Ask any knowledgeable hockey fan of a certain age to name the meanest hombre in the National Hockey League in the 1950s and ‘60s and he won’t hesitate. When it came to toughness, No. 9 was indisputably No. 1.
Gordie Howe enjoyed a well-earned aura of invincibility during his 26 years as a Red Wing. Unlike Wayne Gretzky, the fellow who broke most of his records, Gordie didn’t require a bodyguard. He was his own enforcer. He possessed the most educated elbows in the league and had an elephant-like memory for those who had wronged him. Sooner or later, he would exact retribution. Often the offending party and referee never saw what happened. On other occasions, the whole world got a view.
Howe’s most famous altercation occurred February 1, 1959. That night, he took apart New York defenseman Lou Fontinato in the climax of a feud that had been brewing for some time. That it happened in the media capital of the world helped cement Gordie’s reputation as some kind of Superman on skates.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Fontinato was a well-built enforcer with a reputation for mayhem. A few years earlier he had become the first NHL player to spend more than 200 minutes in the penalty box. During the 1958-59 season, Look magazine helped build Fontinato’s image as the toughest man in hockey with a six-page pictorial that showed him flexing his muscles and hammering opponents.
There had been years of mutual hostility between Howe and the Rangers’ strongman.
“Whenever I went on the ice against the Rangers,” Howe recalled, “the coach sent Fontinato out. The idea was to work on me and distract me. Once, it cost me because I forgot a valuable bit of advice Ted Lindsay gave me. He said don’t ever drop your stick until the other man does. So we get into one game and Louie says, ‘You want to drop your stick?’ and I said, ‘Hell, yes!’ and I threw it to the ice, and the guy hit me right over the head…about six stitches worth. He nailed me, and I stood there laughing over my stupidity, and Lindsay just shook his head.”
On another occasion Fontinato whacked Howe in the mouth with the butt end of his stick, splitting his lip and loosening his tooth. Fontinato mocked him in the penalty box. “What’s the matter with your lip, Gordie?” he said. Howe vowed it wouldn’t happen again.
“Damned if I didn’t find myself in the same position in our next game,” Howe said. “When he went to hit me, I raised my stick and cross-checked him and damned near cut his ear off. Tit for tat. When he came back to the bench from the dressing room, he was wearing a bandage turban, real funny looking. The crowd threw beer and everything on me. So that was the situation between us when we went into New York to play the Rangers again.”
That evening at Madison Square Garden, Fontinato took a break from reading his press clippings to charge into a fracas involving Red Kelly and Eddie Shack behind New York’s net. Howe, who had intervened on Kelly’s behalf, noticed the blur rushing towards him, recognized it as Fontinato, and ducked a punch aimed at his head. Then, as Howe later described it, “that honker of his was right there, and I drilled it. That first punch was what did it. It broke his nose a little bit.”
Observers recalled Howe grabbing Fontinato’s jersey with his left hand, then using his right hand to deliver a stream of vicious uppercuts–”whop, whop, whop, just like someone chopping wood,” said one player quoted in Life magazine, which devoted three pages to Fontinato’s dismantling. Millions of readers were treated to photos of the humbled Fontinato swathed in bandages. In as violent a half-minute as ever seen inside a prize ring, Howe had broken Fontinato’s nose, dislocated his jaw, and destroyed his ego and reputation.
Howe’s demolition of the NHL’s top enforcer was all in a night’s work for someone who clearly was in a league all by himself. “There are only four teams in the league,” a rival player said at the time. “Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, and Howe.”