TORONTO (Nov. 17) — It could have been the kiss–and–tell book of all time in the National Hockey League.
I knew Tie Domi well enough in his playing days with the Toronto Maple Leafs to vouch for the 300 pages of dirt he chose to leave out. And, good for him. Tie would have gone through the rest of his life with regret.
Instead, Shift Work — written with my former colleague at The FAN–590, Jim Lang — is honest, respectful and appropriate for all ages. There is barely a profane word in the entire manuscript. Domi chose the same path as recent autobiographies published by hockey legends Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr — spotlighting family, friendship and his debt to the game. Tie writes movingly about his blue–collar dad — John — who migrated from Albania with an empty pocket; built a life for he and his family near Windsor, Ont., and then died unsuspectingly late in 1992 while his son played for the New York Rangers. It is the story of a humble beginning; how perseverance, self–respect and an unequivocal niche — fighting to protect more–gifted teammates — translated to a poignant, 15–season career in the world’s best hockey league.
As mentioned, there could have been more. Some reviewers are disappointed that Tie chose not to produce an expose. But, he’s a sharp cookie with tentacles throughout the business world and son that has a phenomenal upside in the game. Undoubtedly, and prudently, Tie considered how a salacious, “tell–all” book might impact Max Domi of the Arizona Coyotes — with Connor McDavid now injured, among the early favorites to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year (eight goals and 16 points in his first 18 games). I haven’t often run into Tie since his NHL career ended with the Leafs after the 2005–06 season. But, whenever I do, he emphasizes that his life is now, professionally, all about Max. As with John Domi while raising Tie, Dash and Trish, paternal instinct prevails in the family. And, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Tie would often bring young Max to Maple Leaf practices and morning skates at the Air Canada Centre. Like his dad, he was a little fireplug. Several times, he found a ball of used tape and challenged me to score into an imaginary goal at one end of the dressing room. As I gently kicked the tape, Max would sprawl from side to side — a Vezina Trophy candidate. You could see the competitiveness that now serves him well.
I attended virtually every game that Tie played with the Leafs between 1995 and 2006. When he knew he had an audience in the dressing room, he would occasionally say to me, “Hey ‘Scoop?’ You couldn’t scoop ice cream from a container.” I’d usually counter with a reminder of some easy scoring play he messed up.
It was all in good fun.
Early in my tenure covering the Leafs as a reporter for The FAN–590 came the incident that pockmarked a segment of Tie’s career. While jostling in front of the New York Rangers net at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 14, 1995, Tie hauled off and kayoed defenceman Ulf Samuelsson with a punch to the jaw. I was in the Gardens’ press box that night and the incident happened directly beneath my location. Inasmuch as other players around the NHL were overjoyed that one of theirs had pummeled the furtive Samuelsson — though a key figure on the Pittsburgh Stanley Cup teams of 1991 and 1992, he was known for administering cheap shots and ranked, at the time, amid the most–reviled figures in the game — it generated a backlash against Domi. Working for Canada’s only all–sports radio, I led much of the charge here in Toronto.
Two days later — on Monday — an enormous media throng assembled at the Gardens to speak with Domi… and to the NHL’s chief cop at the time, Brian Burke, who had issued the Leafs forward an eight–game suspension. I was standing in the corridor outside the dressing room when I heard my name called from across the way. It was Domi, summoning me to the ante–room outside the Hockey Night In Canada studio next to the media lounge. “That was fu–ing awful,” he said. “I thought you were my friend.”
It was the first time I had ever encountered such a dilemma. A number of athletes had upbraided me through the years over my radio commentary, but none in the guise of friendship.
“What did you want me to do, Tie, congratulate you?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” he replied. “But, this weekend was horrible for me and my family. I needed someone [in the local media] to have my back a little and I thought it might be you.”
What a paradoxical moment. Given that I spoke candidly on the radio, I had long resisted crossing the line between personal and professional. Yet, it was also a time when reporters could travel on the Maple Leafs bus during road trips and, occasionally, on charter flights. Unlike the sanitary environment today, you could get to know a player beyond his performance and cliches… and I had taken to Domi. He was an interesting, friendly person; hugely popular among hockey fans in this city.
