When the post-mortem of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ home opener against the Ottawa Senators was being conducted, hockey scribes hung most of the goat horns on Tie Domi for coughing up the puck on a “weak clear,” thereby allowing Sens’ captain Daniel Alfredsson to tie the game with only 62 seconds remaining. Overtime came up fallow, and then a shootout. The Leafs lose their first of the long-awaited season.
As the Air Canada Centre emptied, two sisters in wheelchairs—both quadriplegics—were waiting outside the Leafs’ dressing room, the oldest to meet her hockey hero. She wore a replica of his jersey on her back. Number 28. Tie Domi had promised he would be there. And he was.
“He was awesome,” said 20-year-old Shannon Deering. “He thanked us for coming. He signed our sweaters. He gave us autographed pictures. LINDROS CAME TOO.” And he brought Eric Lindros—the same Eric Lindros who had given the Leafs the lead late in the game, seconds before Tie Domi’s “weak clear” made it all for naught.
Autographed pucks all around.
Hockey is a game, hockey is a business. But it is not bigger than all the men who play it. In a recent profile of Tie Domi, Sun sports columnist Bill Lankof wrote that the Leaf’ fourth-line winger was the “most visible athlete in Toronto—both beloved and loathed—and the most misunderstood.” “He has been called a cement-head and a punk; then he shows up with $100,000 in gifts for kids to whom Christmas is only a rumour,” Lankhof wrote.
Unless you read Bill Lankhof’s profile, most Leaf fans would probably be like me—unaware, for example, that Tie Domi is a savvy businessman with financial holdings so diversified that the $1.25 million he makes on the ice is probably akin to the pocket change of the truckers and assembly-line workers who look upon him as more like one of them, as blue collar as blue collar can be. And this is good, because the Tie Domi I know—and it is only one particular side of him—is the Tie Domi who would show up to see two quadriplegic sisters outside his dressing room as promised, regardless of what happened on the ice, even if he was wearing goat horns.
When I heard that Shannon and Erica Deering—the Port Perry sisters crippled last summer in a horrific car crash, and the focus of my Thanksgiving Sunday column—were going to the Leafs opener, I contacted Sun sports writer Mike Zeisberger to see if he could come up with an assist. He phoned Domi, and Domi phoned me.
“It would be my pleasure to meet them,” Domi said in a voice mail. “You must be a nice guy for taking the time to set this up for those two girls.” Imagine that. Tie Domi thanking me for thinking about them. It was as if I was doing him the favour. I never thought for a second , however, that Tie Domi would let those girls down, win or lose, and regardless of the size of the goat horns the sports analysts were trying to hang on him.
Two years ago next month, 19-year-old Trevor Lewis—the beneficiary of two heart transplants—was buried in his cherished Tie Domi jersey, not just because he was the hardest of die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf fans, but because he, too, was a fighter like Tie Domi is a fighter. His fight, however, was one against incredible odds of a third heart in his body taking solid root. But it didn’t. Trevor Lewis’ death brought out the oft-unseen human side of the Toronto Maple Leaf franchise. Without an advanced word spoken, a pre-politics Ken Dryden, then the Maple Leaf vice-chairman, showed up in Scarborough for both the viewing and the funeral, taking Trevor Lewis’ two young brothers aside for some private words. “I don’t know exactly what he said to them,” said their mother, Sandra. “But whatever they were, they were very comforting words. They had a calming effect on those boys.”
Because the Leafs were playing in Edmonton that day, Tie Domi called the Lewis family’s home from his cellphone as the team bus was making its way to the arena. “He must have talked to me for five to 10 minutes,” said Sandra. “He had read your article about Trevor’s death, and said he was sorry he never got to meet the ‘little fighter’ who admired the Leafs so much—even when the team wasn’t playing the greatest.”
FLOWERS FROM TIE. When the Lewis family arrived at the funeral home that night, there were flowers from Tie Domi and his family and, in the huge lineup of mourners, was Domi’s brother Dash who, despite being elbow deep in the MFP computer scandal at Toronto’s City Hall, left his personal problems behind and wore his heart on his sleeve. “He came up to me, and he put his arms around me,” said Sandra Lewis. “And then he began to cry. He said he was there to represent the Domi family. He was very emotional and so very sincere.” So, in a real way, the Domi compassion is bred in the bone.
The morning after Tie Domi met the Deering sisters, a phone call was made to their home in Port Perry. The day before, Shannon Deering had said that meeting Domi would not only make her day, but make her year. What she didn’t know at the time, however, was that it was about to happen that very night.
“I don’t think she’ll sleep for days,” said her father, Tony. “She was totally overwhelmed—both girls were. You have no idea how much this has meant to them.”
By Mark Bonokoski
The Toronto Sun, Tuesday October 11, 2005