For our text this morning we turn to Hilary Stead’s 2002 book, Guelph: A People’s Heritage, and in particular its accounting of the life and times of Maria and Liberale, who emigrated to the seat of Wellington County in Southern Ontario from Treviso, in Northern Italy 60 years ago or so, arriving with a half-full suitcase as their only luggage. For 40 years Liberale worked at the International Malleable Iron Company in Guelph; he also tended a five-acre market garden on St. George’s Hill, with a milk-cow. Maria and Liberale were blessed with six children, five daughters and a son. His name was Lou, the son, and let it be known that in his boyhood he (Stead says) “played in the quarry behind the rubber plant” and burned “oil-soaked cotton batting pulled from around the bearings of the wheels of the trains at the roundhouse near Alice Street.”
I don’t know just what that tells us about the manhood that followed for that young Guelpher: something, I’m certain. We do know, more solidly, that the kid in question, Louis Joseph Fontinato, was born on a Wednesday of this date in 1932. Also that as a hockey player, a defenceman, he played nine rough-hewn NHL seasons, mostly with the New York Rangers, also with the Montreal Canadiens, before a broken neck ended his hockey career in 1963.
Leapin’ Lou, they used to call him. He fought, a lot, taking on all comers, including Jean Béliveau, including (against everybody’s better judgment) Gordie Howe. How rambunctious was Lou Fontinato? In 1956, in pre-season practice, the bruising of his bodychecks put two of his Ranger teammates out of action for a couple of days, Dave Creighton and Red Sullivan.
More text: “If there were a prize for refrigerated misbehavior,” Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that same year, “it’s a cinch that Louie the Leaper would win it.”
Fontinato was the first NHLer, I think, to shred an opponent’s sweater with his skates, though not the last. 1957 this was, in December, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, against the Montreal Canadiens. There was a 15-minute brawl, in the second period. While Fontinato punched, and was punched by, Canadiens’ defenceman Tom Johnson, Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot wrestled New York’s Andy Hebenton.
There’s not much on the record that I’ve seen about the aftermath, though we do have one key witness. Talbot lost his sweater at some point in the ruckus. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss was on hand to watch what happened before the combatants were stowed away in the penalty box:
After the fighting had been stopped Fontinato spotted Talbot’s sweater still on the ice. He went over and made a big production of stomping on the Hab jersey with his skates. Then he went around breaking all the loose Montreal sticks he could find. What a showman that guy is. The New York fans loved it.
Fontinato’s sentence in the wake of all this 15 minutes, five for fighting plus a 10-minute misconduct. Carl Voss (as maybe you already guessed) saw no need for any supplementary discipline.
When the two teams met again in Montreal a few days later, New York coach Phil Watson fought a fan who kicked him outside the Rangers’ dressing room. Fontinato features in accounts of this game for his third-period heroics. When a Forum goal judge flicked on his light to indicate a Montreal goal that wasn’t, in fact, a goal, Fontinato dashed behind the New York net to make his case. From the Montreal Star:
He threw a mighty right hook at the glass protecting the judge, and kept throwing punches at no-one in particular … sitting next to the judge was “Rocket” Richard, and Fontinato had a few words for the injured Hab ace, too.
I can’t say how seriously shredded Talbot’s sweater was in 1957. We have a more detailed damage report from a 1986 incident.
In this one, the Edmonton Oilers were in Calgary to aggravate the Flames, and Edmonton defenceman Marty McSorley did his part by bumping Calgary goaltender Reggie Lemelin. Flames’ centreman Doug Risebrough saw this as grounds for punching McSorley who, of course, punched back in what the Gazette’s Red Fisher described as a “free-swinging affair.”
“Somehow,” Fisher noted, “he found himself in the penalty box with McSorley’s sweater and promptly ripped it to shreds with his skates.”
Edmonton coach and GM Glen Sather wasn’t happy. He called Risebrough “childish” and declared that their friendship was over. He lodged a complaint with NHL disciplinarian Brian O’Neill. “What’s more,” Sather said, “the Flames will be getting a $1,000-bill for McSorley’s shredded sweater.”
The NHL declined to take up the case. Risebrough was contrite. “I’m sorry I did it,” he said, after a day or two. “It’s something you when you’re really upset. It was a bad reaction on my part and I’m embarrassed by it.”
According to Fran Rosa of the Boston Globe, Risebrough had been methodical in the moment, soaking McSorley “in water to soften it” before going to work with his skates.
The Oilers subsequently retrieved the remains, which they hung in their dressing room to stir their memories and anti-Calgary choler.
(Top image: Tex Coulter, 1958)