Finally, with less than two minutes left in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the fans let it all out. They stand and shout: DO-mi! DO-mi! DO-mi!
Tie Domi has heard his name chanted before. But not like this. Tonight, the screams praise not a punch, but a performance. Tonight, Domi has carried the puck, created plays, forechecked, backchecked, dived face-first to block a shot, everything, it seems, but brawl. Not that the New Jersey Devils haven’t been cowed. On his every approach, Domi has heard his opponents warn, “Here he comes!” But he’s kept skating, playing the game of his career.
Now Toronto’s favorite son feels the coach tap his shoulder. Time for a victory lap. Domi springs over the boards, landing with both blades square on the ice. As his short, powerful legs propel him into the fray, his ears fill up with the roar of his name, now even louder:
DO-mi! DO-mi! DO-mi!
In a moment, it seems, Domi will be announced as that night’s first star. As he skates, he thinks: I am a factor. His blood runs hot.
Then, with under a minute left, Domi looks up to see Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer skating toward him. Domi does not break stride. Domi never breaks stride. Niedermayer skates along the boards. Domi stays wide too. Niedermayer stops accelerating. Domi begins to coast. Niedermayer turns away, flinches and, at the last second, begins to raise his stick. Domi’s eyes widen. His blood runs cold ...
What happened next made people sick. It spurred days of outrage in bars, in newsrooms, in league offices, in hockey households from Maine to Moose Jaw. There was Domi’s weepy press conference of contrition, a summer of personal reflection and then an eight-game suspension to start the new season. But the questions remain. Why did he do it? Could he do it again?
The answers won’t be found in the Air Canada Centre when Domi returns. That’s because Tahir Domi’s story is not told in goals and assists, but in cuts and bruises. The answers begin with one scar.
His old man was an underground soldier. The Soviets expected John Domi to protect the Iron Curtain, no matter the consequences for his native Albania. “You had to put on the Communist uniform,” says John’s nephew Vulka Domi, now living in Florida. “Or they would shoot you and your family.”
But family lore says John Domi wore that uniform only for cover and used the ammo to wage his own war. He smuggled his people across the Yugoslav border. He led convoy after convoy, returning to Albania again and again, knowing that if he were caught, the Soviets would bulldoze his ragtag gang of refugees and execute him on sight.
They almost did. In the middle of one frenzied border crossing, John felt a sharp, sudden pain in his forehead. Blood gushed. He had been shot. Somehow, Domi made it to safety with a terrified band of refugees in tow. The bullet stayed in his head. “He saved countless people,” says Vulka.
Domi married, escaped to Ontario and raised three kids. He lived the rest of his life with a bullet fragment lodged in his skull, covered by a scar that traced his left eyebrow. John’s youngest, Tahir, spent his childhood looking up at that wound.
Tie Domi got into his first scrap in the third grade. An older, bigger kid -- the enemy would always be bigger -- roughed up one of Tie’s buddies. Made him cry. Tie walked right up to the punk after gym class and told him to cut it out. The bully shoved Tie. He shoved back. A crowd gathered. Tie, age 8, bum-rushed that bully, tackling him to the locker room floor and wailing away with fists clenched and eyes shut tight. The gaggle of kids chanted his name. He felt the crunch of his knuckles against the boy’s face, and his friend never got pushed around again. “That’s when I started to learn how to be angry,” Domi says.
John’s youngest had his rep two years before he even started playing hockey. And when Tie Domi did pick up a stick, he didn’t hold onto it for long. He could hardly skate. At 14, playing for Junior C Belle River against chippy Wallesburgh, Domi picked out the largest player on the ice -- a 20-year-old with hair down to his elbows -- and threw down a challenge. The kid laughed out loud and threw down his gloves. Domi quickly kicked the oaf’s skates out from under him. Domi jumped his opponent, closed his eyes and started swinging. Teammates gathered, cheered and then quieted in shock. Domi opened his eyes. The kid’s long, black mane was drenched in blood. At season’s end, Domi’s coach, Hall of Famer Marcel Pronovost, gathered his team to announce that only two players would return for certain: the team’s leading scorer, Ryan Renaud, and Domi. “You know why?” Pronovost told his team. “Because Tie’s got this.” And the coach tapped his chest.
Right then, Domi realized every Ryan Renaud needs a Tie Domi for protection. He would always have a place in the game he loved if he just kept swinging. At the next level, Junior B, Domi led the league in penalty minutes. “I started getting room,” he remembers in amazement. He made it to the OHL, and played on a championship-winning team with Mike Ricci in Peterborough. In 1988, Domi’s beloved Leafs drafted him 27th overall.
