Sunday, 20 January 2013

Today in Habs History: January 20th Edition



When you think of a Montreal Canadiens wearing the number 19 sweater and delivering punishing checks, the name Larry Robinson immediately comes to mind. But over a decade prior to the Hall of Fame defenceman taking the ice for Les Glorieux,  Lou Fontinato wore it briefly for two seasons in Montreal with a similar physical reputation.

Fontinato was born on this day in 1932, and was one of the most feared rear-guards of his time.

A visit by opposing forwards, who failed to keep their heads up in the defensive zone, was often met with a thunderous hit. His first four NHL seasons were with the New York Rangers, where he backed up any challenges to his checks, and protected the smaller players, with his fists.

He was given the nickname “Leapin’ Louie” for one of two reasons, he left his feet on some of his hits or he was seen jumping up and down in protest to a penalty.

One of his famous battles came in 1959 in a bout with Gordie Howe. Frustrated with Howe roughing up Eddie Shack through the game, Fontinato jumped “Mr. Hockey”  and got in a few shots from behind. Howe responded and managed a couple haymakers that wound up breaking his opponent’s nose. Rangers goalie Gump Worsley claims his teammate stepped on a stick and lost his footing, allowing Howe to land his punches. There’s been much debate on the melee, and who really won, depending on where or in which city newspaper you read the story.

The rugged defender led the league in penalty minutes twice with New York and was the first NHL player to crack the 200 penalty minute barrier, with 202 in his first full season (1955-56). Fontinato never had a season under 100 penalty minutes afterwards.

Fontinato was traded to the Habs following the 1960-61 season, in the deal that saw Doug Harvey go to the Blueshirts. His reputation followed him to Montreal, where he led the NHL in penalty minutes with 167 for the 1961-62 season.

He had another 141 minutes in the sin bin as the 1962-63 season was winding down. But his season, and career would come to a halt on March 9, 1963.  Fontinato was in a race for the puck with the Rangers’ Vic Hadfield as it headed into the corner, behind the Canadiens net. In his attempt to beat his opponent to the puck, and block him out in the process, Fontinato tucked down and missed as his Hadfield skipped around him. The Canadiens defender crashed head first into the boards. You can see the incident in the video clip below, as the silenced Forum crowd looked in shock.

Fontianto suffered a broken vertebrae and damage to the backbone at the base of the neck that left him paralyzed for a month. It would be another three months until he could get full feeling in his arms. Unable to play at the physical level that he once did, Lou Fontinato was forced to retire.

A feature on Fontinato that originally appeared in a Rangers game program during the 1958-59 season.


Also on this day…

1955: Maurice Richard scores his 23rd career hat trick and adds an assist in the Canadiens’ 6-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Born on this day: Chuck Lefley (1950)

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