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Sep
01 2011

The Fighters: A Chapter from "The New Game"

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

THE FIGHTERS Michael Landsberg: “Now that you have retired, who is the toughest player in the NHL?” Tie Domi: “There isn’t one.” *   *   * It was one of the most unusual and unexpected conversations about politics I had ever had. On January 23, 2006, Canadians had gone to the polls and given the Conservatives their first election victory since 1988, albeit just barely. Stephen Harper had confounded the experts by running a disciplined campaign that focused on five key priorities. Paul Martin had not, and as a result found his tenure as prime minister cut short. The Conservatives won a minority government, out-seating the Liberals 124 to 103. One member of the Toronto Maple Leafs found the results completely baffling. Describing himself as “a Liberal, both big and small L,” this veteran of fifteen NHL seasons was convinced Canadians had made a mistake. “Canada is a middle of the road country,” he told me in the Leafs dressing room at their alternative training site in Etobicoke after a mid-morning practice “The mainstream of the country is liberal.” While I didn’t disagree with him, I did point out that the Conservatives did run a superior campaign, and that the Quebec sponsorship scandal certainly did not help Liberals fortunes in that province. “The scandals hurt,” he acknowledged, while taking off his equipment. “We were in Alberta,” he added referring to the Leafs, “and Harper was everywhere.” Given his Liberal pedigree, had this player ever met Paul Martin? “Yeah, I met him at Larry’s house once,” he said, referring to Maple Leafs’ owner Larry Tanenbaum, another prominent Toronto sports figure with well-publicized links to the Liberal Party. “It was an intimate gathering. I was very impressed with him. We talked about crime and violence.” Still, he was clearly confused about why Canadians would throw the Liberals out of office, given their economic track record. “Our country is in good shape now,” he said. “We went from the bottom to the top of the G7.” I confess to him that in the hundreds of conversations I have had with hockey players over the years, I have never yet --- until this moment --- heard any of them refer to the G7. Or if they did, it was probably a reference to a winning sequence in bingo. “I read The Post and The Globe which educates you well,” he points out. “I also watched both debates.” Could this player be more atypical of a professional athlete? Apparently so. There was more. He volunteers the name of a politician he thinks the Liberals should build their future around. “Belinda could be a good leader,” he says, “She could clean up the whole party. If anybody could be the first elected woman prime minister, it’s her.” Within a few months, eleven people will announce their candidacies for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, but Belinda Stronach will not be one of them. The daughter of the founder of the Magna auto parts empire will decide to sit this round out, having lost her first attempt to lead a party --- the Conservative Party of Canada --- to Stephen Harper. This Maple Leaf icon clearly loves politics and follows it much more than the average pro athlete. So the inevitable question follows. Would he ever run for Parliament? “I care about our country and what’s going on,” he says sincerely. “But it would require me to be in Ottawa a lot and I’m not too well liked in Ottawa.” He smiles. No he is not well liked in Ottawa, or in many other cities around the National Hockey League for that matter. And the reason is because he has been one of the toughest, nastiest, roughest, meanest, and occasionally dirtiest pieces of business this league has ever seen. He is clearly one of the best fighters of all time. Certainly, he is without question the best fighter “pound-for-pound,” since he is only five-feet, ten inches tall and 213 pounds (according to team records, which we all know are exaggerated). As we finish our conversation, I wonder whether he knows that his career is almost over, that in a few months time, the team he gave his heart and soul to will cut him loose, claiming he just does not have what it takes to prosper in the new NHL. These are difficult days for Tie Domi. *     *     * On a cold February day in 2006 at the Lakeshore Lions Arena in Etobicoke, a dozen kids, most of them donning their blue and white jerseys, wait patiently for the zamboni to finish clearing the ice. The team they worship is about to leave the dressing room and participate in one of the club’s occasional practices that are open to the adoring public. Some of the Leafs are not here today, the most noteworthy of whom is captain Mats Sundin. He is finishing up a two-week hiatus in Torino, Italy, site of the Winter Olympic Games. The following day, Sundin will accomplish overseas what has always eluded him in Toronto, namely, a championship. His assist on Niklas Lidstrom’s third period goal will give Sweden the Olympic gold medal over archrival Finland. “Come on guys, you can come out now,” one security guard shouts into the Leafs’ dressing room, indicating the ice is now ready. The doors open. Nothing much happens. Some of the kids start chanting: “We want the Leafs!” And out they come. “Who was that?” one ten-year-old asks another. (It was Alex Ponikarovsky). Wade Belak comes out and gives a wave. Matt Stajan offers a “What’s up boys.” The players continue to trickle out. Most players simply ignore the kids. A few smile. Eric Lindros says, “Hi guys.” Ken Klee nods. The players are all wearing their practice jerseys, which have no numbers on the backs, so whispers of “who’s that?” permeate the crowd. But the next player to emerge needs no number, no name on his back, and no introduction at all. It is Tie Domi, and his appearance prompts an enormous cheer. “Hi guys,” Domi says, following it up with a big smile. I can tell you from experience that these kids will remember that “hi” and that smile for the rest of their lives. I know this because I still remember waiting outside Maple Leaf Gardens almost forty years ago. I remember seeing great players who never felt too self important to stop and chat or sign an autograph (the Blackhawks’ Bobby Hull). I also remember players who had no business thinking they were something special and yet snubbed those of us waiting for a “hi” or an autograph, or even worse, swore at us (the Bruins’ John McKenzie). I can’t resist asking one of the kids, who cannot be more than twelve years old, why he apparently loves Tie Domi so much. “Because he’s strong. He’s a scrapper,” the youngster answers. “Does he fight too much?” I follow up. “He doesn’t fight enough,” the kid responds. “We like the fights.” That exchange reminded me of a conversation I once had with my then twelve-year-old son Henry at a game in Hamilton. The American Hockey League Toronto Marlies were visiting the Bulldogs in a fight-filled affair. I looked over at Henry, who was clearly enjoying the spectacle. We had talked about hockey numerous times over the years, but I had never asked him whether hockey should ban fighting. So I did. He looked at me as if I were a complete idiot (a look I have seen before. I am his father, after all). “No,” he said definitively. “Why not?” I asked. “It gets the crowd going,” he said. Then, his eight-year-old brother Teddy added: “Yeah, it’s cool.” These statements, in all their blessed naiveté, say volumes about why Tie Domi has been one of the most beloved Leafs in team history, in spite of the fact that Domi has scored only 104 goals in more than one thousand NHL games played. He has, however, spent almost 3,800 minutes in the penalty box (regular season and playoffs) --- the equivalent of more than sixty full games --- and stands third on the all-time penalty minutes list behind Dave “Tiger” Williams and Dale Hunter. As far as Maple Leafs go, he is the most penalized player in team history, well ahead of Williams, Wendel Clark, and Tim Horton. And all of it is all about to come to an end, not only for Domi, but also for other players whose most prominent skill is the ability to fight. In the new NHL, that will prove not to be enough. *     *     * I have never been one of those who thought Tie Domi’s skills were limited