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.”

 

a lot can happen in thirty-four seconds

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It’s been coming around every year on this day, since 1972, and every year we duly give bow our heads and give our thanks while observing the anniversary with small gestures of national relief (whew, we almost lost) and self-congratulation (wow, are we great). Yes, that’s right, on this day, September 28, 44 years ago, 34 seconds remained in the final ill-tempered game of the long grim Summit Series pitting many of Canada’s best hockey players against a squad of the Soviet Union’s. The clock at the Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium stopped at 19:26 of the third period, you’ll recall: that’s when Paul Henderson scored his timely goal to give the Canadians a 6-5 lead in the game. Accounts of the series describe the euphoria of that moment; they also tell of how the remainder of the game unfolded. A sampling of the latter, including a touch of the former:

Roy MacSkimming
Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972 (1996) by Roy MacSkimming

The Canadian bench empties. Even Dryden goes lumbering all the way down the rink to join the ecstatic mob of white sweaters hugging, patting, squeezing and slapping Henderson.

The Soviets skate sluggishly about, stunned, their faces drained of hope, their cause apparently lost. Yet thirty-four seconds remain to play, and the Soviets are gifted with the power to score a sudden goal. It’s easy to imagine them tying this one up in thirty-four seconds, thus tying the series, and going on to claim victory on goal-differential.

Sinden stays with Stapleton, who was on the ice for the goal along with Savard. He sends out White and his two steadiest defensive forwards, Ellis and Peter Mahovlich, to join the indefatigable Esposito. The five don’t let the Soviets anywhere near Dryden. Even the Soviets themselves go halfheartedly through the motions, as if they don’t really expect to score. As if it were somehow ordained the Canadians would win.

With Gusev the last Soviet player to touch the puck, with the Canadian fans absolutely roaring out the countdown of the final seconds, Dryden hands off to Stapleton. Carefully, Stapleton carries the puck behind his net and passes up the boards to Mahovlich as the final horn sounds. Mahovlich lets the puck go by, Stapleton races after it, and the fans, as Foster Hewitt says, go wild.

Brad Park
Straight Shooter: The Brad Park Story (2012) by Brad Park and Thom Sears

When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal, I was on the bench. I had just got off the ice, maybe 20 seconds before. When he scored the winner, I was jumping out of my jockstrap!

Dennis Hull
The Third Best Hull (2013) by Dennis Hull and Robert Thompson

After Henderson scored, the whole team jumped out on the ice, but the game wasn’t over and Harry knew it. There were still 34 seconds remaining, but the Russians never really tried after Paul scored. They were finished. They didn’t pull the goalie, they didn’t rush, they didn’t give it all their effort.

Paul Henderson
Shooting For Glory (1997) by Paul Henderson with Mike Leonetti

I skated back to the bench and told Sinden, “Harry, I’m done.” I knew I couldn’t play those last 34 seconds. I was physically and emotionally drained. In any event, we held them off to win 6-5 and take the series four wins to three wit one game tied.

Ron Ellis
How Hockey Explains Canada: The Sport That Defines a Country (2012), by Jim Prime and Paul Henderson

When Paul scored that goal, I was one of the first guys over the boards. We were all huddled together. We started chanting, ‘We did it, we did it …’ but we still had 34 seconds to kill off. I was actually very honoured. Harry Sinden sent Pete Mahovlich and myself and Phil Esposito on to kill off that final 34 seconds. I remember Paul saying to me when the game was over, ‘That guy wasn’t going to go anywhere.’ I had him so wrapped up! For me, for myself I was pleased that Harry had enough confidence in me because a lot can happen in 34 seconds.

Jack Ludwig
Moscow Diary (1972) by Jack Ludwig

In time the game began again, but it was all count-down, the longest loudest triumphant cry-out numbers may have ever received. “O Canada” roared out suddenly: Canadians for this moment softened, and gave up trying to sound like a lynch mob.

In the final seconds it was the tour’s end, wedding, anniversary, christening, bar mitzvah, birth, birthday, New Year’s Eve, carnival, Day of Misrule — yes, and the Dieppe that ended with V-E Day!

Paul Henderson
The Goal of My Life (2012) by Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

I went back to the bench exhausted. I said, “Harry, I’m done, the tank is empty!” There was no way I was going back out there for the final thirty-four seconds. We killed those seconds off, the clock wound down, and we had the greatest victory of our lives. We were desperate to win and it showed, and that was the difference really. We didn’t want to go don in history as the team that couldn’t lose to the Russians but did … and thanks to that third-period rally, we didn’t!

Phil Esposito
Thunder and Lightning: A No B.S. Memoir (2003) by Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock

After Pauly scored, we were ahead for the first time with only thirty-four seconds left in the game. I figured Harry Sinden wanted me to come out, but I looked at him like, Don’t you dare take me out. I was determined not to let them score.

I never left the ice. I was not going off until the whistle blew. I was bad that way, but I could not help myself. I felt I had to stay out there.

The puck came around the back of our net, and I got it, and I looked up to see that the time was running out, and when the horn blew, I looked up and cheered, and all the Team Canada players on the ice went crazy. The trumpeter from the Montreal Forum was sitting in the stands blowing loudly, and the Canadian fans in the stands — three thousand of them — were going crazy.

When the game ended I found myself right beside Ken Dryden, and I grabbed him. All the guys came over. The emotion we all felt more than anything else was relief.

I skated past the Russian coach, Kulagin, a big fat guy with a fat face who we nicknamed “Chuckles.” I said, “Too fucking bad, you fucking Commie prick.”

Harry Sinden
Hockey Showdown: The Canada-Russia Hockey Series (1972) by Harry Sinden

As I remember it now, we didn’t believe it for a split second. Our bench seemed to freeze. Maybe it was too good to be true. Suddenly, all the players were over the boards smothering Henderson. I looked at the clock — 34 seconds. I thought we had more time left than that, but I wished it were only four. I got the players who were going to be on the ice for the final half minute — Ellis, Espo, Peter — and told them not to take any chances. Just dump the puck out of the zone and keep them at center ice. The Russians never came close. When the game ended, Fergie, Eagleson, and I threw our arms around one another and ran across the ice like little kids. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our necks. I kept telling them, “Never in doubt, was it, fellas?”

Ken Dryden
Face-Off At The Summit (1973) by Ken Dryden with Mark Mulvoy

Then I realized there were still thirty-four seconds to play. The Russians had scored twice in nine seconds the other night. It was, without doubt, the longest thirty-four seconds I have ever played. It seemed like thirty-four days, but after everything we had been through, we weren’t going to let anything crush us now. We checked furiously and they never got off a decent shot. It was over. 6-5. The Canadians were singing “O Canada” in the stands and waving their miniature Canadian flags. And then they started that incessant cheer: “We’re No. 1, We’re No. 1.”

We are.

34

(Top photo: Frank Lennon, Library and Archives Canada, e010933343; Headline: The Globe and Mail, September 29, 1972)

off the ice, though, howe was a peach

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Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.

Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”

“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”

You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.

The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?

No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”

The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”

“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”

Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.

Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):

“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”

Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:

• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”

When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.

• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”

Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.

If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.

A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”

• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:

… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!

The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.

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