manhattan’s mauler

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.”

Liberale, Maria, and Lou Fontinato

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)

this week in 1951: frank boucher turns 50, redraws the nhl rink

Let’s Stick Together: Frank Boucher, in the middle, poses with two of his elder brothers in 1928. George (a.k.a. Buck) Boucher, at left, won four Stanley Cups with Ottawa’s powerhouse Senatos in the ’20s and went on to coach the Boston Bruins; Billy, on the right, spent most of his career with the Montreal Canadiens before signing with New York’s Americans.

Frank Boucher’s legacy as an altogether upright and admirable citizen was already well-established in the fall of 1951 as the NHL prepared to launch into its 34th season on ice. Scion of a famous Ottawa sporting family, he’d served as a constable in the RCMP before starting into a stellar career as a pro hockey centreman for Ottawa’s original Senators, the old PCHA Vancouver Maroons, and (most notably) New York’s Rangers.

Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, Boucher had helped engineer Stanley Cup championships for the Rangers in 1928 and ’33, combining superlative skills with good graces, such that he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years in the NHL’s first decades. The respect for fair play he learned, he always said, from his hero, the original winner of the Lady Byng, Frank Nighbor. Boucher took as coach of the Rangers in 1939, and served a decade in the job. By 1951, he was concentrating on his role as the team’s GM — and on refining the hockey that was playing out on NHL ice.

Born in Ottawa in 1901 on a Monday of this past Thursday’s date, October 7, Frank Boucher found himself turning 50 this mid-century week in ’51. He was with his team at training camp in Guelph, Ontario, working with Rangers’ coach Neil Colville to evaluate his team’s talent and, ever an innovator, tinkering with the tenor of the game.

Rangerswise, Boucher considered his team to be 25 per cent better than it had been the previous year, when the Rangers had finished fifth — out of the playoffs — in the six-team NHL.

“The big difference will be in offensive power,” he told Al Nickleson from the Globe and Mail. “Now we have more fellows who can put the puck in the net. One of the new ones, Gaye Stewart, can help us plenty. The team is in much better shape than at this time last year. Centre Ed Laprade looks better right now than he has for the last three seasons and shows no effect from the leg he fractured last winter.”

If the previous season had been a write-off for the Rangers, it did include, for Boucher, at least one rewarding night. In February of ’51, ahead of a Madison Square Garden meeting with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Rangers celebrated Boucher with a generous testimonial. Bill and Bun Cook, Boucher’s old Ranger linemates, were on hand, along with Murray Murdoch, another Ranger original. New York mayor Vincent Impelliterri presented Boucher with the keys to a brand-new black 1951 Studebaker sedan, paid for by fan subscription.

Other gifts included a typewriter (from New York’s hockey writers); a tool chest (from the St. Paul Saints, a Ranger farm team); a pen-and-pencil set (from the MSG Corporation). Ranger captain Frank Eddolls and his Ranger teammates chipped in for a television — and a 5-1 win over the Black Hawks.

In September, as the off-season dwindled away, Boucher was back in the news, advocating for the NHL to institute an amateur draft. The league didn’t get around to doing that, of course, until 1963; in the meantime, as the longtime chairman of the NHL’s Rules Committee, Boucher was doing his best to streamline (and possibly even improve) the game the league was unleashing on the ice day-to-day.

Try Out: Frank Boucher coached the New York Rangers rom 1939 through 1949 before he stepped back to focus on the job of GM. Here, circa the early ’50s, he measures up defenceman Allan Stanley.

By the first week of October, with the opening of the new season just a week away, Boucher’s mind was on the perennial challenge of how to keep players focussed on playing the hockey they were of capable of rather than concentrating on straying outside the rules to thwart their opponents.

A pre-season report from Guelph noted that he was telling his own players to cut out “hacking, slashing, boarding and other illegal tactics.”

“No particular person is to blame for the type of play that is spoiling the game,” he expounded. “The rules haven’t changed. The only thing needed is for the referees to call the play according to the book, and this rough stuff will be cut out.”

