The Tie you know ... and the Tie you don't

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

"I don't give people too many opportunities. I'm a pretty honest, respectful guy. If you screw me, then usually I don't give you the chance to screw me again."

-- Tie Domi

---

He is beloved.

He is loathed.

He is the most visible athlete in Toronto and the most misunderstood.

He has been called a cementhead and a punk; then he shows up with $100,000 in gifts for kids to whom Christmas only is a rumour.

During the late lamented hockey lockout he was dubbed a traitor. Or would-be saviour. Take your pick.

He's involved in charities from Rose Cherry's Home to Variety Village. He shows up unannounced at the funeral of a child he had met only a week earlier during a hospital visit.

At the recent inquiry into the MFP computer-leasing scandal at City Hall, Domi was one of those called to testify because his brother, Dash, is one of the main characters in the sordid story.

Domi, unlike any other athlete in Toronto, is inextricably woven into the fabric and everyday conscience of this city, assuming a role normally reserved for the superstar.

He is the consummate Maple Leaf. Like that gopher on the midway, he just keeps popping up.

Everywhere.

He lives here. Participates in everything. Shows up for everything. He is living his dream. It is why he did not depart for Pittsburgh because while Domi could have earned a bigger NHL salary elsewhere, he can't be Tie Domi -- as celebrated, secure, charitable or popular -- anywhere else.

Tie Domi is not merely a hockey player. He is player, manager, philanthropist, opportunist and, perhaps surprising to hockey fans who have seen him self-combust on the ice, a cool-handed No. 1 prospect among the Bay St. suits.

SUITS-AND-TIE WORLD

Domi appears, walking jauntily through the door into the glistening boardroom. He's wearing a pinstripe shirt, open at the collar, and a grin. He looks more like the CEO of a merger and acquisitions company -- right down to the minder who sits in to monitor the interview -- than that guy who planted his elbow in Scott Niedermayer's ear a couple of springs ago and ...

Oh, wait.

He is.

Domi is head of TDE International, with offices overlooking Yonge St. and in partnerships with some of the giants of the business world. For 11 springs now, when other players head to the golf course, Domi goes to his office.

"I think they should make golf a 12-hole game," he says, laughing. "Unlike most hockey players I'm not a good golfer. I'll go for business, but it's not like I'm there for the golf. I'm there for another reason."

His biggest deal so far is a partnership with Universal Energy, which is headed by Mark Silver, who took Direct Energy from a single customer to 1 1/2 million before selling the company in 2000.

"It probably would come as a surprise to many people but (Domi) is very articulate and he's smart -- and not in just a street smart sense -- but as a businessman," Silver says. "He takes his business just as seriously as hockey, maybe more so knowing that the hockey will end and he doesn't want to find himself just a spectator."

Universal has projected 500,000 customers will be buying natural gas from it during the next few years. Suddenly Domi's hockey business looks very small in comparison.

"I was born into business through my father. I was one of those kids who always wanted to be around his father when he was working," Domi says. His father, who escaped Albania with his brother and half a bullet lodged in his skull, died in 1989. But not before he saw his son play in the NHL. "I used to be a fly on the wall when my dad went around. He had plazas, laundromats, that kind of thing. Just not to the extent that I'm doing it."

Domi helped take Stephenson Rental public. His business acquaintances include Gerry Schwartz, the high-flyer of Onex Corp. He's in steel with Alex Shnaider of Midland Group and owner of a Formula One team. Domi was his guest this year at the Montreal Grand Prix.

Larry Tanenbaum isn't just the guy who signs his hockey cheques. They visit back and forth. They're friends -- a small source of irritation to other players who acquaint that to fraternizing with the enemy. But, like almost everything in Domi's life, it isn't a black-and-white issue. He lives in a world coloured by a hundred shades that are not always distinguishable to the onlooker.

"I'm fairly diversified," says Domi, looking and sounding nothing like the guy trading spit with that Flyers zealot in the penalty box in Philadelphia some years back. "I put people together. Real estate. Hotels ... I'm all over the map."

Just like in the rest of his life. Some things never change.

Other athletes have owned the love of a city. Namath in New York. Favre in Green Bay. Elway in Denver. Gretzky in Edmonton. But a fourth-line winger who started his NHL career as a goon and has been portrayed by others as a buffoon? How does that happen?

Domi smiles. He will forgive the foolish. But just this one time, so listen up: "I'm a hockey player. First, I'm a father and husband. Then, I'm a businessman. But the business and hockey go hand in hand because hockey has given me everything I have. It has set me up in the business.

"I'm tenacious in everything. Sometimes people underestimate me and I like that. On the other hand some people take my kindnesses as a weakness and (long pause) that's a mistake."

If that sounds like an outtake from The Sopranos ...

