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Lou Fontinato known for soft heart, cement fists

Former Rangers, Canadiens defenseman during Original Six era dead at 84

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Lou Fontinato, on whose face was spread arguably the most famous nose in NHL history, will be remembered at his funeral Saturday for a soft heart and cement fists.

Fontinato, a hard-rock defenseman with the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens from 1954-63, died in his sleep on July 3 at a nursing home in Guelph, Ontario. He was 84.

"Leapin' Lou," as he came to be known, was a take-no-prisoners strongman in the NHL's Original Six era, a policeman for the Rangers and Canadiens.

In 1955-56 with the Rangers, his second season in the NHL, Fontinato led the League in penalty minutes with 202 in 70 games, a record at that time. He would be the most penalized player twice more during his career, in 1957-58 (152 minutes) and 1961-62 (167) with the Canadiens.

In 535 games over nine seasons, Fontinato scored 26 goals, had 78 assists and 1,247 penalty minutes after arriving in the NHL via the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks and Saskatoon Quakers. He had turned pro out of the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters organization from the Ontario Hockey League, the team's 1952-53 edition winning the Memorial Cup with a roster many believe to be among the greatest major-junior teams of all time; Fontinato played alongside future Hall of Famers Harry Howell and Andy Bathgate, as well as Eddie Shack, a Tasmanian devil on skates.

Fontinato's career would end in frightening fashion in 1963 at the Montreal Forum, a missed check sending him headfirst into the boards, the impact breaking his neck, paralyzing him for a month. Several spinal surgeries got him back on his feet and he returned to his hometown of Guelph to spend the next 55 years raising beef cattle.

Fontinato died three weeks and two days after the death of Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, who on February 1, 1959 spectacularly broke the Rangers defenseman's nose at Madison Square Garden. It was this fight that gave Fontinato his legendary schnozz, one that became even more famous than the player who owned it.

Howe and Fontinato feuded long and hard through several seasons, each giving as good as he received. Howe's toughness was indisputable and Fontinato had developed a reputation for his rugged, crushing style of play.

In a 1958-59 Rangers game program, writer Bill Seward related a little about the defenseman's toughness: "There was one check, Louie remembers, which took the sails out of him early in his career," Seward wrote. "It was thrown by Lee Fogolin of Chicago, and separated his ribs pretty badly. That night, and the next one, Lou couldn't stretch out in a bed, or anywhere else. He remembers sitting up all night in a rocking chair. But when the bell rang for the next Rangers game, Lou was there in uniform.

"More recently, Fontinato was sliced over an ear by the stick of Gordie Howe. This wounded his pride deeply, particularly since the game was on television and Lou knew Mama Fontinato was looking. They stitched him up and, over his objections, put a thick headdress of gauze over the scalp and ear. Then they asked him if he could go out there again.

"'I'll go," he said, 'but please have the announcer say I'm not as hurt as I look to be. I don't want Mama to worry about it.'"

The feud gathered steam, and Howe recalled a bit about it to writer Richard Bak in a 2014 feature.

"Whenever I went on the ice against the Rangers, their coach sent Fontinato out. The idea was to work on me and distract me," Howe said. "Once, it cost me because I forgot a valuable bit of advice (teammate) Ted Lindsay gave me. He said don't ever drop your stick until the other man does. So we get into one game and Louie says, 'You want to drop your stick?' and I said, 'Hell, yes!' and I threw it to the ice, and the guy hit me right over the head -- about six stitches worth. He nailed me, and I stood there laughing over my stupidity, and Lindsay just shook his head."

Fontinato would mock Howe as the bad blood simmered. It reached the boiling point on Feb. 1, 1959 at the Garden, Howe having become involved in a tangle between Detroit's Red Kelly and the Rangers' Eddie Shack.

Howe ducked the punch the rushing Fontinato threw. And then Mr. Hockey threw one of his own, one of the most famous roundhouses in NHL history.

"That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it," Howe said, quoted by Bak. "That first punch was what did it. It broke his nose a little bit."

That's to put it mildly. From Bak's feature: "Observers recalled Howe grabbing Fontinato's jersey with his left hand, then using his right hand to deliver a stream of vicious uppercuts - 'Whop, whop, whop, just like someone chopping wood,' said one player quoted in Life magazine, which devoted three pages to Fontinato's dismantling. Millions of readers were treated to photos of the humbled Fontinato swathed in bandages. In as violent a half-minute as ever seen inside a prize ring, Howe had broken Fontinato's nose, dislocated his jaw and destroyed his ego and reputation.

"Howe's demolition of the NHL's top enforcer was all in a night's work for someone who clearly was in a league all by himself," Bak wrote. "'There are only four teams in the league,' a rival player said at the time, 'Montreal, Toronto, Chicago and Howe.'"

Fontinato, who had recently been admitted to a nursing home with symptoms of dementia, is survived by his daughter, Paula, and his son, Roger. A second son, Louis Fontinato Jr., predeceased him in 1996.

In a release following the late defenseman's passing, his children remembered their father "for his strong work ethic, his demanding nature, and contagious, boisterous personality, as well as for being a loyal teammate, an avid outdoorsman, an excellent cook, a world-class Bocce player and Italian red wine-making aficionado. 

"We appreciate the well wishes and condolences the family has received," Paula and Roger Fontinato said. "Our father will be greatly missed by his family, colleagues and many friends. We are grateful that he did not have to suffer through a long, debilitating and difficult illness."

He was a great character to all who came in contact with him, a gigantic figure who squeezed every drop out of his life.

"I tried over the past few years to get Louie to talk more about his experiences," Michael Sloopka, a nephew of Fontinato, said via e-mail Tuesday. "All I know is that a few years ago I bought him a new Rolodex for his phone numbers, which had the who's who of hockey listed. When I dropped it off at 10:30 a.m., he asked if I wanted some of his homemade red wine and I said sure.

"I woke up at 8:30 p.m. on the floor staring at a cattle skin. I had my son come out to the farm to get me. I was sick in bed for two days."

A funeral service for Fontinato will be held on Saturday, July 9 at 10:30 a.m. in the chapel of Gilbert MacIntyre and Son Funeral Home in Guelph.

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