to beating people up. I realize this is definitely a contrarian’s position, but to me, had he demonstrated just a bit more self-discipline, Tie Domi could have been one of those players that not only struck fear into the opposition, but also could have been a much more significant offensive force. Consider that at age thirty-six, Domi was still one of the fastest-skating members of the Leafs. Consider that in the 2002-03 season, Domi scored fifteen goals and added thirteen assists, his best season ever for goals and points. And unlike other fifteen-goal scorers, he did it while spending 171 minutes in the penalty box. Had his playing time not been dramatically reduced in his final two seasons in the league, he no doubt could have and would have improved on the seven and five goals respectively that he scored in those final years. “I think Tie Domi can be a good player,” says Rick Dudley, the Chicago Blackhawks’ assistant general manager. “Tie Domi can skate, he can get in and he can force the play. And that is the type of player that is very dangerous now because you can’t hold him up.” But somewhere along the way, the Leaf brass lost faith in Domi. And all those fights eventually caught up with him. Before the 2005-06 season, Domi turned down three other teams, all of whom offered him a three-year contract. Instead, he signed a less remunerative two-year deal with the Maple Leafs, the team he always loved the most, and many observers were surprised Domi even got that deal done. His time in Toronto looked like it was coming to an end even before the players returned from the lockout. Contract talks were not going well with Leafs’ general manager John Ferguson Jr. But suddenly, the Leafs announced Domi had agreed to that two-year deal. Speculation instantly focused on Domi’s special and close relationship with Leafs’ owner Larry Tanenbaum. Did the owner nudge (or perhaps urge) his general manager to get Domi signed, given what a fan favourite Number 28 was? The talk around town was that Ferguson was less than enamoured at the thought of Domi eating up precious salary cap space on his team, and yet next thing you knew, JFJ was proudly welcoming Domi back to the fold. But after just the first year of that two-year deal in Toronto, the rumour mill cranked itself up again that Domi’s days as a Leaf were over. This time, those rumours would prove to be accurate. On September 19, 2006, Domi went before a barrage of cameras and with the logo of his beloved Maple Leafs over his right shoulder, he announced his retirement. In many respects, he was the last of his kind, a kind apparently not needed in the new NHL. Tie Domi was born in Windsor, Ontario on November 1, 1969, but grew up in nearby Belle River in Essex County. He played for the Belle River Canadians in the Great Lakes Junior C Hockey League, but his biggest break came with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes. During his second of three seasons in Peterborough, Domi notched forty-three points in sixty games, decent scoring numbers made all the more impressive considering he spent 292 minutes in the penalty box that 1987-88 season. As a result, the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Domi in the second round of the 1988 entry draft, the twenty-seventh player overall. But his first stay in Toronto would prove to be remarkably short. He spent another year in Peterborough, then moved up a grade by playing for the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate in Newmarket in 1989-90. After the AHL season ended, the Leafs called him up to the big leagues where he played in just two games that year (and yet still managed forty-two penalty minutes in those two games). However, Domi’s initial stay with the Leafs was short-lived. He was traded to the New York Rangers after the 1990 season. Leaving the Leafs might have been heart breaking except for the fact that Domi ended up playing with one of the all-time greats on Broadway. Mark Messier won five Stanley Cups in seven years with the Edmonton Oilers and now was being asked to work a miracle with the Rangers, the most snake-bitten team in the NHL. The Rangers had not won the Stanley Cup since 1940 and had only gone to the final round of the playoffs three times since then. In Domi’s second year in New York, the Rangers traded for the man widely regarded as the most team dominant leader in any sport. Messier would prove to be one of Domi’s most influential mentors both on and off the ice. At this point in his career, Domi was in his early twenties. He was cocky and despite his diminutive size, quickly developing a reputation as one of the most fearsome fighters in the league. He was undaunted trading punches with players half a foot taller than him, including Bob Probert, perhaps the greatest fighter of them all. One night, Domi had a particularly good game. He scored a goal and an assist, and was named the game’s second star. But he could not resist hot-dogging it up after winning one of his fights. He pretended to repeatedly hit a “speed bag,” a training technique boxers do to prepare for their fights. After the game in the dressing room, Mark Messier got his teammate’s attention. “Tie, come here,” he said. Domi dutifully went over to the Ranger captain. “Listen here you little shit,” Messier blasted him. “You want respect in this league, then cut that shit out.” It may have been the single most important piece of advice Domi heard in his entire career. In one brief but sharp exchange, Messier reminded Domi that the NHL was not the World Wrestling Federation, that other tough guys in the league were protecting their star players in the same way Domi was protecting his, and if he wanted a decent career highlighted by the respect of his peers, he had to smarten up. Domi got the message loud and clear and as he made his way through the league, passed on the same advice to other up and coming tough guys. But after just eighty-two games in New York over parts of three seasons (and most important, before the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years), Domi found himself on the move again, this time to Winnipeg. In an indication of how much the Jets respected Domi, they gave up a very promising young player named Ed Olczyk to acquire him. (Olczyk would go on to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL, scoring almost 800 points in the process). In 1994, the Jets gave Domi an award for being their most popular player. And just as he befriended the biggest star in Manhattan in Mark Messier, he did the same in Winnipeg. The Jets had a remarkably talented young Finnish player named Teemu Selanne, who in 1992-93 --- Domi’s first season in Winnipeg --- scored an astonishing seventy-six goals and 132 points in his rookie season. To be sure, the Jets needed Domi to be Selanne’s bodyguard. No opponent was permitted to take liberties with the Jets’ superstar. But some observers could not help but notice that, either by coincidence or intent, the least gifted goal scorer on his team seemed to be making a habit of befriending the best goal scorer on his team. Less charitable interpretations suggested a deeper motive on Domi’s part. Perhaps, they said, he was looking for the political cover that comes with being pals with players who seemed untouchable. The theory might make sense if not for the fact that both Messier and Selanne left their teams through free agency or trades. However, once again, just as it happened in the middle of his third season in New York, Domi found himself traded again. But this time, things could not have worked out better. In April 1995, Domi returned via trade to Toronto, his true love in the hockey world. Domi would spend the next decade in Toronto, becoming one of the most beloved Maple Leafs of all time. Familiar patterns manifested themselves again, such as befriending not only the biggest star on the team in Mats Sundin, but also the owner, Larry Tanenbaum. However, he also participated in numerous charitable events for Variety Village, Santa on Wheels, and Rose Cherry’s Home, named after Don Cherry’s late wife, which provides pediatric hospice care. br /> However, the year 2001 proved to be Domi’s annus horribilis.  