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Playing his 1,000th career game tonight vs Buffalo. Milestone day for Tie.

About to play 1,000th game
Mar. 3, 2006. 01:00 AM

Tie Domi pushes his poached eggs to one side of the table and his Blackberry to the other. He folds his arms and moves forward. He really wants to say this.

"I was born a fighter," Domi says. "When I was 14, I was fighting guys who were 20 and I wasn't losing. With all the fights I've been in, I'm very lucky I didn't have a gun pulled on me or get stabbed. I'm lucky to be alive."

Tie Domi is talking about Keele and Dundas, the west-end Junction neighbourhood, not the 268 fights he has been involved in as an NHLer. It was there that he once tried to bash in his teeth on his bicycle handlebars so he could look like Bobby Clarke. It was where he once came home wearing his older brother's new jacket, covered in so much blood (not his) that it had to be tossed out.

Domi will play in his 1,000th regular-season NHL game tonight when the Maple Leafs visit the Buffalo Sabres. In doing so, he'll become only the second true enforcer in league history to play that many games, after Craig Berube (1,054). It's a monumental achievement, given that Domi has gone into most of those games with a good chance of getting punched in the face.

"The stress of having to score a goal every night is one thing," says former Sabres enforcer Rob Ray, who fought Domi 23 times, "but the stress of going into a game knowing you're going to have to fight is something totally different. I try to explain that to people and they have a hard time understanding that."

Certainly, one of the keys to Domi's longevity is physical. His father, John, lived much of his adult life with a bullet lodged in his forehead, an injury he suffered while fleeing Albania, and Domi inherited his father's literal and figurative hard-headedness. Hitting Domi in the head is like hitting a brick wall.

"Stan Jonathan was one of the toughest guys I've ever seen, but after a fight his face would look like it had gone through a Mixmaster," says Dick Todd, Domi's junior coach with the Peterborough Petes. "Tie never got a scratch on him."

A former Leaf teammate tells a yarn about how several members of the team were in a bar in Chicago one night when half a dozen Marines began picking on two of the players.

"Tie comes in and says, `Hey, what's going on?' and one of the guys says, `Hey, you (expletive) midget, this is none of your business,' and Tie says, `It is now.'"

So they decide that the biggest guy from the group of Marines will get to punch Domi and Domi will then get to hit him back.

"This guy hauls back and punches Tie in the face and Tie looks at him and says, `That's not your best shot. I'll give you one more,'" the teammate recalls. "Now, I can tell this guy has broken his hand and his buddies are like, `Oh, (expletive), it looks like we picked on the wrong midget.' He can't punch with his right, so he gives Tie a little baby punch with his left and then Tie must have hit this guy 50 times. He was begging Tie to stop."

But an even more important reason why the 36-year-old Domi has lasted this long as an enforcer is that he has never allowed his role to torment him the way it has so many others. Most fighters believe there's a hockey player in them waiting to get out and that they're forced to play a role they despise because that's the only way to stay in the game. But they don't have the skills to contribute on a regular shift and conflict between how they see themselves and how they play occasionally has tragic consequences.

John Kordic died of a cocaine overdose in a motel near Quebec City at age 27, a troubled player who former coach Jean Perron said was consumed by guilt over his role as an enforcer, a role his father disapproved of.

"People don't realize how hard it is," says retired goalie Glenn Healy, a former teammate of Domi's. "They don't see that you're at the end of a 45-second shift and there's Dave Brown waiting for you. And you're not doing it (fighting) for yourself, you're doing it for somebody else. I've seen a lot of guys come into this league flaming and they flicker out in a hurry when they realize how hard it is."

But Domi was different. By the time he reached the NHL, he was a decent player who nonetheless embraced the enforcer's role. He was skilled enough to occasionally play on the top line and, when he stopped fighting in the playoffs, he was reliable enough to get regular ice time. But he never allowed his pugilistic role to devour him emotionally, the way it did Kordic.

Instead, he's made about $15 million (U.S.) in a career as the NHL's highest-paid enforcer. The same player who once split the 50-50 draw winnings with two teammates when he was suspended in junior by saying, "two dollars for you, two for you, two for me. Five for you ..." now owns a company that oversees mergers and acquisitions.

Domi, in fact, got his first chance to play because of Kordic, whose erratic behaviour prompted the Leafs to call up Domi from the Newmarket Saints. The two played one game together, then Kordic didn't show up for the second of back-to-back games against the Detroit Red Wings.

"Mentally, it was killing him, because he was the only guy (on the Leafs) to fight," Domi recalls. "You look at Detroit and there's (Bob) Probert and (Joe) Kocur and (Chris) McRae and he couldn't take it. He had all those problems because mentally he couldn't take it."

The fighting has taken its toll on Domi as well. His right hand looks like it should belong to Popeye and his shoulder and back cause constant problems. He's on pace for fewer than 100 penalty minutes this season and a decisive beating at the hands of 24-year-old Brian McGrattan of the Ottawa Senators earlier this season was a sign that his days as the NHL's most feared player are over.

"I had no business fighting that kid (McGrattan), but I did," Domi says. "I was kind of waiting for Nathan Perrott to do it and once I saw that Nathan wasn't doing it, I said to myself, `Well, I guess I'd better do it.' It took me three years to get Probert to fight me and I gave that kid an opportunity. I don't regret it. That's the way it goes."

Domi has long been underappreciated for his playing skills, but those too are tailing off and he's playing fewer than 10 minutes per game. There was a time, however, when there wasn't a better player among NHL tough guys. In his prime, Domi was a terrific skater and an underrated passer who rarely turned over the puck.

Critics will say his days as a useful player are long past him and that he doesn't even fight much any more. Some suggest he only got the contract he did last off-season — two years at $1.25 million (U.S.) per season — because he's a buddy of MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.

"I've been dealing with jealous people my whole career. My father taught me that jealousy is an evil thing and at the end of the day, those people always end up falling flat on their faces," Domi says. "People who say that don't appreciate what I've done in my career and in the playoffs. I left three-year deals on the table from the Rangers and Pittsburgh for substantially more money. Those people mean nothing to me, but Larry and (his wife) Judy will be my friends forever."

There's almost no chance that a player like Domi will play 1,000 games again because the player Domi was no longer exists in the NHL. In Domi's first-ever game, there were 12 fights and Domi picked up 37 of his 3,473 career penalty minutes. He also taunted the Red Wings bench so much that coach Jacques Demers tried to climb over the glass to get at former Leaf coach Doug Carpenter.

"Pretty good for a guy who wasn't supposed to make it, eh?" Domi says.
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