howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

Alternate History: A comical telling of the night Gordie Howe punched Lou Fontinato in February of 1959, as re-imagined for a 1992 Howe-inspired graphic biography edition of Sports Legends Comics, drawn by Dick Ayers.

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.”

 

what we call the unseen hand

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The Canadians were ready in 1972 — at least, okay, maybe, no, not entirely prepared, exactly, but they were eager to shift from practicing to playing actual games. That, they were ready for. “We’ve had enough of this,” said forward Ron Ellis, “it’s time to get to work.” Phil Esposito didn’t care who was on his wings: “Regardless of whether I play with Roy Rogers and Trigger, just so long as we win.” Defenceman Gary Bergman insisted the team wasn’t overconfident when he said, “Look, we’re used to playing against the best forecheckers in the world — right in the National Hockey League. So we don’t have to learn to change our game to beat the Russians.” I don’t know whether centreman Bobby Clarke thought it was cockiness or not when he gave The Hockey News his prediction, below, but say this — it was in line with prevailing opinion in Canada as August came to an end and the pucks began to fly in earnest. Columnist John Robertson of The Montreal Star was a notable dissenter — his unpopular prognostication had the Soviets winning six of the eight games. And Canadian coach Harry Sinden was, notably, sounding notes of caution while others crowed Canadian domination. “We have to leave ourselves open and be ready to make big and quick adjustments,” Sinden said on the eve of the opening game. A sampling of Canadian self-regard (with bonus Soviet views, too) from the eve of the Summit Series of 1972:

 “We’re going to win.”
• Gordie Howe, former right wing, Detroit Red Wings

 “We will win eight games to nothing.”
• Alan Eagleson, director, NHLPA

“I bet a friend that we’ll win every game by at least three goals.”
• Bobby Clarke, centre, Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada

“The Russians could take a game or two, though I don’t think they will.”
• Jack Kent Cooke, owner, Los Angeles Kings

“To ask any team to beat another eight times in a row is to ask a lot. But if we play up to our capabilities, we can win every game.”
• John McLellan, coach, Toronto Maple Leafs

 “I believe Russia’s best will beat Canada’s best in hockey eventually. But not this year; I doubt if the Russians will win a single game next month in The Great Confrontation, either in Canada or in Russia.”
• Jacques Plante, former goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs

“If we play to our potential and, like I say, don’t take them lightly, we will be okay. I would be very disappointed if we don’t win all the games.”
• Jean Béliveau, former centre, Montreal Canadiens

 “I expect the Canadians to win every game. They’re that superior.”
• Billy Reay, coach, Chicago Black Hawks

“I don’t think the series will be a rout but I strongly believe we’ll beat them and beat them convincingly. I think we’ll win all eight games.”
• Ralph Backstrom, centre, Los Angeles Kings

“Our guys are pros and, in my opinion, the best hockey players in the world. If they play up to their potential, I can’t see how the Russians can win a game from them. Except for what we call the unseen hand — some fluky break that could make a difference. Barring that, it should be an eight-game sweep for Canada.”
• Scotty Bowman, coach, Montreal Canadiens

“I’m sure Team Canada is going to win. But I have a lot of respect for the Russians. Their conditioning is superb. They live together for 11 months of the year, and they’re like machines — their thinking is done for them. I don’t think they can react and act on instinct the way our players do. I think Team Canada will win all eight games.”
• Al Arbour, coach, St. Louis Blues

“You have said you will sweep us off the ice. We have said we would like to play and learn for the future. You must fulfill your boast. We will merely play our best, learning as we go.”
• Anatoli Tarasov, former coach, Soviet national team

 “We’ll give predictions for the games after the games. We won’t make any before.”
• Andrei Starovoitov, secretary, Russian Ice Hockey Federation

Sources: “What Experts Think — Most Favor Canada Sweep,” The Hockey News, September, 1972, p. 3; “Anxious To Start,” The Globe and Mail, September 1, 172, p. 36; “Jacques Plante Tells Why We Will Beat The Russians — This Year,” The Globe and Mail, 26 August, 1972, A14; “If We Lose Series Hockey Will Gain — Sinden,” September 2, 1972, p. 22; “No predictions, says Russian hockey official,” August 31, 1972, p. 26.

(Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Frank Lennon. Library and Archives Canada, e010933355 /)

dickie moore, 1931—2015

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Dickie Moore was 84 when he died on Saturday in Montreal. A Hall-of-Fame left winger, he twice won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. While he also turned out, later in his career, for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the St. Louis Blues, it’s as a Montreal Canadien that he’ll be remembered, a Habs’ legend on six of their Stanley Cup-winning teams through the 1950s. The New York Times has an obituary here — though better, first, to read Red Fisher’s heartfelt memoir of his long-time friend from Montreal’s Gazette. Then, maybe, these few views of Dickie Moore’s years on ice:

1

He was supposed to be headed for New York, the Rangers, in exchange for Dean Prentice, it was in the papers, except for, well, then, no. The Canadian Press reported that Rangers GM Frank Boucher called up Selke to say he didn’t have anyone of Moore’s calibre to trade, other than maybe Danny Lewicki. Selke: You can’t trade Lewicki, he’s playing too well. As Selke told it, Boucher said Prentice and Ron Murphy weren’t good enough and they left it at that. Next day, Rangers’ president General J.R. Kilpatrick phoned up to say he’d pay cash for Moore. “I told him,” said Selke, “we couldn’t play with cash.”