During a particularly nasty game in Philadelphia in March, Domi got fed up at the Flyer fans that loved jeering him as he made his way to the penalty box. Domi’s version of events goes like this. He was sitting in the penalty box minding his own business, when a Flyer fan dumped his beer on him. So Domi grabbed his own water bottle and started spraying the alleged offender. The next thing you knew, the Flyer fan went nuts and started leaning on the Plexiglas separating the fans from the penalty box. The fan’s body language seemed to suggest if only that protective glass were not there, the fan would rip Domi limb from limb. Funnily enough, the spectator, who did not appear to have missed many meals of late, tumbled right over the glass as it gave way thanks to his abundance, and into the penalty box he landed. Fortunately for him, he escaped with cuts and bruises as Domi refrained from giving him the pummeling he otherwise would have had coming. Players in all sports have it constantly drummed into their heads that they are not to go into the stands to interact with spectators, no matter how vicious the taunts, or even if the player has been on the receiving end of a projectile. It seems the converse should also be true. The field of play, the bullpen, the bench, the ice, and the penalty box --- whatever --- is the players’ domain and the fans need to respect that too. Still and all, Domi was fined $1,000 for spraying the fans with water. But the worst was yet to come. During the playoffs in May, the Leafs found themselves down two games to one to the New Jersey Devils. It was a must-win situation for the Leafs on their home ice. They could not go back to New Jersey for game five, down three games to one, and hope to survive. Fortunately for Leaf fans, the club came up with an inspired effort. Toronto led 3-1 and was seconds away from celebrating an important series-tying win, when Tie Domi had the worst brain cramp of his career. Until that moment, Domi had represented the blue and white as effectively as he ever had. He played a smart, terror-inducing match, completing his checks, skating furiously all over the ice and was a significant reason why the Leafs were on the verge of tying the series. (In fact, by his standards, Domi was having a great year. He scored thirteen goals in the regular season, his second best total ever). In less than ten seconds, in all likelihood, he knew he was going to be named the game’s first star and receive a thunderous ovation from the Air Canada Centre faithful, not to mention giving the Leafs a lot of momentum for the remainder of the series. And then, as the puck got dumped into the New Jersey zone and Scott Niedermayer went back to retrieve it, Domi had a flashback to a previous encounter with the Devils’ defenseman. As Domi tells the story, a few games earlier, Niedermayer “put his Easton (stick) in my face and cut my face.” The Leaf player required several stitches to close the gash. Not only was no penalty called, but Domi also insists Niedermayer laughed at him. So, with more than 18,000 fans chanting his name in the waning seconds of game four, and Scott Niedermayer carrying the puck along the boards in his own end, Domi picked that moment to get even. He charged at Niedermayer with his elbow way too high and crushed Niedermayer’s cranium into the boards. The Devils’ defenseman collapsed in a heap and lay motionless on the ice for several minutes. Suddenly, the building went dead quiet and a wonderful victory turned into a shocking embarrassment for Domi. Niedermayer was unable to play for the reminder of the series. And the entire hockey world appropriately targeted its opprobrium at the Leafs’ tough guy. The NHL’s sheriff in charge of suspensions, Colin Campbell, said Domi had forfeited the privilege of playing any more playoff hockey. He was done for the year.   Devils’ forward Bobby Holik called the hit “an insult to hockey.” “Disgusting and irresponsible,” added John Madden, his Devils’ teammate. “A person like that shouldn't be given the right to run around with a hockey stick in his hand and play in the league." The Devils went on to win the series in seven games. They actually reached the Stanley Cup Finals that year, but lost in seven games to the Colorado Avalanche. Who knows what kind of difference a healthy Scott Niedermayer might have made to New Jersey’s chances of winning what would have been their third Cup victory in seven years. Domi would eventually hold a teary-eyed news conference explaining his actions. He tried to apologize to Niedermayer but did it too soon and the Devils’ star was in no mood to accept the apology. “Whatever,” was Niedermayer’s response. Domi would later call the incident “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life and my biggest regret. I wish I’d stayed in that series. I could have made the difference. Instead, I let my teammates down.” Still, Domi returned to the Leafs and had a decent year the following season, despite missing the first eight games thanks to the tail end of the Niedermayer suspension. He notched nine goals and nineteen points, then followed it up with his best season ever --- fifteen goals and twenty-nine points in 2002-03. At age thirty-three, he was still rough and tough and effective. But in 2003-04, Domi’s production cut in half. He played in every game but two and yet scored only seven goals. And there was another incident. During a game in Toronto against Columbus in which he had already scored a goal, Domi autographed a hockey stick, then tossed it into the Blue Jackets’ bench in the third period. The stick appeared to fly in the direction of Jody Shelley, one of Columbus’s tough guys. The league fined Domi $1,000 and the Maple Leafs $5,000 for the stunt. As the years went on, Domi fought just a little bit less. The injuries hurt that much more, particularly to his right hand. He taught himself to throw punches with his left hand, after his right hand started constantly aching from the pain of knuckle hitting hard plastic helmet. Then came the lockout and a lost season (never a good idea for a thirty-five-year-old) and when Domi came back for the 2005-06 season, too much had changed. Perhaps it was the team’s belief that Domi’s value in the new NHL was considerably less, perhaps it was his advancing age, or perhaps it was his declining skill. For whatever reason, Domi found himself getting less and less ice time towards the end of the 2005-06 season. In fact, rumour had it that Domi was going to be a “healthy scratch” in March --- the worst predicament for a player, who technically is healthy enough to play, but lacks the coach’s confidence and therefore is not in the lineup. However, the Leafs then discovered Domi’s next game --- March 3rd in Buffalo --- would be his 1000th in the NHL. The team could not humiliate him on the eve of such an accomplishment and so Domi played. He was also in the spotlight for the team’s next home game the following night against the Ottawa Senators, during which a touching pre-game ceremony acknowledged his achievement. However, with the theatrics out of the way, Domi found himself a healthy scratch for the Leafs next series of games. He got back into the lineup March 14th against the Boston Bruins, and at times, Domi seemed like the player he once was. In the first period, he paired off with Bruins’ left winger Dan Lacouture for a good old- fashioned tilt that saw both men go to the penalty fox for five minute fighting majors. Typical of Domi, his combatant was a good five inches taller than he was. (Did Domi ever fight a smaller man? I cannot think of one). Then in the second period, through hard work and good fore-checking, Domi stole the puck from a Bruin player on Boston’s blue line with his team down 3-1. He passed to linemate Chad Kilger, who promptly sent the disc back to Domi, who followed up with a lovely pass to Jason Allison. Next think you knew, Allison one-timed the Domi pass into the net and the Leafs were only down by one. It was a pretty pass featuring just the right touch and Allison finished the play off beautifully. The teams ultimately tied 4-4. But the game was illustrative of the kind of positive impact Domi can have when he plays tough but disciplined hockey.   