They didn't call defenseman Lou Fontinato, who died on Sunday at 84, "Leapin' Louie" for nothing. He earned the nickname although by the time he became the undisputed favorite of New York Rangers fans in the late 1950s, some New Yorkers preferred the appellation Louie The Leaper, as in Jack The Ripper. No matter how you called him, the Guelph, Ont., native got that handle because his boiling point was so low that when called for a penalty Fontinato reacted like a gushing oil well, spurting all over the place as he leaped in protest.
But that wasn't the beauty part of his game. Fontinato's lust for hefty bodychecks, his unadulterated passionate play and, most of all, old-time, two-fisted fighting inspired fans to scream in delight at the old Madison Square Garden. I speak firsthand about my old pal, Louie, since we simultaneously broke in with the Rangers in 1954-55, him on the ice and me in the club's publicity department.
"Louie is just the player I've been waiting for," my boss, PR director Herb Goren enthused once Fontinato became a full-timer in the 1955-56 season. "He not only can fight but he actually can play defense."
Goren wasn't kidding. Prior to Louie's arrival, the Rangers had been a Sad Sack, non-playoff team from 1951 through 1955. With Fontinato taking a regular turn and looking out for such Hall of Famers as Andy Bathgate, Gump Worsley and Harry Howell, the Blueshirts began weaving a winning tapestry. "At times," Fontinato once told me, "it looked like we were going to be as good as the Canadiens." Almost, but not quite.
Because the Habs were then in the process of winning five consecutive Stanley Cups, the Rangers were happy enough to just make the playoffs while The Leaper became the unofficial NHL Heavyweight champion with particular attention to the hated Canadiens. One main event involved Louie vs. Maurice (Rocket) Richard, then Habs captain and leader. It reached its peak one night when Fontinato punched Richard in the head, re-opening an already-stitched wound. Another involved Montreal's hard-nosed Hall of Famer left winger Dickie Moore. Then there was one of the most intense cards featuring Louie vs. Bert Olmstead, another toughie and Hall of Famer.
Stalking Olmstead after bursting out of the penalty box, Lou spotted his prey in the corner of the rink. As he reached Bert from behind, Fontinato leaped high off his skates and cross-checked Olmstead across the back of his neck. The force of the blow snapped Fontinato's stick like a toothpick. Olmstead went down but managed to survive the assault, got to his feet and continued to play. That acrobatic, unpenalized bit -- don't ask me why -- got The Leaper on the back page of the New York Daily News the next day, and made Goren grin like a Cheshire cat.
An equally colorful leap that sent the MSG crowd into paroxysms of joy followed a fight between Louie and Habs defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot. After ripping of his foe's jersey and tossing it on the ice, Lou then jumped on the sweater, making sure his two skates sliced the fabric. Granted that Lou didn't play the game according to Hoyle, his teammates nevertheless appreciated having him around. "He gave us protection," Camille Henry once told me, "and I felt better with Lou on my side."
Fontinato went undefeated in bouts with Montreal Hall of Fame defensemen Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson, but Gordie Howe was another -- less positive -- story.
In the primes of their careers, the Red Wings legend and Fontinato collided at The Leaper's instigation on February 1, 1959 at The Garden. (I happened to be sitting in the mezzanine press box practically over their shoulders at the time.)
Some might have called it the "NHL Fight Of The Century" in terms of the combatants and battle-level intensity. In any event, it all started with a behind-the-net high-sticking skirmish between Rangers pest Eddie Shack and Howe. No doubt it would have ended there but Louie chose to intervene, dashing in from the blueline, and then swinging away at Howe before he could retaliate.
After that it was no contest, bashing Louie around the face, Gordie re-arranged the Rangers' nose, causing enough damage for Fontinato to require facial surgery later that night. Not surprisingly, Spin Doctor Goren also went to work, later telling me, "Nobody's talking about the body blows Louie scored. That's not fair."
In conversation with his longtime pal, Hal Gelman, last year, Fontinato supported the Goren line. "Everybody thinks Gordie won," Lou told Gelman. "Nobody realized what I did to Howe. I ripped him in the face and gave him a bloody eye. There's no way he won that fight."
With 20-20 hindsight, one could say that the damage inflicted by Howe was small potatoes to what happened to Lou after he had been traded to the Canadiens. During a game at The Forum on March 9, 1963, Fontinato collided with the Rangers Vic Hadfield in the right corner of the rink. The result was a broken neck and the end of Fontinato's career. It was Louie's last NHL leap.