Boucher maintained that the rules committee was all for a crackdown. “Spectators like a good tough check, if it is clean, and the fans, players, club officials, and referees should be told that any rules infractions will be penalized. Then we’ll see some hockey.”

Unleash the league’s stars, Boucher implored. “[Montreal’s Maurice] Richard would be a truly great player if he didn’t have a couple of guys draped around him during a game.”

There’s no record of any official NHL response to Boucher’s opinionating — none that I’ve been able to unearth, anyway. League president Clarence Campbell was focussed on a project of his own: replacing the two 20-foot face-off circles that traditionally flanked NHL nets at either end of the rink with a single one, 30 feet in diameter, directly in front of each goal.

A decade had passed since the NHL’s introduction of the ten-foot circles. They’d been introduced to augment the face-off dots that had been in place since 1937 at the same time as the penalty-shot circle was erased from the high slot. The new-old face-off circle was described in press reports as Campbell’s “brainchild.” It quickly proved unpopular.

Campbell’s motive for refiguring each zone with a single central face-off circle? “It is his idea,” Windsor Star columnist Doug Vaughan explained, “that it will provide spectators with a clearer view of what takes place, livelier action, and prevent a lot of the old jamming along the boards.”

Frank Boucher didn’t agree. “Suicide,” he called it. The central face-off circle was, he said, unfair to goaltenders. “Also,” he argued, “the new circle will only prolong something we have long been trying to eliminate. At least under the old system the teams spread out for a face-off. Now they gang up in a huddle in front of the goal.”

Toronto Maple Leaf managing director Conn Smythe was with him. “In sport,” he ventured, “you want rules that won’t prevent the better side from winning. But you also them so that the better side doesn’t get the advantage of a rule. This new circle gives the advantage top the better team which can put on the pressure and keep the puck in there.”

“A goalie can make a great save, but can’t get rid of the puck before the whistle blows. Then, under this new plan, he’s actually penalized because the face-off is made directly in front of him. That’s not right.”

NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss watched a couple of pre-season games in which the new circle was deployed and came out as another naysayer. “I was for it at first,” he said. “But now, in the last two games I’ve seen, the players seem to be getting on to it, and it’s not working out the way we had hoped.”

Major changes in the rules needed approval from all six teams. “It won’t get it,” Boucher said of unanimous support for Campbell’s plan. Never mind settling for the status quo, Boucher had his own variation to offer: keep the two face-off circles on either side of each net but enlarge them from 20 to 30 feet across.

The Rangers quickly put the expanded circles to the test in a pre-season game against the Black Hawks in Guelph. In Toronto, Smythe had them drawn in at Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leaf scrimmage. Both goaltenders, Turk Broda and Al Rollins, declared them a success.

Clarence Campbell, too, came around. He agreed that his idea posed problems for goaltenders. “We don’t want any rule which makes a good team better at the expense of its opponent,” he conceded. All six team were in favour of Boucher’s fix, Campbell said; it was duly adopted for the new season.

the wild man of guelph

e002505664-v6

A birthday today for Lou Fontinato, who was born in 1932, in Guelph, Ontario, whereabout he still lives. A defenceman, he was mostly, in the NHL, a New York Ranger, though he ended his career with Montreal in 1963. The on-ice activities he’s most often remembered for may be (i) leaping, which he’s supposed to have done sometimes in rage when called for a penalty and led to the nicknames Leapin’ Lou and Louie the Leaper; (ii) punching; (iii) getting punched, most famously by Gordie Howe in 1959.

Tex Coulter painted him for the cover of Hockey Blueline in 1958, as you can see here; for five other Fontinato glimpsings, we’ll go to the archives. It was The New York Herald Tribune and syndicated columnist Red Smith who called him “the wild man of Guelph, Ont.,” and we’ll start with him:

It wasn’t clear exactly what happened in a skirmish near the boards on the Fiftieth St. side. Maurice Richard, skating to centre ice, tossed his stick away but didn’t seem to be aiming at anybody’s head. He shoved with both hands against Fontinato’s chest, like a small boy picking a fight on the playground.

