28. When a Tie is a loss
May 3, 2001
What was he thinking?
With the Leafs in the home stretch to tie a hotly contested conference semi-final against the New Jersey Devils 2-2, on home ice and in a game where he'd already scored, Tie Domi picked a most inopportune moment to revert to thuggery.
He had the Devils' great defenceman Scott Niedermayer in his sights for a clean hit, but raised his elbow like a battering ram and knocked Niedermayer from the game and the series. The dastardly deed was Domi's last appearance, too, suspended for the playoffs and the first eight games of 2001-02. It created a media circus at his hearing (coach Pat Quinn manhandled an innocent photographer) which distracted from the team.
The Leafs did win one more to set up a seventh game in the Meadowlands, but jarred to life by the Domi hit, the Devils weren't going to lose it. Many Leafs, while respecting that Domi had watched their backs for years, said the elbow was the turning point in the series.
"I can't walk away from that fact. I did it," Domi said later. "I don't understand it. What am I going to say?
"I keep thinking back --'What happened?' -- and I'm thinking that the building was so loud, the emotions were so high. There's so much going through you at that moment. "All I know is every time I've gone to hit (Niedermayer), he had his stick up high. I guess I just anticipated that. I don't know why. It was a reaction to what I thought he was going to do.
"What can I say? I'm sorry for all of this happening. I feel like I let so many people down. I let myself down. I let my team down. I let my fans down."
29. Five-headed management monster
May 30, 1997
In the late 1990s, the 'most important team in the NHL' as it called itself had a very muddled hierarchy.
In Ken Dryden, they had a president who couldn't lure a general manager and then appointed himself the role. In the eccentric Mike Smith, they had a GM aspirant who grated under the 'associate' GM label, while Anders Hedberg was a scout with the assistant GM's tag and Bill Watters was assistant to the president, having held Hedberg's title in the previous regime.
Pat Quinn, meanwhile, the only man who had been a president and GM with another team (Vancouver), was just trying to coach.
Hired on this date, the methodical Dryden never rushed into anything, leading to frequent log jams in the team's decision-making process. It took months to fire previous coach Mike Murphy after two non-playoff finishes and goaltender Felix Potvin, pushed to the backburner when Curtis Joseph signed, eventually bolted the team as he waited for a trade that didn't come until mid-season.
After one year of watching all this unfold, Quinn stepped in during a falling out between Dryden and Smith to take the GM reins, as a matter of personal survival.
30. Paper Bag Prince
March 3, 1979
Roger Neilson coached 1,000 NHL games for eight teams, but had his first employers in Toronto been more patient with his innovative 'Captain Video' techniques, the cerebral Neilson might have improved upon his 41-win opening season.
But he didn't get the chance to complete his second year. An impatient Harold Ballard first tried to fire him after a late-season loss in Montreal, telling the media, but never getting around to actually informing Neilson. Ballard spent a whole day trying to find someone in the hockey front office willing to replace the coach, but no one wanted their own head in the noose.
With a game against the Flyers coming up the next night and his resolve weakened by a plea from captain Darryl Sittler to let Neilson come back, Ballard stopped the coach as he was cleaning out his desk and decided to pretend to the media that the whole dismissal was a prank. He even had Neilson briefly talked into wearing a paper bag over his head that night behind the bench and whipping it off at the end of the national anthem.
Neilson's good sense prevailed, the Leafs won and harmony was briefly restored but he was let go anyway in the off-season.