Domi has always been a proud athlete and no doubt being forced to sit out a handful of games was a blow to his ego. But he made a point of not bitching about it to the myriad media reporters who follow the Leafs during the season. Domi said he wanted to demonstrate to the many other younger players on the team how a professional deals with disappointment --- not by creating headlines, but by keeping his head down, working hard in practice, and just biding his time. But the fact was in the new NHL, referees were calling a lot more penalties. That meant more ice time for the more skilled players who tended to comprise the team’s powerplay and more ice time for the penalty killers, but not so much for guys traditionally on the third or fourth line. Before long, because of so many odd-man situations, Domi found himself playing at the most only a few shifts per period. It became increasingly difficult, at age thirty-five, for Domi to have any impact on the game. “You’re stone cold and people expect you to go out there and do miracles,” Domi would explain with evident frustration. “I think some of the guys that rely on fighting solely, really got hurt by that,” says St. Louis Blues assistant coach Brad Shaw. “And, if that is what the league wanted to do, I think they succeeded in leaving some of those guys out.” By the time the regular season came to a close, journalists were reporting as fact (even though it could only have been speculation) that Domi had played his last game in blue and white. As reporter Howard Berger from radio station Fan 590 in Toronto persisted in asking Domi about his future in Toronto, one could see Domi’s mood change from mild bemusement to outright irritation. “I don’t speculate on those type of things,” he told Berger, as a crowd of reporters began to develop. “Yous (sic) do your job and everybody has their opinion.” It seemed like an obvious question, so I thought I’d ask it. “Tie, do you want to come back next year?” “Yes, I do, I do,” he said emphatically. And then, in a voice dripping with sarcasm added, “I’ll let the geniuses in the media make their opinions on who should be here and who shouldn’t. I don’t get caught up in that stuff and nor am I going to start.” No reporter would admit this but since I am not a regular member of the NHL beat, I will freely acknowledge it. There comes a moment in any tense interview with a professional athlete where one thinks, I wonder if he is going to hit me? It is hardly an unreasonable concern. Regardless of what sport a reporter is covering, chances are the athlete is bigger, stronger, faster, and hits something or someone else for a living. I can recall as a cub reporter interviewing the late Billy Martin, then the manager of the New York Yankees, in the team’s dressing room after a game against the Blue Jays. The Yankees had won the game. The team was doing splendidly in the standings, in spite of the fact that most members of the club despised one another. That is why they nicknamed the team The Bronx Zoo. So I asked Martin a completely innocuous question, befitting my lack of experience in the media. It was something like, “It must give you a lot of confidence to know you can look out in that bullpen and see both Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage, two of the premier relief pitchers in baseball, both available to you.” Besides the fact that it wasn’t a question at all, but rather a statement (and a rather obvious one at that), it did trip something in Martin’s already tempestuous psyche because the next thing I knew, I was under attack. He got right in my face and started barking at me that that was a pretty dumb observation (no argument there) and that he never felt confident as the Yankees’ manager until the season was over and a World Series championship ring was on his finger. Even though the baseball almanac lists Billy Martin in his playing days at five-feet, eleven inches tall, I can confirm that he is nothing of the kind. He seemed several more inches shorter than my six-foot, two-inch frame. He was also thirty-two years older than me. Despite all of that, I was in fear for my life. I thought for sure he was going to slug me, so irate was he with my question/observation. Of course, he did nothing of the kind. People in sports almost never hit their tormentors from the media. But on rare occasions it does happen, and I was convinced I was about to become part of that list of rare occasions. All of this went through my mind as my questions (yes, they are questions now) to Tie Domi became more pointed. “Tie, Do you think the team used you in the most effective way this year?” I asked. That seemed neutral enough not to force a rise in him, and yet, he could sense that if he told the truth, it was going to cause some ripples. Other reporters began leaning in to hear the answer. “Would I have liked to play more and try to make more of a difference? Yes, for sure,” Domi said carefully. “But at the same time, that was out of my control and that’s just the way it goes.” That begged a follow-up. I had always been under the impression that Domi and Pat Quinn had a good rapport. Did Domi ever talk to the Leafs’ coach and ask for more ice time? Another straight-ahead question, but one that, if he were inclined to do so, might allow Domi to reveal something interesting about his relationship with Quinn. “Ironically enough,” Domi starts, “I used to be in his office quite a bit, and I used to barrel down his door a lot. But this year it wasn’t the same, and I didn’t do that,” he added, looking more sad than anything. Domi went on to explain that he started the year getting a relatively regular shift with Eric Lindros. But at some point “I just disappeared into the fourth line and never got out of there again.” Domi speculated that he may have been a victim of the Leafs’ youth movement that was forced on the club late in the season thanks to a spate of injuries to veterans. It forced the club to call up many of its younger players from the American Hockey League, and most of them did reasonably well. Of course, the better they did, the less ice time Domi got. “I didn’t want to be the guy who selfishly speaking worried about ice time,” he says. “I tried to show these young guys how to be professional in day-to-day work. So you just try and be a leader.” I thanked Domi for his comments, then marched right over to the media lounge where Pat Quinn was about to start his news conference. The first thing I asked him was whether he shared Domi’s view that the coach and the player were not as communicative as in years past. Quinn said he did not. “I’ve tried to always maintain an open-door policy and be open to discussion, suggestion, criticism whatever, from the players because we are a team,” Quinn said. “So it may be that we hadn’t had the conversations as much as we might have had in the past. But Tie’s an initiator, and that could have happened as well.” Quinn seemed to be suggesting that Domi needed to share part of the blame for whatever communication gap exists between the two old warhorses, since Domi admitted he knocked on Quinn’s door less in 2006. It’s hard to think of Tie Domi as one of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. But the fact was, his fifteen-year career as one of hockey’s most feared enforcers had come to an end, not with a bang but a whimper. There would be no last minute glory in the playoffs, since the 2005-06 Leafs failed to make the playoffs. There would be no farewell tour around the league because Domi ended the season wanting to continue to play, but not knowing what his future held in Toronto. And unlike so many other popular Leafs (think Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming in Detroit, Dave Keon in Hartford, or Tim Horton in Buffalo), Domi always wanted to be buried, so to speak, in the blue and white. He may have spent the early 1990’s playing in New York and Winnipeg, but the Maple Leaf was now clearly tattooed on his butt. He could not have been more categorical about that at the news conference announcing his retirement, proclaiming: “I’ll always be a Maple Leaf fan and always want them to win.” Despite receiving phone calls of interest from other teams, Domi concluded “I just couldn’t put on another jersey.” From some athletes, that would sound like canned propaganda. But it did not from Tie Domi. “I kiss my lucky charms I’m one of the few guys who got to play here so long and become a household name in this city,” he said perhaps not terribly modestly, but certainly accurately. Domi’s departure from the National Hockey League raises