"What attracted me most was how honourable he is," Silver says. "I've never seen him take back his word and in (the seven years) we've known each other I've never seen him fight -- in a non-physical way, I mean. He's pretty soft, really. He's easy going but hard-nosed at the same time. People take to him."

He has become as comfortable in the boardroom as he has on the ice. "He's a terrific guy to bring into a meeting. He's a great closer," Silver says. "He's not just a face we put on a brochure, he actually does something."

This doesn't sound anything like someone who would get caught in a racial war of words with former Flyers henchman Sandy McCarthy. But that's Tie Domi -- a magnet for controversy and the man of a hundred faces. One day he's running on emotion; the next every word is calculated for effect.

He may have done dumb things, but he is not dumb.

"Early in my career when we went to golf tournaments and charity dinners I noticed businessmen and executives would give the players their cards," Domi says. "Well, they're giving you their cards for a reason. I said to my wife, 'All the guys get these cards and then when they get to the parking lot they rip them up or throw them away. It's really weird.' My wife ... said maybe you should just sign a picture and mail it to them. You know, 'Great playing golf with you,' or whatever. So, I did and lo and behold some of those guys I sent pictures to way back then are now CEOs at big companies."

One guess whom they invite to business. Not to mention, dinner.

Some cementhead, eh?

FOR LOVE OF CHARITY AND TIE

It figures that Tie Domi's favourite athlete would be a guy with a hair-trigger temperament. "I was a sports junkie growing up ... my favourite athlete all-time is John McEnroe."

When it is suggested that there is more than a little Johnny Mac in Tie himself, he considers the irony. Laughs. "Yeah, I guess," he says.

He can make people mad. He often makes them smile. No athlete in this city does more for charities -- and much of it is unpublicized.

"He's in a city where ... you can't get to a lot of the high-profile guys to ask them; and then by the time you do the answer is usually too late in coming," Domi's publicist, Allen Fleischman, says. "So many occasions, Tie has picked up the slack for other people. That's why he's so recognized in this city. He's always available."

So, he ends up buying tickets for kids to go to a Raptors game, or helps out a downtown mission. "You ask me, what makes me the guy in the community? I think it's the right thing to do," Domi says. "It's not that I'm obligated to do it. It's not that I should do it. It's the right thing ... if I can make a kid happy or put a smile on a family's face that's more joy than having your picture in the newspaper."

It's also good business, even if Domi is much too coy to even suggest such a thing.

Says Silver: "He's all over the place. He loves to be where there's action. He wants to be involved in what people are doing. He's a great study.

"Most of that is because he's a great person. He also knows it benefits his business career and his access to people. He's doing it for all the right reasons because anyone who says he's doing it just for charity likely isn't. He's very upfront about it. He wants to do the right thing. He loves Toronto."

A Toronto reporter still marvels at Domi showing up at a memorial service for his mother. A man who does not have a good heart wouldn't do that.

Fleischman says, "He's a pussycat, really."

Try telling that to Bob Probert.

Every year the Maple Leafs tour Sick Kids Hospital. "I don't agree with the cameras following us around," Domi says. "It's just good PR for the Toronto Maple Leafs. You know, the kids love it, but the players don't like the cameras being there. I like to make those special moments for the kids and their families and sometimes you just can't do that when the cameras are around."

This is Tie Domi. The ranting maniac ripping into the media and fans for being intolerant of the team. The mellow kid who'd help a little, old lady across the street.

Misconceptions?

People have a few. "I think they do," Domi says, "and quite frankly, I really don't care.

"People don't understand me as a person. But the people who matter most know me as a loyal person and that's what I care about. I'm a loyal friend and teammate.

"I hold my cards close. I don't put my guard down too easy because of who I am in the city ... one thing I do know is that there's a lot of jealous people out there.

"I'm not jealous of anybody. I'm happy for anyone who does well. That's the one thing that kind of bothers me because there are a lot of jealous people out there.

"Let's face the facts. I have riled people."

That's Tie Domi, too. He can be guarded in words one moment; an emotional torrent of indignation the next. He is a man coloured with countless fascinating contradictions.

THE GAME: WIN, LOSE OR TIE

There's a tale that exemplifies the essence of Domi. Bill Laforge, a tough-talking life-long hockey man, is sent to scout the winger by a junior hockey team. After the game, Domi supposedly tells Laforge, "Let me fight your toughest guy; if I win I get a spot on your team."

Laforge ignores it.

Domi asks again.

Then, a third time.

Laforge says, "I'm the toughest guy we got."

Domi replies: "The offer still stands."

Asked if the tale is true, Domi grins. "Ah, I don't know. He asked me what I'd do to make his team. I was 15 years old, I didn't know what to say ..."

But he doesn't deny it.

And, Domi fought his way to the top.

