There is good news and there is bad news. Usually, at the Original Six Alumni lunch, the news is all good. But at the July lunch, I was informed of some bad news. When Don Joyce told me that Louie Fontinato had passed away the day before on July 3, it was like taking a blow to the head.
Last summer, Don arranged for Gary England and I to visit Louie in Guelph, Ontario, along with Louie's former teammate Harry Howell. I've known Don and Gary since I first started attending the lunch several years ago. Although time had taken its toll on Fontinato, he was still the fiery individual I had read about when he played for the New York Rangers. Tough as nails, Louie was a physical force on the ice and he let his fists do his talking. During our visit, his hands were constantly in motion (as the above photo shows) when he told a story. It was a joy to watch the interaction between Louie and Harry Howell. While Louie did most of the talking, I could tell by watching Harry's eyes that he was taking in every word spoken by his longtime friend. Unfortunately, Howell's health has been in decline for the past couple of years. But it didn't seem to matter on that warm sunny afternoon.
These memories flashed before me when Don broke the bad news of Louie's passing. I now know what an opponent must have felt like when Fontinato tangled with them.
Here is a portion (unedited) of the news release put out by the Fontinato family:
Legendary Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers Tough Guy “Leapin” Lou Fontinato Passes Away Suddenly at Age 84
GUELPH, ONTARIO – It has only been three weeks since Gordie Howe’s demise, and now the other party involved in the famous Howe – Fontinato fight passed away on Sunday, July 3, 2016, in Guelph, Ontario. The hockey fraternity has lost one of its most colourful and boisterous characters.
Louis Joseph "Leapin” Louie Fontinato (born January 20, 1932) was a defenseman in the National Hockey League with the New York Rangers from 1954 to 1961 and the Montreal Canadiens from 1961 to 1963. Prior to the NHL, Fontinato played with the Vancouver Canucks and Saskatoon Quakers of the Western Hockey League. In 1952/53, Fontinato played for the OHL’s Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters, a team that most experts agree was one of the best junior hockey teams ever assembled. Along with Lou Fontinato, future NHL players Harry Howell, Andy Bathgate, and Eddie Shack all played for the Mad Hatters on that Memorial Cup winning team.
Lou Fontinato was a rugged defender and the most feared enforcer of his time. He started his career with New York during the 1954-55 season. The following year, he led the NHL in penalty minutes – the highest total ever at that time. He also led the league in that category in 1957-58 and 1961-62 with Montreal. While with the Rangers, Fontinato and Gordie Howe had a running feud that culminated in the now famous fight at Madison Square Garden on February 1, 1959.
Fontinato was eventually traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Hall-of-Fame great Doug Harvey at the tail end of his career. Fontinato's career came to an abrupt and violent end in 1963 at the Montreal Forum. After missing a check on left-winger Vic Hadfield of the Rangers behind the Montreal net, he slammed headfirst into the boards, broke his neck, and became paralyzed for a month. After multiple spinal surgeries, Fontinato regained most of his motion.
After his retirement from the game due to his life-altering injury, Fontinato returned to his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, to raise beef cattle. He spent the next 55 years doing what he loved best – actively working on his cattle farms.
Lou Fontinato was recently admitted to Riverside Glen Nursing Home in Guelph, suffering from symptoms of dementia, and he passed away quietly in his sleep. Fontinato is survived by two of his three children. His daughter Paula Fontinato lives in Guelph and his son Roger Fontinato lives in Surrey, BC. Louis Fontinato Jr. passed away on May 31, 1996.
His adult children, Paula and Roger, released the following comment: “We appreciate the well wishes and condolences the family has received. 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.”
Tough guy persona aside, Fontinato was known 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.