questions about whether there remains a place in the new game for the player who will spend more than 200 minutes a year in the penalty box and only contribute a handful of goals. A generation ago in the NHL, no team would be so foolish as to play without such an enforcer --- someone who made sure the other team did not take liberties with your team’s most skilled players. Today, officials are calling more penalties, and the players, whose skills are first and foremost clearly pugilistic, are on a much shorter leash. Is there still a place in the new NHL for Tie Domi? “I don’t think there are as many spots on as many teams,” says Harry Neale. “You have to be able to play in addition to being a tough guy.” Goaltender Sean Burke, who played a significant role in the Brendan Shanahan hockey summit, agrees. “I think that the role of the fighter is a valuable one if the fighter is a good hockey player, somebody that isn’t going to hurt your hockey club,” he says. “I think if you look back to the days when you just got a couple of guys sitting there waiting to fight, and were a liability for the most part, on the ice, I think those days are over.” One month into the 2005-06 season, Commissioner Gary Bettman took great pride in pointing out in a speech in Toronto how life for the fighters had changed. “The number of fighting majors has been cut by forty percent as the greater speed and elimination of stick work has removed many former flashpoints for fighting,” he said. Not everyone agrees with the commissioner that the infrequency of fighting has been good for the game. When I asked former Florida Panthers’ general manager Mike Keenan who the best fighter in the NHL was today, he replied, “I have no idea. There’s not much fighting anymore.” And in case I wasn’t clear that Keenan regretted the changes, he followed up with this observation. “They’ve taken out of the game the ability for players to settle things themselves,” he said. “They’ve taken some of the passion out of the game.” Wade Belak is the prototypical NHL tough guy. At six-feet, five inches tall, 221 pounds and flaming orange hair, he might be the last guy an opponent would want to go into the corner with. In February 2001, the Maple Leafs claimed him off waivers from the Calgary Flames and in his five seasons in Toronto ever since, he still struggles to be an everyday player. In the last season before the lockout he missed thirty-eight games because of injuries, and another ten games thanks to a suspension in connection with a high sticking incident. Belak accumulated twenty-seven penalty minutes in just one game that season. He finished the year with 109 minutes, which doesn’t sound that high, until you realize he only played thirty-four games all year. In fifty-five games in the first post-lockout season, he added another 109 minutes to his penalty totals. Belak is a more useful player than it would seem on first appearance. He can play both right wing and defense. His size clearly makes him an intimidating presence on the ice. However, only once in his career has he scored more than one goal per season and that was in 2002-03 when he netted three. He also spent 196 minutes in the penalty box during his fifty-five games played that year. Belak grew up in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His favourite player was Dave Manson, a product of Prince Albert, only an hour away. Belak grew up watching Manson play and loved his take-no-prisoners approach. “He played back in the day when somebody could beat you wide and you could break your stick over his leg and only get two minutes for slashing,” Belak laughs. “Everybody was scared of him.” Which is no doubt how Manson got his nickname: Charlie. For a player of limited skill, Manson managed eighteen years in the NHL, and in a bit of serendipity, played with Belak in Toronto in the early 2000’s. In fact, they were roommates on the road, which was a bit of a dream come true for Belak. Belak is the guy in the dressing room with the sense of humour. He loves to needle his teammates and understands what his role is. He turned thirty last summer and no doubt his fists feel older than that. Does he like to fight? “I won’t say I love to do it every night. But when it needs to be done, I don’t mind doing it,” he says. In his playbook, Belak “needs” to fight when one of the Leafs so-called skill players is being picked on by a tough guy on the other team. He insists he does not start a fight just for the sake of dropping the gloves. He also acknowledges something most fighters will not. “When you do win a fight it is definitely a good feeling,” he says. “It usually feels good on your face too,” he laughs, suggesting that if you won the fight, your face possibly feels less busted up than the other guy’s. Who does he think the best fighter in the league is? “God, I would still have to say Tie Domi,” Belak says admiringly, looking across the dressing room at his teammate, who will announce his retirement a few months after our conversation. “He is probably the most feared guy out there. He’s a little pit bull --- a little ball of muscle. He doesn’t fight as much as he used to, just because he doesn’t have to. “I wouldn’t want to fight him,” Belak admits --- quite an admission for a man who is more than half a foot taller than Domi. The Saskatoon native may stand tall. But he is also even bigger by admitting another thing fighters are never supposed to reveal: fear. In his first year in the league in 1996, Belak played just five games with the Colorado Avalanche. One night, he found himself going toe-to-toe with Stu Grimson, a fighter so fierce everyone called him The Grim Reaper. As big as Belak was and is, Grimson was even taller and with a longer reach to boot. “When he came after me it was a little nerve wracking,” Belak recalls. “But once you’re in it, there is nothing you can really do about it.” And how did it go? “It was a draw. I was just trying not to get hit. I was bobbin’ and weavin’,” he says. There are fighters in the NHL who seem to think the league is a glorified wrestling arena. They pump their hands in the air after combat and make other foolish gestures. Belak is not one of them. “There is no glory in gloating,” he insists. “ You are not going to win every fight. And to go on about it when you do win, it’s just going to bite you in the ass someday.” Considering the fact that Belak has spent nearly 1,000 minutes in the penalty box over his 330 game career, he actually doesn’t look too bad. He says he has had his nose broken a couple of times, once while he toiled in the minor leagues for the Hershey Bears (he does not remember who did it), and another time in the bigs when Colton Orr of the New York Rangers did the honours. “It doesn’t look bad actually,” I say to Belak. “No, it looks good,” he says. “Beautiful.” “I wouldn’t go that far,” I joke, “but it’s fine.” Belak disagrees. “I’m a beautiful guy,” he says and we both start laughing. On a later occasion, I ask Colton Orr if he knew he had broken Belak’s nose. “I had an idea,” he smiles. There may be no such thing as a “last laugh” in sports because with so many games nowadays, the next rematch is often never that far down the road. However, on December 19, 2006, the Maple Leafs enjoyed one of the most lopsided victories in the history of the franchise, a 9-2 romp over the New York Rangers. Within six minutes, the Leafs were already up 2-0 and trouble was in the air. Less than two minutes later, Orr and Belak were beating each other’s brains in, in an old-fashioned heavyweight tilt. “He forgot there was a puck out there,” Belak said after the game. According to Belak, Orr had been baiting him for the first two shifts of the game, daring him to drop the gloves. Finally, Belak watched his teammates rush the puck towards the Rangers’ net but when a scoring chance failed to materialize, he took Orr up on the offer and grabbed him. Belak clearly scored more punches than Orr during the fight, then pushed Orr to the ground and ended up on top of his Ranger counterpart. At that moment, Orr was defeated, completely defenseless, and at the mercy of a man whose nose he had broken in a past encounter. I ask Belak why he declined to pummel his defenseless opponent in that instance. “I could have hit him when he was down, but most guys don’t,” he said, confirming there is an honour