"I was fortunate to play (Junior A) in Peterborough. The reason I'm where I am today is because I played there for Dick Todd. There's no ifs and buts," Domi says.

Todd took Domi and put him on the top line with Mike Ricci, then the Canadian junior player of the year. "I went from a guy who couldn't play -- from sitting in the stands one year, to playing on the first line and being drafted 27th overall by the Leafs."

There was a six-year stopover with the Winnipeg Jets and New York Rangers, but his heart never left Toronto. He has now been a Maple Leaf for a decade. Always he has played the heavy. "I've been called that for so many years it doesn't bother me. With (Leafs coach) Pat Quinn here, he put the pressure on me to become a more complete player and I think I've done that. I really don't fight much anymore.

"I've always been an underdog my whole career. I've always had to prove that I can play."

This spring he could have left Toronto. His pal, Mario Lemieux, was offering more money and a three-year deal to ride shotgun for Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nice gig.

"I was able to make my decision with my heart and not my wallet this time as a hockey player. I could've went for the money. It's better for me to be in Toronto. I've played with guys who've had to move to seven or eight different cities. My kids have never had to move."

His son, Max, is playing triple-A with the Marlies. And, there are other considerations. He may have given up salary, but if someone would suggest that Domi earns more than a $1 million yearly for endorsements in Toronto, nobody could call that person a liar. "You're not getting an exact number out of us," Fleischman says.

Silver recalls Domi fretting over leaving. "He wanted his family to stay here. He'd just built a beautiful home here. I know Mario made him a tremendous offer and he was going to go because he thought the Leafs didn't want him. I've never seen him more sad than that week."

But, the deal got done and Domi looks to retire as a Maple Leaf. "Every time I step on the ice there's another switch that goes on. And it's not the switch that goes on in the boardroom. It's the switch that I have a passion for; and I love doing it every day. It's still fun going to the rink every day and being with the guys. The excitement and the fun and the cajoling that goes on in the dressing room."

There hasn't been much to cajole about lately and the lockout still festers like a boil on Domi's conscience. "I'm a deal-maker and so is Larry (Tanenbaum). I set up that meeting -- Ted Saskin and Trevor Linden from the players side and me. And from the owners side I had Larry, Mario and Bill Daly. We had a five-hour meeting. I thought we had some kind of framework at the end of the day."

He believes the lockout could have been avoided that day. Instead the players' association executive turned it down. Domi, it was suggested, was just grandstanding. He was too close to the owners.

Domi blames Linden.

"I was very disappointed in Trevor Linden. When you're getting no linkage, no salary cap shoved down your throat for three or four years and at the end of the 13th hour and triple overtime they throw that out there and then still don't get a deal done, I was pretty pissed off."

He says his relationship with the Leafs boss had zero bearing on the talks that day. "At the end of the day it wasn't about whether Mario or Larry was my friend. That's an aside. This was business. It was a business meeting. Maybe because I was a friend I got to pull them together. I felt it was my obligation to do my best. When the season was cancelled I could sleep because I knew I'd made an effort. But did Trevor Linden make an effort?"

Domi pauses. The fire is back in his eyes. He's rolling now: "We lost the season for what? For what? So, I don't have much respect for Trevor Linden whatsoever. What happens to Trevor Linden as president going forward? It's under review. I guarantee. I can't see him lasting too long."

Many players, he says, are hurt by what happened but not necessarily in the wallet. "As much as I knew it was hurting the fans, it was hurting the players. They woke up every morning knowing that they had something taken away that they loved doing.

"If I didn't have my business I would've gone insane. I can't sit still for too long. I like the action."

He has grown to understand firsthand how much the Maple Leafs mean to Toronto. "When you step on the ice, when you get in your car, when you're out in public, every time you step out your front door (players are) so scrutinized. I know that better than anybody. It's not easy to live in this city and it doesn't matter whether you're winning or losing."

Just stopping in at the coffee shop can be disconcerting if you don't understand the psyche of the city.

For instance, Domi says: "I get a coffee every morning, the atmosphere in that coffee shop after we win, there's a buzz. When we lose, they kind of turn around, they don't know what to say. At playoff time, it's another ball game, the intensity and scrutiny is everywhere. When you win, the next morning everybody is: 'Yeah, way to go!' and if we lose, God forbid, nobody wants even to confront you. There's nothing like it in any other city."

Joy or dismay. Just a slapshot away. Contradictions. They follow Domi like Wade Belak, his enforcer in training.

