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The best -and worst- night of Tie Domi’s time with the Maple Leafs

The name “Domi” is back in the sports pages on a regular basis these days.  That’s because the talented young offspring of long-time NHL forward Tie Domi is performing admirably for the always competitive London Knights of the junior-level Ontario Hockey League.

Max Domi looks to be a player, and by all accounts is a more talented and versatile performer than his dad, who was more known for his huge heart and willingness to take on all comers in a long NHL career that started—and ended—in Toronto.

Domi, who has been mostly out of the limelight in the past couple of years since his short stint in television as an analyst, was with Mats Sundin (his longtime friend and teammate) in London last Friday night, and then at the ACC on Saturday night, catching the younger Domi action for the Knights and then the Leafs defeat the Penguins.

Domi the elder made his name in junior hockey with the Peterborugh Petes, an organization that was, for many years (in the olden days, when I was young—and that’s a while ago) affiliated with the NHL Montreal Canadiens.  (Even after the "amateur" draft put an end to the old sponsorship days, Montreal would routinely dip into the Peterborough tank for future stars like Doug Jarvis and Bob Gainey, though Jarvis was actually drafted initially by the Leafs.)

Domi was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1988, 27th overall.  (To put things in some context, that would make him a late first-round draft choice nowadays.)  He played in the minors and had a cup of coffee with the blue and white before finding himself with the Rangers in New York, where he played for a time under the tutelage of captain Mark Messier, the former Oiler standout who later led the Rangers to their first Cup in forever in the spring of 1994.

Hockey fans of that era know that Tie went on to a stay in Winnipeg with the old Jets, where he was very popular and continued to build his reputation—and brand—as a feisty combatant who could chip in offensively on occasion.

By the time he got back to Toronto for his second go-round with the Leafs at the end of the 1994-’95 season, the Leafs were just past their stimulating two-year run under Pat Burns, when they went to the “final four” in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

Unfortunately that team was unraveling a bit, and eventually Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Burns all were gone.  The franchise struggled a bit to find its compass, until Pat Quinn took over behind the bench before the 1998-’99 season.

Domi became, if not a central figure in the Leaf fortunes, certainly a veteran in the Quinn regime, someone who was relied upon to provide toughness but some leadership as well.

Tie had shown some offensive punch through the years, scoring 11 goals under coach Mike Murphy in 1996-’97, and then 13 in 2000-’01 as he played a consistent role as a fourth-line agitator who could also produce a bit under Quinn.

But the best hockey game I remember seeing Tie play also turned out to be the worst night, in some ways, of his career.

To be clear, Domi, whether you liked him or not, was a loyal teammate who almost always stood up if the opposition took advantage of one of his less physical teammates.  While he weighed maybe 200 or so pounds, if that, at 5 foot 10 inches, he was hardly huge.  Yet on many occasions he would play the role of enforcer and help the Leafs get their heads up off their collective laps when they were down and needed a lift along with a jolt of confidence.

The game I have in mind occurred in the spring of 2001.  Tie had helped the Leafs polish off the favored Senators in four straight and they then went on to face the smart, skilled and always tough Scott Stevens-led New Jersey Devils.

With New Jersey leading the series two games to one, Domi played what I thought was the game of his life in Game 4 at the ACC.  He was all over the ice, fast to the puck, fore checking well.  He showed a lot of jump and speed that we didn’t always see.  I believe he  missed a breakaway chance against Brodeur (I almost think he scored that night, but my mind is probably playing tricks with me…) in the third period in what turned out to be a 3-1 win in a pivotal game for the Leafs to even up the series.

But then, for reasons I don’t think anyone fully understood, rather than finish the game off in style (and let the fans send the team off with the standing ovation on their way to game 5 back in Jersey) Tie hit Devil defenseman Scott Niedermayer with a deliberate elbow to the head as he was skating past the defensemen in the dying seconds of the game.  It made no sense.  It wasn’t a big “hit”, it was simply a (spur of the moment?) gratuitous flying elbow when Niedermayer didn’t even have the puck.

Just an odd and very bad decision, I guess, in the emotion or “heat” of the moment.

They took Niedermayer off on a stretcher and there was a pall over the crowd.  The game ended a few seconds later, and of course Tie was  then suspended for the rest of the playoffs.

(In truth, I was one of the skeptics who though Niedermayer was partly milking a stupid play by Domi to ensure a suspension.  But he ended up missing valuable playoff games, so my suspicions were clearly unfair and off-base.  Tie must have hit him just hard enough -and with the element of surprise, obviously- that it caused a concussion or at least related symptoms.  The elbow itself didn’t strike me as that harsh, more just, well, so unnecessary.  But it must have hit the mark.

That one play wiped out the reality of a really strong, energetic game played by not only Domi but the entire Leaf team. All the public and fan attention was on the subsequent hearing in New York about the expected suspension and how the Leafs—and Devils—would react.  The media focus was on that, and I’ve always believed it affected the Leafs negatively.

Maybe I’m wrong, because the Leafs won game 5 right in New Jersey on, if I remember correctly, a late goal by Kaberle.  (Yes, he shot the puck…it did happen back then on occasion.)

But the Leafs could not win Game 6 at home, and you just knew things weren’t going to go well back in New Jersey in Game 7- just like we knew last week that once the Texas Rangers let the Cardinals off the hook in Game 6, Game 7 was almost a formality. 

Tie survived the ordeal, and went on to score a career high 15 goals and 29 points in 2002-’03, before retiring after the 2005-’06 season having played over 1,000 regular season NHL games and netting more than 100 career goals.

In any event, I’ll always remember Tie’s great game in the spring of 2001. It’s a shame it ended the way it did, for everyone concerned.

Do others remember that night differently?


  1. At the time, I didn't think Neidermayer was milking it, but I do remember a sickening feeling as the days passed that we just lost our last, best chance to get past those Brodeur-led Devils, and with that albatross lifted, get to the finals and win.

  2. I remember that game the same way, Michael. A feeling that Tie had really played a great game, and that the Leafs were on their way... and then that stupid, undisciplined, needless hit. Domi went from hero to zero in a heartbeat. To be honest, I tired of his shtick after that...

  3. I think Tie was giving Neidermayer a little payback, because I remember the game before, Neidermayer cross checked Tie across the face and against the boards while the ref was watching. Neidermayer laughed, and I think that is what ticked him off the most. Even though it was a dumb play, his game that night was payback enough.

  4. That hit and it's immediate dousing of the team's competitive fire just when we needed means for me that I don't ever, ever want to see Tie honored for anything at a Leafs game.

  5. i remember watching that game with my dad... he was so upset/disappointed in domi after that hit... 'stupid stupid selfish attack.' my dad grew up in toronto around the same time as you mike (the reason i'm a leafs fan today despite living in buffalo)... he sure was disappointed with domi that game.