Feeling punchy

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Tie Domi is as energetic off the ice as he is on.

It was hard to decide which garnered more attention: the striking Magna clubhouse or the glistening new, candy apple red Ferrari Spider that was parked in a select spot in front of it. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the owner turned out to be Tie Domi, someone used to making heads spin around on prominent stages.

Car and driver, one quickly deduces, share one key attribute – speed. Domi, a bundle of energy in any setting, hates to be caged, although you’d figure he’d be used to it by now, given his extensive habitation in various penalty boxes across North America. The 33-year-old became the Toronto Maple Leafs all-time penalty minutes leader last season, surpassing Tiger Williams and finishing the year with 1,777 minutes in the sin bin in a Toronto uniform. His 3,027 career penalty minutes place him ninth on the NHL’s all-time list.

But Domi is quick in other ways, too. He raised several eyebrows two seasons back after winning the Maple Leafs’ portion of the NHL Skills Competition’s speedskating challenge, and continues to show an ability to skate with any line member on the Leafs.

Domi has also shone in other sports, playing professionally for Kosova in the Canadian International Soccer League during the 1995 NHL off-season, and was scouted for both soccer and football by Michigan while he was in high school. He’s even played a couple of exhibition games with the Toronto Argonauts as a place-kicker.

Hyper-conscious of his tough-guy reputation, Domi didn’t want to be photographed with his new car, likely given the debate in the media over whether a bruiser is worth a three-year contract worth up to $2 million per year. But, comparatively speaking, Domi is worth every dime. He brings far more to the game than his fighting skills, has probably never taken a night off in his career, and is one of the few Toronto players that can change the momentum of a hockey game in a single shift.

Not surprisingly, he seeks more docile pastimes during the off-season, and has become a passionate golfer since turning pro in the NHL. Like most recreational players, though, Domi craves for more opportunities to play the game. When we interviewed him in early August at his home course of Magna, it marked the first time he’d played twice in a week this year.

Some of that has to do with his commitment to various business endeavours, which he’s been accumulating since first turning pro. Then there’s his extensive charity work, which has included Big Brothers, the Rose Cherry Home and Santa on Wheels, the latter of which Domi has spearheaded in each of the past five years, purchasing 1,000 toys for the program to distribute to children and families living in Toronto hostels over the holidays. Many of the children are invited to meet Domi, Santa Claus and company prior to a Leafs practice skate each December.

Much of this past summer was also occupied with contract negotiations, which saw Domi entertain offers from Chicago, Dallas and Anaheim. The Nashville Predators, who acquired Domi’s rights just before the July 1 free agency period opened, were also interested, but withdrew from the proceedings when the stakes got too high. In the end, though, Domi stayed in Toronto, the franchise that selected him with their second choice, 27th overall, in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. Domi would spend five seasons with the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets, but was re-acquired by the Leafs on April 7, 1995, in exchange for Mike Eastwood and Toronto’s third choice (Brad Isbister) in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft.

“There were benefits of playing in each of those other cities,” Domi’s agent, Pat Morris, told the Canadian Press. “But in the end, his loyalty to the Toronto organization and his desire to stay here outweighed those options.”

How long have you been playing the game?
I started after my first year of pro. I fell in love with it.

What is it about golf that intrigues you so much?
Every shot is a challenge. It’s definitely a humbling sport. I had a birdie and an eagle today, but didn’t finish very well.
After eight months of stress and pressure, you like to take time to relax, and hockey players have four months off after the season, and golf is a great way to relax – when you’re playing decently.

You must get invited to some special events as a sports celebrity.
I’ve been invited the past six or seven years to Michael Jordan’s tournament in Chicago, although I’ve only played twice. The one Jeremy Roenick had in Phoenix a few years ago is probably the best one I’ve been to.

How low have you ever scored?
I shot a 79 at Devil’s Paintbrush about four years ago. We were playing for $50 a hole and I shot the lights out. The guy who was in my cart – he was on the other team – was absolutely abusing me. It was in fun, but he was trash-talking me the whole time. I think that’s why I played so well.

What’s your favourite course?
Magna. It’s not just my favourite, it’s the best I’ve played anywhere. I like to enjoy my golf. Here there’s a little forgiveness. Playing tough tracks that are tight is not enjoyable. And I don’t like to wait. I like quick golf. Although today was unusual. We got slowed up after 14. I was even par at that point, which is all you have to know.
My top three is Magna, Pebble Beach and Sherwood in California. I like them because there’s nobody on them and you can zip through ’em.

When did you start playing hockey?
I was 10. I started late. I was a baseball player and a soccer player my dad was born in Albania. My two cousins, Jack and Errol, got me into it.