The Rangers’ dark defenseman is no admirer of the Marquis of Queensberry. Strictly a London prize ring man, he had his padded gloves off the fragment of an instant.

A lovely right caught Richard just outside the left eye. Skin burst and flesh cracked and blood ran in little parallel trickles down the Rocket’s face, staining his white shirt.

Players and officials moved in and, to the crowd’s astonishment, Richard drew back, showing no disposition for further action. Fontinato was raging, trying to shove past officials who held him off, starting little flank movements around the knot of men who fenced him off from Richard.

Pure joy swept the galleries. Crumpled papers and bits of waste were flung onto the rink. Photographers were out on the ice shooting eagerly. At length Fontinato was led to the penalty box for the second time in the evening, taking a comfortable led over Detroit’s Ted Lindsay as the league’s most penalized badman.

• Red Smith, “What Red Smith Thinks,” Toledo Blade, January 13, 1956

When Fontinato hit, he hurts. He’s a 22-year-old who weighs a streamlined 191 pounds and stands 6-foot-1 — without skates.

Galleryites never feel neutral toward the big bruiser. In Vancouver one time an irate fan threw his shoes at Louie the Leaper.

“They were new shoes, too,” said Fontinato thoughtfully. “I ground my skates into them to remove the newness and tossed them back.”

• Arthur Daley, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” The New York Times, January 22, 1956

Lou is a bachelor. So he rooms with other bachelors on the Rangers when the team is in New York. He lives with Larry Cahan, Gerry Foley and Hank Ciesla in a three-room suite at the Kimberly Hotel, 74th St. and Broadway. Each player has his chores. Lou is the cook.

“He’s a good cook,” Foley says. “His best dish is spare ribs. But we don’t eat anything fancy. Steak. Roast beef. He cooks the breakfasts. Eggs any style. Everything.”

Does the trigger-temper explode occasionally?

“Oh, yeah,” Foley smiled. “We do the dishes. He gets mad if something’s not clean. Starts banging pots around.”

• Dave Anderson, “Rangers’ Leapin’ Lou,” Hockey Blueline, January, 1958

Howe’s most notorious altercation was with Ranger defenceman Lou Fontinato in Madison Square garden in 1959. Frank Udvari, who was the referee, recalled, “The puck had gone into the corner. Howe had collided with Eddie Shack behind the net and lost his balance. He was just getting to his feet when here’s Fontinato at my elbow, trying to get at him.

‘I want him,’ he said.

‘Leave him alone, use your head,’ I said.

‘I want him.’

‘Be my guest.’”

Fontinato charged. Shedding his gloves, Howe seized Fontinato’s jersey at the neck and drove his right fist into his face. “Never in my life had I heard anything like it, except maybe the sound of somebody chopping wood,” Udvari said. “Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

Howe broke Fontinato’s nose, fractured his cheekbone, and knocked out several teeth. Plastic surgeons had to reconstruct his face.

• Mordecai Richler, “Gordie,” Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2002)

That’s the feeling around the NHL — an unwritten rule — you don’t fool around with big Gordie.

Lou Fontinato learned the hard way, one night in New York when the former tough guy of the Rangers tangled with Howe behind a net.

“I still hear that sound,” one of Fontinato’s former team-mates said recently. “I was only a few feet away. Gordie had his skates braced against the back of the net and he threw only one punch. It was the worst thing I’ve seen in hockey. It broke Louie’s nose, knocked him cold.

“I can still hear it — bone against bone. Nobody will ever know how much that hurt Lou. He had built a reputation as a tough guy and Howe destroyed it with that one punch. Louie was never the same after that.”

• Paul Rimstead, “Thwonk!,” Montreal Gazette, January 13, 1968

(Photo, taken January 14, 1961: Weekend Magazine/ Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/ e002505664)