By Dave Waddell
Tie Domi grew up hearing he’d never make it.
Well, he won’t make it to the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner, but he did more than enough to gain entry into the pantheon of local athletic figures.
The Belle River native will be inducted into the hall at the Caboto Club Oct. 17.
Domi has long acknowledged the debt he owes to several people in the area for helping him became a 16-year veteran of the NHL. It’s those who truly believed in the small, stocky kid with the big heart that he recalled fondly in previous interviews with the Star.
One of those was NHL Hall of Famer Marcel Pronovost, who was then coaching the Belle River Canadiens Junior C team in the mid-1980s.
“I never expected to make it,” said Domi recalling when Pronovost told him he’d earned a spot.
“He said: ‘This is why you made it,’ and tapped his chest over his heart. I never forgot that.
“Just getting the chance to meet a Hall of Famer like Marcel was a thrill in itself, but to be able to learn the game from him was unbelievable.”
Though he’s been retired since 2006 and left Belle River to play in the OHL in 1986, Domi remains flattered when area people approach him with memories of those long ago years.
“I still get a lot of people from Windsor and Belle River coming up to me and saying they went to school with me somewhere,” Domi said. “I enjoy that.
“Someone told me Belle River still has a sign up saying it’s the home of Tie Domi. That’s really flattering for an old retired guy.”
Domi went on to play 1,020 regular-season NHL games scoring 104 goals and 245 points with 3,515 penalty minutes.
However, it was after making the Canadiens that convinced Domi that he might have some kind of future in hockey.
“I think when I made junior C, it was the first big step in my hockey career,” Domi said. “I kind of knew then that if I worked at it, I could at least play junior A.
“This is where it all started for me. I remember learning how to skate here when I was nine.
“This will always be the place where I’m from. This will always be the town I call home.”
Off the ice, Domi had other important mentors at Belle River Secondary School.
Among them was retired teacher George Hadre.
“He cared about everyone,” Domi recalled. “He was a student’s teacher.
“He got mad when it was time to get mad and he got mad for the right reasons — to try and help you out.
“He’s a very special guy. I owe George Hadre a lot. He really helped me out when I was young.”
Domi developed a taste for athletic success early in his high-school days. Domi still has some mementos of his gridiron successes with the Nobles.
“I still have the headline from The Windsor Star,” said Domi of a game where he accounted for all 24 Belle River points in a victory. It read, Domi the whole story for Nobles.”
However, it was hockey where his greatest success would come.
As a wide-eyed 15-year-old with the Canadiens, Domi recalls his new teammates didn’t take it easy on him at first.
“They used to throw me all over the place,” said Domi, who credits the tough introduction to Junior C for his later success as an NHL heavyweight.
After establishing himself as an intimidating physical presence with enough skill to contribute offensively, Domi made the OHL with Peterborough. After scoring 22 goals and amassing 43 points in his draft year, the Toronto Maple Leafs took Domi in the second round of the 1988 NHL draft with the 27th pick overall.
“People were always telling me I wasn’t going to make it since I played junior C in Belle River,” Domi said.
“They said I was too small. They said I was too slow.
“I didn’t believe anyone.”
Domi made his NHL debut in the 1989-90 season with the Leafs. He only played in two games at the tail end of the season, but managed to accumulate 42 minutes in penalties.
It was the start of career that would see him rack up the third most penalty minutes (3,515) in NHL history
Domi would accumulate those minutes in stops with Toronto, Winnipeg and the New York Rangers before returning permanently to the Leafs for the 1994-95 season.
By that time, he’d established himself, alongside another local product Bob Probert, as one of the league’s top enforcers.
His battles with Probert became legendary.
“I was young and he gave me a shot (to make a name for himself as a fighter),” said Domi, who expressed great respect for Probert.
“It helped me. I’ll always remember that kind of stuff.”