By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun
NASHVILLE – EN ROUTE TO NASHVILLE — As we are winging our way at 20,000 feet towards Nashville for the heart-tugging service for former NHLer Wade Belak on Sunday, Tie Domi’s emotions are running higher than the commuter jet we are travelling on.
During his first extensive interview since finding out about the tragic death of his former Maple Leafs roommate, you can see Domi fighting the tears welling up in his eyes as he sits in the accompanying seat on Saturday morning, both from sadness at the loss of his friend and from anger at suggestions that Belak’s tragedy is linked to his former job as an on-ice enforcer.
Ever since police allegedly found Belak’s body in a Toronto hotel condo on Wednesday, there has been a frenzy from both inside and outside the hockey fraternity lumping his death with those recent of a couple of other pugilists, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard.
In Domi’s mind, it is wrong to in any way link Belak’s bout with depression with his occupation as an enforcer. Instead, when Domi examines each of the three incidents, he sees three men who were saddled with the mental disease for three different reasons.
In Canada alone, he points out that “3,500 people die every year from suicide.”
How many of them are enforcers?
Instead, the focus should be on a better understanding what the mental demon known as depression actually is.
“Anyone who knows Wade would never have expected this from Wade,” Domi said, peering through the window at a town far below. “Not his family, not his friends, anybody.
“People think depression is a weakness. It’s not a weakness. It’s a negative state of mind that produces chemical changes in the brain. It’s important that people realize that if they want to help.
“We have to send the message that depression can be beaten.”
For Domi, the key is to urge those with depression to confide and reveal their thoughts and fears to those who care for them rather than muzzling their feelings inside.
“I remember Wade’s first road trip with us when he first came to the Leafs,” Domi said. “We all went out to dinner — Mats (Sundin), Caber (Bryan McCabe), Kabby (Tomas Kaberle), a bunch of us. He was so happy to be on our team.
“Now, after what happened, all of us are speechless. If he would have called any one of us to help or just to listen, we’d have been there for him.
“That’s the message we need to spread: If you are depressed, talk to someone, don’t hold it in.”
In recent days, past and present pugilists have suggested the tragic passings of Belak, Boogaard and Rypien this summer should cause the NHL to take action. Former Montreal Canadien Chris Nilan went as far as to say commissioner Gary Bettman should take fighting out of the game, insinuating that the pressure of impending fisticuffs takes a harsh mental toll on players.
While he would not name names, hearing such words causes Domi to bristle with anger.
“It’s got nothing to do with the role. That’s (crap),” Domi said. “All the players should be ashamed of themselves who said (Belak’s death) had to do with his role (as an enforcer).
“His role was that he was a teammate. His passing had nothing to do with his role.”
There can be no denying that Belak’s improvement as a fighter can be attributed to the countless hours he spent with Domi after practices with the Leafs getting tips on how to do the job better. Secrets of the trade, if you will.
“He was the kid that I roomed with for so many years,” he said. “He was the guy that sat beside me in the room for years. He’d always set the alarm for us on the road.
“For my kids, he was their favourite player. When he wasn’t in the lineup in Toronto, he’d be in the wives room playing with my kids.”
For one of the Domi kids, the news of Belak’s passing was particularly devastating.
The past few days should have been some of the best of young Max Domi’s life. The 16-year-old minor hockey scoring machine was enjoying his first taste of an OHL training camp with the London Knights, taking the next step in a career that appears to have no boundaries.
Max was with his dad on Wednesday when Tie Domi got the call informing him of Belak’s death. Suddenly, euphoria turned into horror.
“How do you make a kid like that understand what just happened?” Tie Domi asked candidly.
Domi’s sombre mood is suddenly interrupted by an announcement that the plane is about to make its final approach into Nashville. But Domi is not about to let the interview finish without stressing once again what the real issue is concerning depression.
“It’s a negative state of mind that produces chemical changes in the brain. That’s the message that needs to be stressed. It’s my role to spread that message and that it can be beaten.
“I owe it to my friend Wade to spread that message.”