Feschuk: Maple Leafs’ Futility ‘Eats At’ Former Tough Guy Tie Domi

Disappointed Maple Leafs Fan

A Maple Leafs fan holds up a sign referring to the length of the team's playoff drought during their 3-0 loss to Carolina on Tuesday night.

Dave Feschuk

When Tie Domi took his seat in the dead air of the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, he cringed at the depressing scene. The former Maple Leafs tough guy, a crowd favourite during his decade-plus in Toronto, looked around at an arena pocked with empty seats and fed-up fans.

He saw his successors in blue and white playing with zero fight, booed off the ice after a 3-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. He saw a once-proud franchise extend the longest playoff drought in team history for another miserable year.

Domi, 42, shook his head and sighed a long sigh.

“Nothing eats at me more inside than these guys not doing well,” Domi said. “When I sat down, it was a weird feeling. There was no atmosphere in the place. And I know why there’s no atmosphere. They’re out of the playoffs again. There’s nothing on the line. They haven’t made the playoffs for how long now?”

That’d be approximately eight calendar years and counting. It’s been so long since the Leafs last played in the NHL’s Stanley Cup tournament that you need a sharp memory or a Google search to reconstruct the moment. Many among that squad are long retired. Four of that team’s members have been since been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, among them Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour, Ron Francis and Brian Leetch.

Domi, who was perhaps the most popular member of that team, his No. 28 jersey a perennial best-seller, simply can’t relate to the current malaise. While he and his contemporaries never brought that elusive Cup to Hogtown, the echo of their era rings like a golden age. Back in those days, Toronto’s streets, if they weren’t the scene of the ultimate parade, were at least alive with an annual springtime buzz. Those Leafs, captained by Mats Sundin, won seven playoff series during Domi’s time here, including a couple of electric runs to the Eastern Conference final in 1999 and 2002. They made the playoffs six straight seasons at their peak.

“I played in every one of those playoff games like it was my last,” Domi said, pounding his chest with a big fist for emphasis. “I just don’t see that every shift from this team. I don’t see every guy playing hard every shift. They’ve got to start getting accountability in the room.”

Domi qualified his comments with a few disclaimers: He said that he hasn’t seen the Leafs play very often this season; that he follows the exploits of his son, London Knights star Max Domi, far more closely. He said that he was speaking from the heart, as an alumnus hoping for better times around the corner.

He also expressed faith in Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, with whom Domi played in Winnipeg in the early 1990s.

“He’ll make guys accountable. It doesn’t matter who you are — he’ll make you accountable,” Domi said.

Still, on a night when Carlyle sounded just as perplexed as Domi with the Leafs’ listless play — Carlyle called the performance “flat”— Domi said accountability ultimately has to come from within the dressing room.

It’s been suggested that the Leafs, one of the youngest teams in the league, desperately require the presence of veteran leadership. Dion Phaneuf, the captain, has appeared flummoxed by his club’s epic collapse, 19 losses in the past 24 games. But Carl Gunnarsson, the dependable defenceman, took issue with the suggestion of experienced additions.

“This is the group we’ve got. We can’t ask for anyone else to come in and be Jesus here,” Gunnarsson said. “It’s up to us, I think. We don’t need a saviour. We can do it on our own.”

To that end, Domi shared some thoughts that could certainly be of use to the local NHLers.

On dealing with trade rumours: “Complain about the trade deadline? That’s part of professional sports. That’s why you make so much money. Like, who cares? Don’t listen to it. Don’t even address it. It was driving me crazy seeing guys getting interviews addressing what they were going through.”

On social media: “Twitter anything about our team — you should be fined. My son is on the social media, but he’s 16. It’s different. But up here (in the NHL), you’re getting paid big dollars. Big dollars. Don’t take it for granted, because it doesn’t last forever. It doesn’t last forever in this city. This city’s seen a lot of guys come and go that couldn’t handle the pressure.”

On dealing with the media: “Nazem Kadri can play. But when I saw Kadri’s first few interviews, I was like, ‘Is this for real?’ I couldn’t believe it. (Veteran players have) got to guide a kid. The first time he did it, some older guys should have taken him for lunch and said, ‘Hey, this is how it’s done. . . . You’ve got to talk about the team, not ‘me’ or ‘I.’”

On what needs to happen internally: “Stop saying it’s the GM. Stop saying it’s the coach. Step up, core guys. Figure it out.”

Domi shook his head and laughed a little, thinking back to the glories of a nearly annual tradition that ended eight years ago and counting. Playoff time in Toronto — for those who can’t quite remember it precisely, Domi happily refreshed a recollection.

“It’s incredible. The whole city feels it, lives it. If these guys find a way to get into the playoffs next year, it’s an atmosphere they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” Domi said. “The playoff atmosphere in this city? You can’t imagine.”

For another turn of the calendar, sadly, imagining is the only option.