You’re very involved in charities, especially the Santa on Wheels program.
It’s something I really enjoy. It’s a lot of kids who don’t get the opportunity, not only to meet people they see on TV, but just to be down at Maple Leaf Gardens and now the Air Canada Centre. They get the chance to meet players and walk around the building. The look on their faces – it’s such a rush. It puts things in perspective and is a very humbling experience for everybody.

I take it these meetings must leave quite an impression on you?
To see kids whose wish is to meet you. If you make them smile, make that moment for them…It’s [emotionally] tough to do, but you’re awfully glad you did it afterward. I did one a few weeks ago – the kid was 16 years old.

How did your parents influence you?
I lost my father to a heart attack after my first year of pro, which was tough to swallow. I had a hard time. They taught me a lot of things, including how to appreciate things in life – to treat people with respect, to treat them the way you’d want to be treated. My parents were hard workers. My father, who was into restaurants and owned a lot of real estate, worked his ass off. He never made my mother work. He showed you how to earn a living. Now I have different business interests as well, including owning an advertising agency. I’m a shareholder in a few others, including a marketing and communications company. I started at a young age. I didn’t think my career would last this long. When I’m done, I’ll be my own boss. I won’t have to answer to somebody.

You were a bit of a goal scorer with the Peterborough Petes the year you were drafted by Toronto.
I played on a line with Mike Ricci and went to the Memorial Cup. Unfortunately, we lost. I hate to make excuses, but Mike came down with the chicken pox and he was the best player in Canada at the time. Excuses are for losers, though.

There seems to be a parallel between golf and hockey.

At the beginning of the season, your touch isn’t there yet, but the more you play, the better your feel and finesse game develops.
For sure. It’s definitely a routine, the way your body works and the mechanics. In golf you’re always hitting the same way as hockey – always working the same way, which is maybe why golfers and hockey players always have bad backs.

I know Mats Sundin and Kris Draper are members at Magna, but who’s the best NHLer here?
Tough call. Steve Thomas isn’t here yet, but he’ll be the best when he arrives, which will be soon.

Can you beat Mats?
Sometimes. He was absolutely awful last year.

What’s the best part of your game?
My driving.

How far do you hit it?
If I hit it straight? Between 250 and 260, on average.

Are you underrated as a hockey player? I know you won the speedskating portion of the NHL Skills Competition two years ago for the Maple Leafs.
I didn’t go it last year. I’m owner of the title. I didn’t want to give it up.

Given that and your Peterborough days, are your skills sometimes overlooked?
I’m never going to shake my reputation. It’s gotten me to where I am today. But I think the respect for my game, for me as an all-around player has changed. I’m checking the other team’s number one line a lot. I’m playing on different shifts at different times with Mats. It’s nice to be a player that can play on all four lines, and to play with everybody. There aren’t many set lines anymore. You have to be able to play with anybody. I don’t believe in anybody bitching about having to get used to playing with different guys.

What’s it like playing in Toronto?
Once you play here for so long, you get used to it. But it’s great seeing the new guys come in and how they react. I try to do what I can to make them feel more comfortable. Mats and I are the longest-standing guys on the team; we’ve seen a lot of players come and go.

The success we’ve had in the last five years has been a decent accomplishment, but we haven’t gotten the goal we want yet. It would be a great thing to be part of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto. It’s hard to swallow when you come so close – getting to the final four three out of five years. There’s so much pressure to play here, not only from media, but from the fans since they haven’t won here in so long. Even when they were losing, there was still pressure.

Is the level of media attention unfair?
No. Because it’s a hockey town, you get it more here. But as far as being a professional athlete, it’s why we’re paid so well. Some athletes are fortunate, not having to deal with pressure and media their whole careers. Some like it and thrive on it. I help new guys deal with it. I’ve seen other guys that it’s ruined. Everyone’s different. Different nationalities. You try to get everyone to buy into the team concept. In general, it’s a pretty good living. We’re all doing what we dreamed to do.

Since there are a lot of new franchises, there are a lot of new reporters who aren’t very hockey savvy. So, like at golf tournaments, where I’ve heard a lot of stupid questions from people who don’ know the sport, you must have been asked your share over the years.
I’ve been around a long time. So if someone asks me a stupid question, I just give them a stupid answer. It’ been my rule of thumb since I was in New York, dealing with media there.

There’ a process to learning how to deal with the media. Dealing with the pressure is not an issue. I love the pressure. Any athlete who doesn’t like it shouldn’t be in professional sports. That’s why I shine the most in the playoffs. The thought that it might be your last game is quite a rush. It makes you want to do whatever you can to win, whatever it takes.

In The Bag
Driver: Callaway Biggest Big Bertha
Irons: Titleist DCI 962
Sand wedge: Cleveland
Putters: Teardrop Rollface and Cleveland ‘Designed By’

Ted McIntyre
Photography by Dan Lim

Ontario Golf