Domi a demigod among young fighters

These days when Tie Domi fights, his opponents sometimes will thank him.

Sometimes they offer their gratitude in the penalty box. Sometimes they come out of opposing dressing rooms to shake his hand and shyly introduce themselves.

Aaron Downey in Dallas.

Andrew Peters in Buffalo.

Darcy Hordichuk in Florida.

Even Georges Laraque in Edmonton, recognized as the top fighter in the game by many, has paid homage to one of the game's most durable, most recognizable fighters.

"I don't know these guys from a hole in the ground," Domi told ESPN.com.

Perhaps the respect isn't so much for the fighting prowess -- although longtime Toronto Maple Leaf Domi recently passed Bob Probert into fourth all time in penalty minutes -- but for proving that inside every tough guy, there's a hockey player waiting to get out.

Or something like that.

"It's a good feeling," to be shown that respect, Domi said. "But at the same time I hope these kids get the opportunity I did.

"I think they all know that I was in the same shoes they're in for a long time."

The opportunity of which Domi speaks was the chance to play a role beyond simply squaring off with one tough guy after another. Domi recalls the 1999 playoffs, when he was a healthy scratch against Pittsburgh while minor-leaguer Lonny Bohonos took his place. The Leafs won the game and Domi went on to play in the next round against Buffalo, but the moment was not lost on him.

"That was a real slap in the face,' he said. "Was I pissed off."

During that offseason, Domi hired a personal trainer and, always a swift skater, worked on his speed and endurance.

"I trained like a track athlete," Domi said. "That was a real wake-up call for me. After that, I said to myself, I can never let that happen again."

And true to his word, Domi has undergone a rather startling transformation. In the last three seasons, Domi has seen his goal and points production jump dramatically while his penalty minutes have declined. Last season, he had a career-best 15 goals and 29 points. Two seasons ago, he had 13 goals.

Not that Domi has gone all Bob Dylan on us ("Mama, put my guns in the ground. I can't use them anymore"). The father of three will still mix it up with the best of them, and, with his apprentice Wade Belak injured, Domi has fought more this season than in recent years.

Still, Domi has extended his career well beyond what many would have imagined.

He is one of the last fighters from the era when it was not uncommon for players to fight two or three times in one game. Many times, Domi would start the game with a fight as the puck was dropped.

"I used to love those days," Domi admitted. "Those days are long gone."

Instead, he said, the fighting for fighting sake has been replaced in many ways by team toughness. It's why he hates to see tough guys sitting on the end of the bench come playoff time.

"That drives me absolutely crazy," Domi said. "It brings your whole team down when you do that."

While admitting there is a high stress factor in being a team's designated fighter, Domi said he was never afraid.

"I was always looking forward to it. That's the amazing thing was that I looked forward to it," he said.

While he may have looked forward to it, the fighting has for the most part been a personal issue with him. He recalls a teammate in Winnipeg suggesting that Domi would or should fight a particular player.

"I said, 'Do you want me to break my stick over your head?'"

After that, no one suggested to Domi what his job was.

"I don't talk about it. I don't like talking about it with the media," he said. "It wears on you."

Wherever Domi has played, his personality and his style of play have made him a fan favorite. And he has had opportunities to shine beyond trading rights and uppercuts.
Former Leafs coach Pat Burns had him playing with Mats Sundin and Doug Gilmour in the playoffs. He assisted on Teemu Selanne's rookie record 76th goal in Winnipeg. He even played Broadway.

It was while in New York that Mark Messier took Domi aside and implored him to tone down his act, an intervention that undoubtedly lengthened Domi's career. It was after a game at Madison Square Garden and Domi had scored, registered an assist and had a fight. He'd ridden his stick like a cowboy, went a couple of rounds with an imaginary speed bag after his fight (as opposed to putting on an imaginary heavyweight title belt, another Domi specialty) and generally made a spectacle. Messier pulled Domi into the training room before Domi had even undressed. Domi thought the Ranger captain was going to tell him where they were going out afterward. Instead, Messier told Domi that if he wanted any level of respect in the league, he had to stop the histrionics.

"He said, 'Tie, enough's enough. Cut that stuff out,'" Domi recalled.

And he did.

Not that there haven't been ups and downs.

Under Pat Quinn, Domi has frequently been given premium ice time with the team's top players. He also was suspended for leveling New Jersey's Scott Niedermayer with a blind-side elbow to the head during the 2001 playoffs.

He once again leads the team in penalty minutes this season, while contributing in a variety of areas.

One of his most important bouts this year took place 23 seconds into a game in Vancouver on Nov. 22. The Leafs, in the midst of their worst western road trip in years and being savaged by the media, held a players' only meeting after the previous game in Edmonton. On the first shift in Vancouver, Domi fought Canucks defenseman Bryan Allen. The Leafs handed the Canucks their first home loss and went on a franchise-record 16-game point streak, climbing into first place in the Eastern Conference.

Cause and effect? Who knows.

"I tried to change things around a little bit. Old-school mentality," he said. "I don't know if it had anything to do with [the streak] or not."

Once Belak returns from injury, it's unlikely Domi will fight as often as the season progresses -- although it will never be far from his mind.

"There's not a game that goes by that I don't think that I might do it," he said. "I take a lot of pride in taking care of my teammates, and I still do."

It was to Domi that Belak turned, asking for advice on how to improve his fighting. Domi has tried to give him some pointers and insists that Belak, the 12th overall pick in the 1994 draft, is among the top three fighters in the league.

"He's a smart guy," Domi said.

Ironically, Belak's style is reminiscent of former Philadelphia Flyers bruiser Dave Brown, a man Domi said he could never best. Domi met Brown in the press box in New Jersey after Brown retired in 1996.

"I had a nice conversation with him. He's a really, really nice guy."

As for his most memorable bout, the one that will define him, Domi harkens back to his early days, his first fight with Probert.

He was 20 years old.

"I was kind of begging him to fight me," Domi said. "He probably got tired of me begging him.

"I've kind of gotten to know that feeling."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.