One winter night, 15,000 New Yorkers witnessed the heavyweight Fight of the Century. No, it wasn’t Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis…or Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston…or the more recent Mohammed Ali vs Joe Frazier. And it wasn’t fought in a ring either. It was Lou Fontinato vs Gordie Howe…a hockey fight, a bout of gigantic proportions still talked about today, more than 50 years after the fact.
New York Ranger defenseman Lou Fontinato was the young upstart, the challenger, the tough dude from Guelph, Ontario, who played his junior hockey with the 1952 Memorial Cup winning OHL Guelph Biltmores. He had a distinct nickname. They called him “Leapin’ Lou” and for 2 reasons. He would leave his skates when he would hit someone with one of his stiff bodychecks. And he would leap into the air to protest a penalty called against him or his team while he was on the ice.
Fontinato was a crowd favorite in New York, a stay-at-home defenseman who was very adept at moving the puck out of his own end. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he loved to play it rough the minute the Rangers called him up from the minors for 27 games in the 1954-55 season. The next year, while playing in the full 70 games, he led the NHL with a then-record 202 minutes in penalties. He topped the league again 2 years later with 152 minutes. You see where I’m going with this? He had already taken on opposing hard-hitting hombres like Bruins Fernie Flaman. By the time the 1958-59 season came along, Leapin’ Lou thought he should take his brand of game to the next level. However, one person stood in his way.
Veteran Detroit Red Wings superstar right-winger Gordie Howe was in a class by himself. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, this 6-foot-200-pounder was a tough dude, too, collecting over 100 minutes in penalties 6 different times leading up to the 1958-59 season. He got into at least 6 fights his first 3 years in the NHL before settling down on his other abilities. He hadn’t had a fight now for 9 years. He was also an excellent all-around player, a big money scorer and an outstanding penalty killer. Boy, could he score. He had already collected 40+ goals 4 times earlier in the 1950’s, including a personal-high 49 in 1952-53, when he set a then-record 95 points. He also helped the Wings win 4 Stanley Cups since 1950, the last one coming in 1955. Hitting 30 now, Howe still had it all together. He was at the top of his game.
Fontinato and Howe had an ongoing feud for a few years. In the latter part of 1958, Look magazine did a 6-page spread on Fontinato that showed him flexing his biceps, implying that he was the crowned NHL heavyweight. Every time a team’s star such as Howe or Rocket Richard or Jean Beliveau took to the ice, Ranger coach Phil Watson would send Leapin’ Lou out to distract them. On one occasion, Fontinato crushed his stick down on Howe’s head. Another time he butt-ended Howe to the mouth, splitting his lip and loosening a tooth. Fontinato then mocked Howe from the penalty box by skating by and mocking, “What’s the matter with your lip, Gordie?”
The next game they met, Howe got even by nearly taking Fontinato’s ear off with his stick. Fontinato went to the dressing room and returned with a bandage to his head shaped like a turban. It was Howe’s turn now. He skated by the Ranger bench and said to Fontinato, “What’s the matter with your ear, Lou?”
Then the 2 combatants met in the game of note at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 1 February 1959, a game in which both the Rangers and the Wings were struggling for a playoff spot. Prior to the start, Wings trainer Lefty Wilson taped Howe’s ribs which were hurting him from a previous game. At the 17-minute mark of the first period, with New York up 4-1, there was a tussle between Howe and Rangers Eddie Shack behind the Red Wing net minded by goalie Terry Sawchuk. Fontinato came in to separate them. During the stoppage of play prior to the next faceoff, Fontinato skated over to Howe and said something that Howe could not quite distinguish. Howe said later, “I couldn’t tell what he was saying because he was spitting all over my uniform.” Howe replied by telling the Ranger defenseman to go mind his own business.
When the puck dropped and it went behind Sawchuk, another fracas occurred. This time it was Wings defenseman Red Kelly and Shack pushing each other around. Howe entered the scene and all 3 collapsed against the side of the net. When they got up, everything appeared to be over. But Fontinato didn’t see it that way. From his position on the point, he dropped his stick and gloves and raced up to Howe, who saw Fontinato and ducked at the last microsecond. Fontinato swung and missed, then connected on a series of punches while Howe had difficulty sliding his gloves off. When Howe got his hands free, he grabbed Fontinato’s jersey with his left hand and with one punch broke the defenseman’s nose, then got into him with his own series of hard right punches to Leapin’ Lou’s face that “sounded like someone chopping wood,” according to one of the bystanders. “Whop, whop, whop,” said another player. Fontinato returned with more solid punches. Linesmen Bill Morrison and Art Skov let the 2 players go at it, while the other players on the ice paired off, watching every blow. While Howe had his opponent’s right hand tied up, Fontinato switched to his left and hit Howe to the left side of his head. Howe then changed to his left hand too and continued hammering away.
After about 30 or 40 seconds of an all-out, toe-to-toe slugfest, New York’s Bill Gadsby and Andy Bathgate skated between the 2 to call a truce. Fontinato and Howe didn’t object. They were too tired to continue, anyway. Referee Frank Udvari handed a fighting major to both. Neither player even gave each other a dirty look after that, while they played on, with Fontinato receiving 2 more 2-minute infractions. New York ended up winning the game 5-4. Howe had a lump over his right eye and a badly-sprained little finger on his right hand. Fontinato headed to the local hospital with massive facial bruises, a rearranged nose, and a fractured jaw. To many fans and press people, the fight appeared to be a draw. That is, until pictures were splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in North America, including Life magazine a few days later, showing Fontinato’s heavily-bandaged face. If Fontinato had known about Howe’s ribs, it might have been a different story. But he didn’t, and it wasn’t. After that Howe was the undisputed heavyweight champ of the National Hockey League. And he never had to fight again. Fontinato was never quite the same from then on, his tough guy image damaged forever. Rangers coach Phil Watson admitted that the fight broke the spirit of the team, thus killing their hopes of making the playoffs for 1958-59.
It turned out, neither the Rangers nor the Red Wings made the playoffs that season. New York finished 5th with a 26-32-12 record, while Detroit slid into the basement with an awful 25-37-8 mark, the first time not making the playoffs since 1938. In 1961, Leapin’ Lou was traded to Montreal for all-star defenseman Doug Harvey, who had just won his 6th James Norris Trophy in 7 years as the NHL’s best defenseman, although Montreal management thought he was slowing down at 36. Many felt Harvey was traded away for his involvement with Red Wings Ted Lindsay in starting up the first Players Association in 1957. Harvey proved everybody wrong by winning his last James Norris while a Ranger. On 9 March 1963, in a game against his old team, Fontinato missed a check on Rangers Vic Hadfield and slammed into the boards headfirst. Paralyzed for a month with a broken neck, he recovered but his playing career was over at 31. He took to farming and is still at it outside Campbellville, Ontario.
Decades after the bout with Howe and despite the photo evidence of his bandaged face, Fontinato claimed he never really lost the fight as badly as it had been portrayed and that it was no worse than a draw.
I met Gordie Howe once. It was 5 years ago at a luncheon outside Harrow, Ontario. Howe was 80 then. A trim 80 too. He was wearing a suit jacket, so I didn’t get a chance to see the mighty forearms I had been hearing about. But I do remember looking at his long, powerful hands and strong wrists. I suddenly felt bad for Fontinato all those years before. I wouldn’t want those sledgehammers pounding my pretty face.