and code among the game’s tough guys. That code goes so deep, Tie Domi once admitted to TSN’s Michael Landsberg that he once told another tough guy after a bruising brawl, “I love ya man.” “He’s just doing his job,” Belak said of Orr, with not a trace of hard feelings in his voice. “We got up 2-0 right away and he’s trying to turn the momentum around.” But Orr lost the fight and things got worse for the Rangers, who were down 5-1 by the end of the first period. Conversely, Belak’s victory may have helped his team. “It was an important factor because it continued our positive feeling,” Leaf coach Paul Maurice told me a few days after the game. “I don’t want Wade to fight, but I don’t not want him to fight either. Better the fight happen then and there, than with another player later in the game.” In fact, Orr wasn’t done. Later in the game, once the outcome was no longer in doubt, Belak says Orr “got in my face,” baited him again, and tried to arrange a rematch. Belak declined. “I just told him to look at the scoreboard,” he says. Now that Tie Domi has retired, Wade Belak is unquestionably the best fighter on the Maple Leaf team, and has openly accepted that responsibility. Off the ice, he is a funny, married father of two daughters, one of whom is almost four, the other almost two. He has never met Colton Orr, except on the ice. Does he have any desire to meet him? “Not really,” Belak says. “We have nothing in common. He’s years younger. I’m a family man.” Ever since the Philadelphia Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the mid-1970’s by combining great goaltending (Bernie Parent), a few skill players (Rick MacLeish, Bill Barber, Reggie Leach, and Bobby Clarke when he wasn’t spearing opponents), and a lot of borderline hooliganism (Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly, Don Saleski and this list could go on much longer), people who care about hockey have been urging the various professional leagues to ban fighting. Wade Belak will not second the motion. “I think the instigator rule should be banned,” says Belak, referring to the rule that gives an extra harsh sentence to the guy that starts the fight. His rationale is not completely crazy. Belak has been around long enough to know that many NHLers have made their living by being “super-pests.” They tend to be smaller than the guys who are well-known fighters. They love to muck it up, and disturb the so-called skill players. In the old days, when a super-pest took liberties with one of the team’s stars, the bodyguard could mete out frontier justice by putting the super-pest in his place --- in other words, beat him up. Both players would get five minutes for fighting and that was that. Today, when the fighters try to take the law into their own hands, they often find themselves getting additional penalty time for “instigating.” Thus the fighter puts his own team in a manpower disadvantage by taking an extra two-minute minor penalty. He gets the same five minutes for fighting as his opposite number. And he quite possibly earns another ten-minute misconduct for trying to put into force hockey’s version of the deterrence theory. Except when the officials call it that way, deterrence fails and the super-pests win. “That is how we protect our goal scorers from guys like that who run around and try to hit guys and don’t back it up,” says Belak. Hockey has certainly traveled some distance from the days of the Broad Street Bullies, when there was almost nothing spontaneous about the fights, and bench clearing brawls were commonplace. But if the new rules have de-emphasized the importance of fighting, should the league simply take the next step and do what international hockey has done, namely ban fighting? If you want to start a good fight, just ask anyone affiliated with the NHL whether fighting should be banned. Or ask the fans. You’ll get a resounding no. “I think there is a place for that type of aggression,” says Rick Dudley, the Blackhawks’ assistant general manager, who was a decent scrapper during his nine seasons in the NHL and WHA.   Dudley points out there are, generally speaking, two times during a game when you can guarantee the fans will stand and watch: penalty shots and fights. “It is a part of the game,” Dudley insists. “I don’t mind that part of the game still being in it.” The Maple Leafs’ Darcy Tucker plays the game today a lot like Rick Dudley did in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Tucker had his best goal-scoring season ever in the year after the lockout. He scored twenty-eight goals, racked up 100 penalty minutes, and had his share of fights. (Dudley’s best year was thirty-one goals and 116 penalty minutes in 1974-75 in Buffalo). Dudley says he understood that if he wanted to make it in the NHL, he had to fight from time to time. Tucker seems to have come to the same conclusion. I always assumed that a guy who plays with such reckless abandon and is prepared to drop the gloves to gain respect actually enjoyed doing it. Not so. “I never liked fighting,” Tucker insists. “I just did it out of necessity to stay in the league.” Apparently, that sentiment also permeates the NHL. Joe Nieuwendyk, who retired from the Florida Panthers last year, hadn’t had a fight in years. And still, he would not ban it. “It’s just not a huge factor anymore,” he says. “I think there's still some people that enjoy seeing that, and it will never leave the game entirely.” Colton Orr, the 25-year-old New York Ranger who broke Wade Belak’s nose, grew up in Winnipeg watching and admiring the way a young Tie Domi played for his hometown Jets. “I loved to watch him fight,” Orr says. He’s convinced if fighting were banned from the game, players would simply find another form of intimidation and it would be worse. “I think teams would take liberties. There’d be a lot more slashing and hacking,” he predicts. When it comes to fighting, European players have always been at a distinct disadvantage in the NHL. Fighting is banned in international hockey. If you fight, you don’t simply sit in the penalty box for five minutes. You’re gone --- out of the game. So for the past thirty years, when European-trained players came to the NHL, they had almost no fighting experience in a game that featured plenty of fighting. Take the case of Alexei Ponikarovsky. Born in Kiev, Ukraine twenty-seven years ago, the six-foot, four-inch, 220-pounder certainly has the vital statistics to be a good fighter. But having come to the Toronto Maple Leafs from Moscow Dynamo, he never learned how to fight. He admired Russian players such as Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure, both of whom left Russian hockey to become huge stars in the NHL and were much smaller, physically speaking, than Ponikarovsky and thus almost never fought. During his first full season with the Leafs, Ponikarovsky was assessed fifty-two penalty minutes in eighty-six regular season and playoff games --- in other words, less than one minor penalty on average per game. One night, during a particularly heated moment in a game between the Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, Ponikarovsky’s teammate Bryan McCabe collided with one of his opponents after the whistle. Next thing you knew, everybody was pairing off and Ponikarovsky found himself with Rob Ray, the Sabres’ own version of Tie Domi. Ray played more than 900 games in the NHL, most of them with the Sabres, amassing more than 3,200 penalty minutes. Ponikarovsky may have had little experience fighting, but he did have one thing going for him that allowed him to survive his encounter with Ray. He was almost half a foot taller and twenty pounds heavier. “He can’t reach me because he had a short reach,” Ponikarovsky recalled. “I have longer arms so I tried to keep him on distance and just threw a couple of punches and tried to wait for him to get tired.” Apparently the strategy worked. Ponikarovsky and Ray fought to a draw. It still represents the Leaf forward’s only fight in more than 200 NHL games with Toronto. “I still think that there are guys and moments in a game when a fight is the best remedy,” says Brad Shaw, also a former head coach of the New York Islanders. Shaw is an intelligent man, who traditionally does not resort to a rucksack of clichés most coaches in most sports use. His is a widely held view that while fighting has certainly been de-emphasized in the new NHL, it cannot and should not be banned. “Very seldom do these big guys hurt each other,” Shaw says.   