Detroit Red Wings coach Jimmy Skinner (right) gears up in the fall of 1957 with his boss, manager Jack Adams. A son of Selkirk, Manitoba, Skinner succeeded Tommy Ivan on the Wings’ bench in 1954, guiding the team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship in the spring of ’55. The summer of 1957 was a tumultuous one in Detroit. In July, Ted Lindsay departed the team, traded to Chicago after 13 seasons and 700 points for the crime of heading up the NHL’s incipient player’s association. Lindsay had said he’d rather retire than leave Detroit, but he’d finally agreed to the trade. At a press conference, Lindsay described “the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me.” Adams denied that there was any feud: he said that shipping out 31-year-old Lindsay, the fourth highest goalscorer in NHL history, and All-Star goaltender Glenn Hall, 25, for four players and cash was all about renewing the Red Wings. With Terry Sawchuk back in the net that year, Detroit did end up in third place in the final NHL standings, though they fell to the unstoppable Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. Skinner was gone by then, having resigned as coach in January on a doctor’s advice about the migraines he couldn’t quell. Sid Abel was the man who replaced him, and he kept the job for the next ten years. His old linemate Ted Lindsay would return to Detroit for a final season in 1964-65 during that time. As for Stanley Cups, Abel’s Wings came close, losing in the Finals four times during his tenure. The team would go without a championship until 1997, with Scotty Bowman in command.
On this night in 1952, Terry Sawchuk deterred 26 Montreal shots to see his Detroit Red Wings to a 3-0 win over Canadiens and, thereby, a sweep of the Stanley Cup finals. It was the first of four Cups for Sawchuk, who also collected a Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. With his fourth shutout in eight playoff games, Sawchuk tied an NHL record that night at Detroit’s Olympia. As time ticked away to end the game, his teammates mobbed the 22-year-old in his crease as the organist played “Auld Lang Syne.” Later, Marshall Dann of the hometown Free Press found him in the dressing room, puffing on a cigarette and posing with the Cup. “This last game was the toughest of the entire series,” Sawchuk said, “and I believe it was my best game. The Canadiens were trying to rough me up in the goalmouth and knock me off my feet every time they skated by.”
(Image: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / PA-209513)
Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.
“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.
• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959
Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.
It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.
Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”
Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”
Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”
Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”
The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”
“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.
Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.
It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”
Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”
One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”
Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!”
MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.
A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”
Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”
Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.
Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”
Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.
The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”
He was just small, the newspapers liked to point out: at 5’10”, the New York Rangers’ centreman Camille Henry scaled in at a feathery 151 pounds. In 1960, the Associated Press decided this was news enough to flash out as free-standing story across the wires to its North American readers. In his sixth NHL season, the 27-year-old Henry had made his mark in the league in other ways, too, starting out with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in NHL. Dubbed, inevitably, the Eel, he was a reliable scorer. As a mostly peaceable presence on the ice, he won a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly proficiency in 1958. In his first five seasons, Henry accrued just 20 minutes in penalties, and while 1959-60 was a more delinquent year, his total by the end of the regular season was a mere six minutes.
That’s not to say that his restraint didn’t have its limits. On this day in 1960, he seems to have crossed over as he left the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium at the end of a game that saw the Rangers tie the Red Wings 2-2. An account of what happened next made up of sentences cut and pasted from several contemporary newspaper reports might look like this:
Some fans threw small objects at the players and words were exchanged.
Bumped when the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry stumbled and dropped his stick …
Eric Steiner, a 37-year-old Detroit salesman, picked up the stick and gave Henry a good thumping under the right eye.
Henry — skates and all — lit out after the fan.
He caught Steiner in the street outside the stadium, some 50 yards from the rink, and held him for police.
A half-dozen other players were chasing fans but officers quickly quelled the uprising.
While the police questioned Steiner, Henry took on four stitches. Detroit coach Jack Adams conferred with New York Alf Pike and, by one report, they were all for pressing charges. But Henry demurred. He settled for an apology and (above) a handshake. “I just lost my head,” Steiner is on the record as explaining; he also gained a ban attending future hockey games at the Olympia.
A week later, the two teams met again New York, tying again, 3-3. This time, the damage Henry sustained was on the ice, in the rush of play. Again he stumbled, crashing this time into a goal post, fracturing his left forearm. The Rangers’ Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa took care of the surgery later that week, putting in a pin. Henry was back in the line-up by the end of February.