---

BAD BOYS

Tie Domi is the most-penalized skater in the NHL among active players and by the time he retires, should usurp Dave (Tiger) Williams as the NHL's penalty king:

- 1. Tiger Williams

................... 3,966 PIM

- 2. Dale Hunter

................... 3,565 PIM

- 3. Tie Domi

................... 3,406 PIM

- 4. Marty McSorley

................... 3,381 PIM

- 5. Bob Probert

................... 3,300 PIM

---

FRIENDS, FOES AND THE TIE THAT BINDS

The difference between Domi and most other pro athletes is that he says what he thinks. "What you see is what you get. Sometimes you answer the questions politically correct. I chose to just answer what I'm asked," he says of his relationship with the media.

Of course, what Domi thinks can change from one hour, one day, one week to the next. Media members who cover the Leafs daily say it is a characteristic that is endearing, charming and maddening. Perhaps it is the deal-maker in him that has made him comfortable listening to an argument and, if it makes sense, to have the confidence to change his mind.

His relationship with the media largely is amicable but he's not a fan of the all-day sports radio format. Recently he walked away from an interview over comments made by Bill Watters, a former Leafs general manager, now co-host of Leafs Lunch.

"When you're in the hockey hotbed ... everyone is entitled to their opinion. What bothers me is when it's based on wrong information," Domi says. "I think that's why I got upset on the interview. They're on every day, and every day they just ramble on and they ramble on about nothing. Like Bill Watters was with the organization forever and I think I was the only player who called him and wished him well after he got fired. And, ever since he has been gone he has been all over me. Why?

"Maybe he's a little jealous. But I was the guy who had respect for him until he started all this BS about me. He's on the radio for a reason. He doesn't know what's going on in the dressing room ... he's just guessing and that's what bothers me."

Nobody touches Domi's life without going away with some kind of opinion. But, wherever he goes, he seems always to be hooked in with the movers, the shakers and the blue bloods. In New York it was Domi and Mark Messier. In Winnipeg it was Domi and Teemu Selanne. In Toronto it is Mats Sundin and Domi. He is pals with Gary Roberts. When Lemieux comes to town, he stays at the Domi home.

Domi played a part in Jeff O'Neill coming to Toronto, twigging general manager John Ferguson Jr. that O'Neill wanted to join the Leafs and would come cheap.

Ditto, with Eric Lindros. The deal for Lindros was dead. Absolutely dead. The deal that eventually brought Lindros to Toronto was made at Tie's house.

Then there are the up-scale business associations.

Says Silver: "We met seven years ago at a friend's home. I actually didn't know who he was. I hadn't followed hockey since I was a kid in the late '60s. When I finished watching hockey the line was Ullman, Ellis and Keon. I got back into it with my friendship with Tie."

Schwartz? "I met him through mutual friends," Domi says. "Brilliant. I learn a lot just listening to him."

Tanenbaum? In 1994, Domi and his wife ended up sitting next to Larry and his wife, Judy, at the team Christmas party in the Hot Stove Lounge.

"We really hit it off. He was just on the board of directors back then. My wife and Judy really got along. Larry and Judy are the type of people you want to be your mentors."

The friendship with Lemieux had a more curious start.

Domi laughs. "When I was playing in New York, one night before the game we were skating around in warmup. I was the tough guy, early in my career, so I'd straddle the red line a little bit ... just put my foot over the line.

"I hear someone yell, 'Hey, kid!'

"Next time around, I hear it again: 'Hey kid!'

"Next time I hear it and there's Mario Lemieux, and this time he spun around on the ice and skates over.

"But, instead of confrontation, Lemieux says: 'Hey kid, can you get us on to the list to get into the China Club?'

"It was the hotspot. And, in New York you can't get into any of those places unless you know somebody. And, I was like, 'ahh ... (long pause,), uhhh, yeah, oh, yeah, yeah. For sure.' "

After the game, standing in the hallway at Madison Square Garden is Mario with a half-dozen of his teammates. "I called over," Domi says, "and got us in; and that's how it started."

Every elite athlete has an arm's length love affair with fans. Neither knows exactly what to expect from the other. There can be adoration but it is only one misplay, one misspoken word, from turning into rejection. Domi's style stirs emotions in both his detractors and boosters.

"Dealing with the fans. I lost my father at a young age. It changed my life. The values he taught me were don't take anything you have for granted, treat everybody the same.

"I've tried to do that whether they're a teammate, whether they're a fan, regardless what colour they are or what position they hold in a company."

On the same day he had his contretemps on Mojo, he went to the Air Canada Centre to announce he was staying in Toronto and was greeted by a parking lot attendant. "She said, 'I heard it on the radio on my way to work this morning and I almost got into an accident,' " Domi says.

"To see the expression on her and have her come out of that parking attendant box and hug me. That was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me. To have a lady like that tell me how much it meant to her to have me play here. It means a lot knowing you can make people happy like that. It may be a little thing but it's a big thing for me because it let me know I made the right decision."

The business of being Tie Domi is many things. But never is it a simple thing.


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