Locked Out? NHL Fix, Take One
October 7, 2012
By Joe Donahue, www.theo6.com
Former New York Ranger defenseman Lou Fontinato admits to starting one of the most legendary fights in hockey history and the Red Wings’ Gordie Howe ended it in a brief, sudden manner.
“They called him Mr. Elbows for a reason,” said Fontinato of Howe’s physical prowess and aggression. On this night, February 1, 1959, the Rangers and Red Wings were battling at Madison Square Garden with the two points earned for a win critical as both teams were near the bottom of the standings but the last playoff berth being within reach.
“Before the game (Rangers coach) Watson told me to stick with Howe,” recalled Fontinato, who at over 6’ tall and 210 lbs. was one of the larger players of his era. He earned the nickname “Leaping Louie” by being one of the first players in league history to make stepping up – or in his case – jumping into an onrushing player a staple of his game.
Ironically, Fontinato and Howe had never fought before this game but a Rangers rookie by the name of Eddie Shack was central to the plot of bringing them together on the ice. Shack was one of the game’s earliest Tasmanian Devils, hitting everything in sight and seemingly always in the thick of the action. On this night the Rangers held a 4-1 lead and Shack was doing what he did best – irritating the opposing team – even after he had been checked into and through a sheet of protective glass by the Wings Pete Geogan. Shortly thereafter Howe gave Shack a stick to the head, cutting him, and causing the Rangers enforcer to be entirely focused on Howe.
“I’ll put an end to it,” Fontinato said to a teammate on the bench shortly thereafter he had his chance. Shack and Howe became entangled behind the Detroit goal and Fontinato saw an opportunity to settle the score and quickly seized it. Getting a head-start from just before center ice, Fontinato gained a head of steam and barreled into Howe behind the net. “It was premeditated,” he freely admitted. Once there Fontinato said he unleashed around 20 furious and unanswered punches on Howe with one of them breaking his rib in addition to facial cuts which would later require stitches. Just when Fontinato thought the battle was over, Howe mustered up the energy to throw his one and only punch of the fight – a seismic uppercut that landed square on Fontinato’s nose that dropped the Rangers brute to the ice in a bloody heap. It was almost impossible to distinguish where his new nose started and where it ended. Almost everyone within earshot of the incident said the sound of the punch was an eerie thud that stunned and silenced the crowd.
Within weeks “Life” magazine was doing a feature on Howe and a picture of Fontinato’s disfigured face from that battle made a lasting image on the readers and helped forever cement Howe’s reputation as the toughest man in the NHL. Two years later Fontinato would be traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Hall of Fame defenseman Doug Harvey but his career was cut short by a serious neck injury in 1963. He would briefly try his hand at coaching but quickly gave that up to return to his greatest passion outside of hockey – agriculture.
Now 80, the still-rugged Fontinato still owns and operates a farm in Ontario.
When asked if he ever fought Gordie Howe again after that night, his answer was a simple, “no.”