Controversial till the end

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Tie Domi confirmed the worst kept secret in Toronto yesterday.

No, not the one about him dating Belinda Stronach. But, we'll get back to you on that later.

Domi, choking over a prepared statement, announced his retirement as a National Hockey League player yesterday at the Air Canada Centre.

In more than a decade as a Maple Leaf he played with emotion and yesterday that's the way he retired. He didn't get halfway through his first sentence before choking up, then, in keeping with his tough-guy facade, there were no tears. "They said don't cry. I'm trying to hold back. It's not that easy. I love hockey. I love the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is my home. I just couldn't put on another jersey."

He claimed no lingering bitterness over the Leafs buying out the last year of his contract, although he said buddy Mats Sundin still thought he could play. Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr., standing quietly off to one side of the room, was so happy to hear that he almost smiled. Sphinx-like.

Sundin, Kyle Wellwood, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Tomas Kaberle listened from the back of the media centre as Domi talked about his love of all things blue, how he'll always be a fan, noting, "I'm no Dave Keon."

In other words, he's not holding a grudge. Domi may have done some cement-head things (he admits the stupidest thing he ever did was clobber Scott Niedermayer in a 2001 playoff game, paving the way for the Leafs' exit) but he's a shrewd businessman who already has built his future in Toronto.

He could've squeezed another year out of his NHL career in another city but the only place he can be Tie Domi is in Toronto. He is one of the few players in NHL history who turned a career as a fourth-line winger into superstar stature.

"What I've established in this city and this country I'll cherish for the rest of my life. People say, 'You're bitter at the Maple Leafs.' I'm not bitter. I was fortunate to be here a long time. I kiss my lucky charms I was able to play here so long and become a household name in this city."

This decision may have been about love of the Leafs and Toronto but it was just as much about Tie being loyal to Tie.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But let's not forget that while we're getting all maudlin and sniffling in our Maple Leafs hankies.

He has spent a hockey lifetime branding himself as a Maple Leaf and runs his own merger/acquisitions business. His business agent, in an interview last year, didn't deny that Domi earns more than $1 million annually in endorsements and other off-ice income by living in Toronto. His friends include some of the biggest names in Toronto business and society. He is a member of the prestigious Magna club in York.

He is in 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. 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.

RELATIONSHIPS

He has personal relationships with the likes of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. boss Larry Tanenbaum and there's a lot more upside in cultivating those than in spending a year plodding up and down the wing getting his ticket punched as a Dallas Star or Detroit Red Wing and bleeding all over a perfectly nice career.

Then, there's his gig unveiled yesterday with TSN, which sees him as their own Don Cherry. "I'm not going to hold too much back. I'm the type who doesn't vanilla too many things. I may need the six second delay when I first start."

There really was nowhere else for Domi to go. He wants to spend time with his kids, including watching his son, Max, play with the Marlies. Which brings us to Stronach, who has been spotted shopping in trendy Yorkville with Domi. The two also attended the Toronto International Film Festival together. "I, ah, prefer not to talk about my personal life. This is a day to talk about my hockey career," Domi said. Then he thanked everyone from his junior coach Dick Todd, to his teammates, the media, his friends, the rats in the rink, family. He hemmed, he hawed, he did not mention his wife, Leanne.

"It was a tough year on a personal note ... I couldn't see myself going somewhere and not having my kids with me," he said.

So he departs the way he played -- loved or loathed, sometimes misunderstood and forever enveloped in mystique and controversy.


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