They both are so skilled at what they are doing that they do nothing but tire each other out and they can barely stand up after a minute and a half. “But I think the pure guys, where they did nothing but fight --- I don’t know if we’ll ever see those guys again.” That would suit James Cullingham just fine. Cullingham is a professor at Seneca College’s School of Communication Arts in Toronto. He is a former executive producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and has spent 20 years as an independent and network producer, writer, director, and documentary-maker. He is exactly the kind of person Don Cherry has in mind when the former coach talks about the leftwing, sherry-sipping, downtown Toronto, lib-left crowd of hockey-haters. Of course, Cullingham does not hate hockey at all. He loves it. He loves the fact that it no longer holds the singular place in the NHL game it once had. But if Cullingham were commissioner, he would ban fighting outright. That’s right. A complete ban. “I think it reduces professional hockey in North America to the level of professional wrestling,” he says. “It bespeaks our sort of weird, colonized sense of ourselves, that this national game has to feature fighting because that is what real men do. Well, actually, the best Canadian hockey players are women. And they don’t fight.” The NHL has declined to ban fighting over the years, essentially for three reasons: First, hockey is the only major sport played in a relatively small, enclosed area, by combatants who are skating at each other at speeds unseen in any other sport. Bodies collide with incomparable ferociousness and when that happens, it is natural from time to time for tempers to flare. Second, fighting is an important law enforcement tool. If the league’s superstars do not have bodyguards, the super-pests will take advantage of them with impunity. The threat of being on the receiving end of a Tie Domi or Colton Orr punch is one of the few things that inhibits the pests from taking a run at Mats Sundin or Jaromir Jagr. Third, and most evident whenever a fight breaks out, the vast majority of fans in the building love watching a fight. They don’t just tolerate it. They love it. They rise out of their seats. They cheer. The bloodlust kicks in. And if the hometown scrapper wins the bout, he is hailed as the conquering hero on his way to the penalty box. I meet James Cullingham at Grano, a great Italian restaurant in midtown Toronto, and am prepared to hear him argue why fighting should be banned. I tell him I will challenge each of his assertions, as any good devil’s advocate should. Cullingham has become one of the country’s most prominent anti-fighting advocates. He has been a frequent panelist on TSN’s Off the Record, where he burnishes his anti-fighting credentials whenever he can. As to point number one, Cullingham points out football, like hockey, is a very violent game. Fighting is banned in football. Anyone who throws a punch is ejected. As a result, you almost never see any fights on the gridiron. I counter Cullingham’s argument by pointing out that there is so much more violence permitted under the rules in football that players do not have to resort to actually throwing punches. During the course of a typical football game, players are permitted within the rules to dive through the air at each other and pound their opponent mercilessly into the turf, which may look like a grassy field, but feels more like a concrete parking lot. The typical football play lasts only a few seconds. Then the play stops. The whistle blows. Everyone regroups. There is no flow in football as there is in hockey. As a result, the temperature of a football game does not typically rise as it does in a hockey game. Nor does the pot boil over in football as it does in hockey, because so much madness and mayhem is already permitted by football’s rulebook. Cullingham is not convinced. As the father of three daughters, he thinks the NHL’s permitting fighting sends a terrible signal to young people. “I think that allowing fighting in professional hockey is inexcusable,” he says. Cullingham is distressed that on too many occasions, his students come to class and rather than discussing an impressive goal, they would rather discuss “that scrap they saw last night.” The broadcasters, he says, are just as guilty of fostering a climate where the fighter rather than the superstar is worshipped. He points to simultaneous events that took place in March 2006 as a prime example. After Tie Domi played in his 1000th NHL game March 3rd in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs decided to hold a special ceremony for their tough guy a week later. The event coincided with the Montreal Canadiens’ retiring Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion’s number 5 at the Bell Centre. Geoffrion was one of the game’s all-time greats, has been credited with inventing the slapshot, and at that moment, was confined to a hospital bed in Atlanta, where he was dying of stomach cancer. The Montreal ceremony was moving, historic, and dramatic. And no one west of Montreal saw it on Hockey Night in Canada that night. Instead, they got the Domi celebration. Geoffrion’s family attended the forty-minute ceremony in Montreal as “Boom Boom” died the same night. “That says to me a lot about what the emphasis of the game has become,” Cullingham said with evident disgust. How about the notion that Wayne Gretzky would not have been able to achieve much of what he achieved without his bodyguard Dave Semenko watching out for him on his left wing? Cullingham disagrees. He insists with effective refereeing, bodyguards would be unnecessary. Furthermore, he says so many of today’s fights are not at all spontaneous, but rather the result of two battlers jawing at each other, almost choreographing the fisticuffs to come. “It is staged, like professional wrestling,” he says. “The two guys decide, ‘okay, at some point we are going to go.’” Steve Milton, the excellent hockey reporter for The Hamilton Spectator, did some research on this aspect of fighting and discovered in the first year after the lockout, fighting was down forty-two per cent, “proving once again that most brawls arescripted and not spontaneous.” New York Rangers assistant coach Mike Pelino thinks the new rules have taken care of the brawlers. Fighting is “down, still a part of the game but not a focus of the game. And that is just the way it should be, almost that little bit of mystery and uncertainty with whether there is going to be a fight and the anticipation. It is more instinctive now as opposed to maybe, in recent years, it was a little bit more premeditated.” Toronto hockey fans saw some prime evidence at how much less fighting there is in the game back on October 30, 2006. That night, the Atlanta Thrashers were visiting the Air Canada Centre to play the Maple Leafs. The Thrashers were the better team on the night, peppering the Leaf net with 33 shots, compared to just 22 for the home side. But it was the Leafs who held a 4-2 lead late in the game. With just twenty seconds left, Thrasher defenseman Shane Hnidy (6-feet, 2-inches tall, 210 pounds) took a run at the Leafs’ Michael Peca (5-feet, 11 inches tall, 190 pounds). Hnidy caught Peca looking the wrong way and tossed a vicious, blindside elbow at Peca’s head. The Leaf forward collapsed to the ice. In the old days, that kind of cheap shot would have resulted in, if not a bench clearing brawl, then at least someone on the ice wearing blue and white introducing Hnidy’s face to one of their fists. What happened on this night instead? Absolutely nothing. Hnidy was assessed a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the Leafs largest player, Hal Gill (6’ 7”, 240 pounds) who happened to be on the ice at the time, skated over to Hnidy and said something. And that was it. As Peca, one of the Leafs’ more effective players to that point in the season, sat stunned on the ice trying to figure out what time zone he was in, the entire episode did not serve as much of an argument for deterrence. In fact, you could argue the absence of fighting --- knowing he would not be pummeled for his transgression --- is what emboldened Shane