So he stayed, as did Mazur, though the latter was sent down to the Montreal Royals, and eventually found his way to Chicago. Three seasons later, Moore topped the league in scoring for the first time.

2

His nickname, of course, was Digging Dickie.

As a rookie for Montreal in 1952, he played with Elmer Lach and Dick Gamble on what was described as the league’s most torrid line. His most famous linemates: Maurice and Henri Richard.

3

Adjectives that appear next to his name in the register of Hall-of-Famers include aggressive and robust. Stan Fischler has called him brash to a fault and at first believed to be uncontrollable.

In sundry newspapers he was described as the problem child of Quebec junior hockey (1950) as well as a bellicose showboating rugged winger and colorful type and darling of the crowd and paradoxically, roundly despised by others because of his flair for showmanship (1950); speedy young forward (1951); brilliant rookie (1952); chippy operator (1952); aggressive, two-way performer (1955); also plucky (1961); a dependable playoff performer (1962); battle-scarred (1967); and once-proficient (1967). Toronto GM Punch Imlach called him a great competitor (1964) and sore-legged all-star (1966).

4

For his first Art Ross in 1957-58 he scored 36 goals and 84 points in 70 games. The following year he piled up 41 goals; his 96 points that years were the most an NHL player had ever accumulated in a season.

A brilliant goal from the Habs’ 1959 Cup-winning game against Chicago was described this way:

Instead of passing from the end boards, he sprinted out and jammed the puck past Hall.

5

Some wounds and infirmities:

He went to hospital in 1952 with badly bruised knees.

In 1958 his fractured hand impaired his stickhandling and shooting. Canadiens’ physiotherapist Bill Head said it was a small bone just under the thumb that was broken, and that it was injury often incurred by baseball players.

Irwin Spencer of the New York Rangers slashed him in 1961, fractured a bone in his foot.

Later that year, in the playoffs, he was on a list of Hab casualties compiled by Bill Head that included: Billy Hicke, concussion and head gash; Tom Johnson, pulled groin; Phil Goyette, mild concussion; Ralph Backstrom, leg and ankle; Jean Béliveau, head injury; Dickie Moore, wrist; Jean-Guy Talbot, loose teeth.

In the summer of 1961 he had surgery on his left knee to remove cartilage. At training camp that September the knee was weak.

With the Leafs in 1964, he bruised the base of his spine hitting the boards backwards in New York, an injury he concealed for two weeks until he couldn’t skate.

A word often associated with his knees was gimpy. Back again in 1962, he was 31 with a limp and a question mark hovering just in front of him, in front and up a bit. He’d had knee surgery in the summer, the left knee again, this time the doctors removed a cyst. Moore hoisted the leg of his trousers for a reporter to study the aftermath of all the hospital work: three six-inch scars.

“The thing is that I have to work at this game,” he explained. “The knee will never be perfect and I have to do some things a little differently. I have to know how to twist and turn without straining it and to expect a little pain once in a while.”

At training camp in Verdun he had his best day on September 19 when he scored a picturesque goal and set up another by Lou Fontinato and (Pat Curran wrote in The Gazette) “was skating much like The Digger of old.”

“I should have had another goal but that Patate picked it off when I tried to flip the puck past him.”

Patate: wily old Jacques Plante.

6

Youths attacked him: youths. The Habs were in Detroit, April of 1952, in the finals. The Red Wings won the game, 3-0, to take a three-game lead, it was all over, except for the hallway scuffling. The Ottawa Citizen told the tale: a jostling group of youthful fans was waiting for the Canadiens outside their dressing room when

One youth laid into Moore with a body check. Moore shoved him and the band grabbed the Canadiens. But [Red Wing Leo] Reise and [Ted] Lindsay, passing by, grabbed two of the youths and ended the scuffle.

7

He couldn’t do it any more in 1963, his ailing legs wouldn’t let him. He was 33 a year later when Punch Imlach plucked him off waivers and brought him to Toronto (he also grabbed Terry Sawchuk). “When I draft players,” Imlach said, “I tell them to throw away the medical reports and birth certificates

“We have nothing to lose by taking a shot with Moore, we’ve had guys play with almost broken legs so I’m certainly not worried about a couple of sore knees.”

He played 38 games for the Leafs before he decided his knees really weren’t up to the work.

He did come back for one more season, in 1967-68, when the St. Louis Blues convinced him to give them a whirl. On a team that iced Glenn Hall, Doug Harvey, and Red Berenson, Moore only played 27 regular-season games, but he was instrumental in getting the Blues into the playoffs, and he was the team’s leading scorer (seven goals, 14 points) as they fought a way to the finals, where Montreal beat them in four games.

“They’re paying me well and when a guy likes the game as much as I do, it’s pretty hard to turn down something like this,” he said as the season got underway. “They’re not expecting the world from me. They want me to set my on pace and I don’t think I’ll disgrace anyone.”

“I mean, people don’t go out now strictly with the idea of knocking somebody down. In my day, guys would come off the bench with only one idea in mind: run the other guy into the boards or knock him off his skates.”

 

(Photo: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e002343728)