent the equivalent of more than 20 complete games watching from hockey’s Elba. He also had two assists and 42 more penalty minutes in 21 playoff games.
After recovering from his injury, he coached junior hockey in his home town and in Orangeville, Ont. He became a fulltime cattle farmer on a property near Eden Mills. Two years ago, he suffered minor injuries while trying to rescue equipment from a fire that claimed large implement shed on his land.
He was inducted into the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
Mr. Fontinato died on July 3 at a Guelph retirement home. He leaves a son and a daughter. He was predeceased by a son, Louis Gerard Fontinato, who died in 1996. He also leaves three sisters and was predeceased by two sisters.
He outlived his old nemesis, Mr. Howe, who died on June 10, aged 88, by 23 days. Most Howe obituaries noted the fight with Mr. Fontinato, the two to be forever associated for a brief fight of intense ferocity.
LIFE magazine offers some post-fight advice for Lou Fontinato.