“Leapin’ Louie” Fontinato was one of the most popular players to ever don a New York Rangers sweater.
The 6-1. 195 pound defenseman was born in January 1932 in Guelph, Ontario and came up through the Guelph Biltmore pipeline that provided the Rangers with so many young prospects such as Harry Howell, Dean Prentice, Ron Murphy and later Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert.
He made such an impression in his Madison Square Garden debut in October, 1954 that fans began chanting, “We want Louie,” and gave him a standing ovation. In short, he was just the kind of big, tough, defenseman the Blueshirts and their fans had been waiting for.
Fontinato earned his “Leapin’ Louie” moniker in two ways. The first was the way he would leap into checks on opponents and the second was his habit of jumping straight up when called for a penalty, which was very often. In 1955-56, his first full year in the NHL, he became the first player in league history to spend more than 200 minutes in the penalty box in a single season. He led the NHL in penalty minutes again in 1957-58 and led the team every season from 1955-56 until 1960-61.
Fontinato quickly became the most respected enforcer in the league by taking on all comers, big and small. He also seemed to enjoy that aspect of the game, as he was often seen smiling before and after each bout.
However, Fontinato’s reputation as well as his nose took a beating on the afternoon of February 1, 1959 in a game against Detroit at Madison Square Garden. Gordie Howe was getting the best of Eddie Shack and Fontinato sped over to help his teammate. After getting a few quick punches in on Howe, Gordie responded, grabbing Fontinato by the sweater and unleashing a series of short powerful rights that echoed throughout the Garden. Clop! Clop! Clop! Fontinato wound up bloodied and beaten, his nose pointing off to the side of his face. But at least he stayed on his feet and was not knocked out.
In the summer of 1961, Louie, then 29, asked GM Muzz Patrick for a raise. Patrick refused and traded him to Montreal for 37-year old Doug Harvey, who became the Rangers playing coach.
Lou’s career came to a tragic end on March 9, 1963 in a game against the Rangers in the Montreal Forum, when he suffered a broken neck attempting to check Vic Hadfield into the boards. Lou was paralyzed for a month but got back on his feet after several spinal surgeries and months of rehab. He then returned to Guelph and raised cattle for the next 55 years.
Fontinato scored 26 goals with 78 assists for 104 points with 1,242 penalty minutes in 536 regular season games with the Rangers and Canadiens. He also recorded two assists and 42 PIM in 42 playoff games.
New York loved Fontinato, and the defenseman loved the city back.
“I like the ravioli and I like the people,” he said when asked about New York as a rookie. “They all look like Paisans.”
Lou Fontinato passed away in July 2016 at the age of 84.