From moment one of his NHL career, Domi was known for his fists. Everyone in Toronto remembers his first game. The rook mouthed off in the locker room before he laced up his skates. He promised to break some heads that night. “Everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” Domi recalls. The 20-year-old got only a few fourth-line shifts, but he somehow racked up 42 penalty minutes. It was only the beginning. Domi’s career bio would eventually resemble a police blotter: suspended for six games for a pregame fight ... fined by the league for a premeditated fight ... led the league with a team-record 347 penalty minutes ... 49 penalty minutes and seven infractions against Vancouver on Feb. 9, 1995 ... 26 fighting majors in 1996-97. For every NHL goal he has scored, Domi has spent 42 minutes -- more than two periods -- in the penalty box.
Hometown fans love him. “He represents all those fringe players who went nowhere,” says his brother Dash, an executive at a technology leasing company in Toronto. “All those would’ve, could’ve, should’ves but didn’t -- he represents them all.” Domi has made a mint, but he still sees himself as representing the little guy against the world, the bleachers against the boxes. “I beat those odds,” he says. “That’s what inspired me. I shut ’em all up. And I’m getting better.”
At an Eagles concert in Toronto, frontman Glenn Frey interrupted the band’s set to make an announcement: “There is someone here who, if I went to war, I’d want beside me.” He called out Domi. Terminally ill children, given a final wish, want to meet the bravest person they can think of -- Tie Domi. Before practice one day, Domi arrived at his locker to find a letter from the parents of a sick child he had visited only weeks before. Enclosed was a picture of the boy, lying dead in his coffin, wearing a Tie Domi jersey.
Before every game, while his teammates visualize shots and scores, Domi visualizes confrontation. It’s no accident that his best friend and the Leafs’ leading scorer, Mats Sundin, has gone without a major injury since Domi joined him in Toronto in 1995. “Nobody in the dressing room has to think about fighting except me,” Domi says. “If somebody does something, who has to answer the bell except me?” And on the bench, Domi readies for revenge. “When somebody hurts one of my teammates,” Domi says, “it makes me angry. I sit and focus on what’s going to happen to that guy.”
Domi is still in the league -- long after the other good-ol’-days enforcers have retired -- because he’s the most vigilant of vigilantes. “It’s a difficult job,” says friend and former teammate Glenn Healy. “Night in, night out, you have to put not only your reputation but your career on the line for your teammates. All it will take is a night where you’re not feeling up to snuff and somebody gets hold of you, and you’re not quite as invincible as you were. In this league, your reputation precedes you.”
So even in the moment of hockey glory he always hoped for, Tie Domi is still ready for the moment of impact he always prepared for. In the last minute of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semis, both moments collide. Listen:
“The blood is flowing. I hear the chants. But in Game 2, [Niedermayer] cross-checked me in the face and cut my lip. It should have been a penalty. Later in that game, we’re standing at the red line and I told him, ‘I’m gonna f--ing run you every f--ing chance I get.’ He raised his stick and he said, ‘You’re going to have to go through this. Hit me now, Tie.’ I’m f--ing livid.”
It is still on Domi’s mind in Game 4. “And I can get him,” he says. “Not many guys can, because he’s so fast. But I can. I try to hit him every chance I get. So the adrenaline is really flowing. I can’t breathe. I’m spent. He goes down with the puck and comes back along the boards. He sees me. He reacts. I think, ‘F-- him.’ ”
As Niedermayer turns away, Domi throws his left elbow into the defenseman’s face. Niedermayer crumples to the ice, motionless. The crowd is hushed. Domi skates away from what he has done. He slides the puck along to teammate Shayne Corson, then hears the whistle. He looks back to find Niedermayer lying still. Domi’s shoulders slump. He rides his blades over to Corson. He says, “I’m done.” In the Toronto goal, Curtis Joseph feels the air leave his lungs, leave the building, leave the season. He thinks, “What a shame.” Medics carry Niedermayer on a stretcher, unconscious.
Tie Domi’s finest hour gave way to his darkest day. After the game, Domi dressed quickly and left without facing questions from reporters. He drove home with the radio off, and burst into tears when he had to explain to his only son, Max, why Dad won’t be playing anymore that season. He broke down -- bawled, really -- when he finally faced the press. “It went from a very special moment,” Domi warbled, “to being on an island all alone.”
On the day before Game 1 of the new season -- and Game 1 of Domi’s eight-game suspension -- the founder and owner of Tie Domi Group Marketing sits in his Toronto office in a muscle shirt, jeans and sneaks. He works the phones to promote a fundraiser for the families of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. He speaks graciously of the city and the organization that came rushing to his side in his most difficult hour. He speaks with anguish about his missed chance to play for the Cup. He speaks remorsefully about “the incident,” calling himself “stupid” for not skating away from Niedermayer.
“If I had it over again,” Domi says somberly, “I would have left him alone ... ”
Domi stops himself, looks down and then smiles just slightly.
“ ... and I would have run him later.”
This article appears in the October 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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