the wild man of guelph

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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)