Hnidy to go after Peca with such apparent impunity. After the game, I asked Peca whether he was disappointed that no teammate punished his tormentor. “It was too late in the game to do something about that,” he insisted. “I felt a bit like the Titanic in open waters. I could see the iceberg coming, but couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.” Peca added he didn’t expect his teammates to do anything and in fact, thought there was no point risking a suspension or injury by having one of them mete out frontier justice. “You’ve gotta pick your spots these days,” he added. “Besides, I know who did it. It’s a long season.” I asked the Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice about the incident, noting in the days of the old NHL, Hnidy would have paid dearly for his attack. Maurice’s answer was all new NHL. “The referees are paid to protect the players,” he said. “Peca’s fine. The game’s over. You’ve got to be a patient man.” That last line, like Peca’s, suggested the Leafs would remember the incident the next time they played the Thrashers. I followed up. “So will someone have a conversation with Hnidy next time?” I asked. Paul Maurice is a great interview, particularly when his team wins. He understands the theatre of the post-game press conference, the give and take between the coach and reporters, and even when reporters make silly, inane statements (as opposed to actually asking questions), he doesn’t try to show anyone up, but rather responds almost always with a thoughtful comment. And when he wants to be, he’s funny too. This was one of those times when he wanted to be. “Michael Peca’s fine,” he repeated. “The game’s over. There’s no sense hanging over the boards and yapping at the other team with 20 seconds left.” Then, referring to his first comments when he did suggest the Leafs would be aware of Hnidy’s number next time the teams played, Maurice added, “Now, I gave you a gift. There is no re-gifting here.” In other words Paikin, I’ve said all I’m going to say on this, as the other reporters looked on and laughed. Two days later, I spoke to the Leafs’ general manager John Ferguson Jr. about the incident. He, too, took the less-is-more approach. “We’ve still got three more games against the Thrashers,” Ferguson said, leaving it at that. Except the next time the Thrashers and Leafs met, it was one month later in Atlanta and despite badly out-shooting the Thrashers, the Leafs lost 5-0. Even worse, Shane Hnidy’s name is all over the league’s official play-by-play sheet, having blocked shots, taken three shots at the Leaf net, leveled some decent body checks, and been on the ice for one of Atlanta’s goals. Doesn’t sound like the Leafs exacted much revenge. One week later, the Thrashers defeated the Leafs again, this time 5-2 in Toronto. Hnidy was apparently so intimidated by his previous experience in Toronto, he blocked three shots, took three more on the Leaf net, and was on the ice for two of the goals his team scored against the Leafs. So much for it’s a long season. Now that Tie Domi has retired, the “tough guy” duties on the Maple Leafs have fallen overwhelmingly to Wade Belak. “Life without Tie?” Belak asks himself rhetorically, when I ask how the team is different without Number 28. “When I first came here when I was twenty-five or twenty-four, I learned how to take on that role from Tie. When the right time is to do it, he’d say be smart about it. Now that he’s gone I feel I can use his knowledge to further enhance myself.” Belak is one of the class clowns in this Leaf dressing room. You can feel him say, “use his knowledge” in quotation marks. He’s trying to make a serious point, but he also respects a dressing room culture that says, don’t get too serious when answering a serious question, particularly when there’s a teammate watching. In this case, Darcy Tucker is right alongside Belak. You can feel the Abbott and Costello routine about to emerge, and Belak is right on cue. “Tie was a vocal part of our dressing room. Wouldn’t you say so Darcy?” he asks his teammate, who is now laughing and enjoying the show. “Tie usually threatened Darcy’s life once a game. Tie’s one of those guys who threatens people once a game. He was one of our vocal guys, one of our leaders in the room. Me and him kinda shared the duties. We don’t miss him because he’s on TV now. Hope he doesn’t rip on us too much like some ex-hockey players do.” And how does Domi like his new life as a television commentator on TSN? “He called me after the Ottawa game,” Belak goes on, now on a real roll. “He says it’s good. Says it’s frickin’ easy. A cushy job. I don’t blame him. Probably a lot easier than being a hockey player.” In case I still wasn’t getting the picture, Belak happily explained the Mutt ‘n Jeff routine that is a feature of every hockey dressing room. “Every team I’ve played on, everyone busts each other’s balls pretty good,” he says. “I think you need that atmosphere, where you can’t take everything so seriously. You have to have fun and get in each other’s kitchen and razz each other pretty well. Tie was always razzing us and we were always giving it back to him.” *   *   * James Cullingham is a big sports fan, but he has stopped watching hockey. I tell him that’s a shame, that the new rules have changed the game dramatically, fighting is down significantly in the regular season (less than one fight on average per game now) and virtually non-existent in the playoffs. “I think that is a good trend,” he says. “I would still suggest doing away with it altogether. I would start watching hockey again because I love the game.” Until that happens, Cullingham says, he’ll stick with baseball. “That’s an ironic choice,” I tell him. After all, there are more bench-clearing brawls in baseball than hockey. And if baseball has returned into the North American consciousness after its lost season in 1994, it did so in no small measure because lots of players cheated by using steroids. “It is just unbelievable what those guys did,” he acknowledges. “It is unbelievable.” Whether fighting does or does not have any place in hockey, this much is clear. There is absolutely no pressure from any quarter in society to get rid of it and Cullingham knows it. “I think that there are a lot of people who would be fans who could be brought back in (if fighting were banned), but I can’t say there are a lot of people who share my views,” he admits. “They clearly decided, with the crisis around the lockout, that speed was an imperative, that opening up the ice was. And I can’t see how allowing fighting is consistent with that.” If the new rules were designed, in part, to reduce gratuitous wrestling-style fights in the NHL, then league officials have succeeded beyond what the vast majority of observers thought was possible. Tie Domi was the last of a breed. Colton Orr, whose fighting skills are among the best but goal-scoring skills among the worst, spends most nights watching his team play from the press box. He played in only thirty-five games in the first post-lockout season and just one playoff game. He no doubt was an intimidating presence on the ice. But on the score sheet, he contributed just one assist in those thirty-five games. Teams apparently can no longer afford to dress players whose only talents are pugilistic. While the NHL may not have the ban on fighting people such as James Cullingham want, fighting as a controversial issue has for all intents and purposes gone away. Some observers think the league now needs to turn its attention to something far more urgent. “I like a physical game,” says Brad Shaw. “But I really think there are too many hits from behind, there are too many head shots and there are too many knees being stuck out on knees.” Shaw freely admits to loving the violent unpredictability of hockey. He spent fifteen years bouncing up, down, and around professional hockey, from the international league, to the American league, to the NHL. Dirty, cheap shots are the issue, he says, not fighting. “The physicality is what I think appeals to the fans, and what appeals to me,” he says. “For awhile this year we kind of lost a little bit of that. I think it is coming back. But the physicality is something that always has to be there.” Clearly, it will be. But just without Tie Domi.

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