In the end, however, my allegiance rested with the The FAN–590 and its listeners. It always did. It would have been easier to pal around with the players and “protect” them while reporting on the team. It also would have had me doing something else at the radio station. I easily chose Door No. 1 and tried to maintain a healthy balance. That approach led to “moments” I can instantly recall with Tie, Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson, Gary Roberts, Dave Andreychuk, Doug Gilmour, Pat Quinn, Ron Wilson and others, but it came with the territory. To his credit, Domi understood the media conundrum. And, that didn’t surprise me.
Can I tell you, without equivocation, that I handled Tie the same as all other players in my Leaf reporting days? No, I cannot. When he ran afoul of the NHL for a second time — in the 2001 Stanley Cup playoffs — I did have his back. I went easier on him than perhaps I should have, professionally, and more–so, by many lengths, than others in the Toronto (and national) media. This was after Tie had deliberately elbowed Scott Niedermayer of New Jersey in the snout at Air Canada Centre, rendering unconscious the future Hall–of–Fame defenceman. Domi writes about the incident in his book, calling it the “worst decision” of his career.
Why did I soft–pedal around Tie on this occasion? Did it result from his reaction to my admonishment after the Samuelsson punch? Actually, not in the least. More than 5½ years and many thousands of travel miles had passed since October 1995. My response to the Niedermayer episode came from Domi’s performance throughout the 2000–01 schedule. He played in all 82 regular–season games; continued to protect and stand up for his teammates, and scored a career–high (at the time) 13 goals. He had been so effective against New Jersey in the playoffs that the Leafs may have ultimately lost the series because of his absence. So, I couched it as a temporary lapse of judgement — not knowing, when it occurred, that Domi had “promised” to avenge an earlier high–stick from Niedermayer (which he details in the book). Though contrite, Tie was suspended for the remainder of the ’01 playoffs and the first eight games of 2001–02.
As it turned out, Tie played media “friend” less than two years later.
In March 2003, I drew the ire of Darcy Tucker and Shayne Corson for unveiling details about an aborted session with Pat Quinn during which they complained about teammate Jonas Hoglund’s ice time alongside Mats Sundin. It’s a story unto itself, but the Coles Notes version is that Sundin called me aside at one point and told me, though embarrassed, that the Leaf players would no longer talk to me until I revealed my dressing room source. Mats knew — as did everyone else — there was no way I would betray any source and the situation dragged on uncomfortably for two or three weeks. Needless to say, it was difficult to do my job in the absence of cooperation from the players, but my boss, Nelson Millman, was fully supportive.
During this time, I had two “friends” in the Leaf room — both on the Q–T: Domi and back–up goalie, Glenn Healy. Tie called virtually every night to remind me the situation would ultimately blow over. Heals complimented me on having the “balls” to stand by a story that was “100 percent correct.” Both had to straddle the line between teammates and an unpopular member of the media, and both pulled it off. Eventually, the squabble did subside; I patched up my differences with Tucker and Corson, and life went on.
It was arguably the most difficult phone call I made during my years covering the Leafs at The FAN–590. While in Edmonton for the 2006 Stanley Cup final between the Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes, I was told by an unassailable source that the Leafs were going to buy out the final year of Domi’s contract. Obviously, I sought a reaction from Tie and held my breath as the phone rang on the other end. I neither anticipated, nor received, any help. Tie told me to perform something anatomically impossible and hung up. Choosing not to reveal that part of the story, I went with it on the air and was proven correct, a few weeks later, when general manager John Ferguson Jr. exercised the Maple Leafs buy–out option.
Not long afterward, Domi called a press conference at the Air Canada Centre to announce his retirement from the NHL. I hadn’t talked with him since the abrupt phone call from Edmonton and didn’t know what to expect. During his preamble, and before answering questions from reporters, Tie thanked “all the media here in Toronto… guys like Howie and Lance” — referring to me and Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun.
I went up to him after and gave him a hug.
“No hard feelings, pal?”
“Nope. None at all.”
Buy the book. You’ll enjoy it.