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Tie Domi’s Shift Work a touching tale of others, but seldom of himself

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In stores now, Tie Domi's Simon & Schuster memoir Shift Work tells the tale of hockey, family, and a man who is still guarded about revealing too much.

At the center of the book you sense it is coming. After some tough but honest chapters about the life of a hockey enforcer, you begin to think about the names you've heard lately. Derek Boogaard. Steve Montador. You begin to ponder the hefty issues that plague people in this role. And you wonder whether Tie Domi will address the darkness that always lurks just at the edge of the enforcer's life in the NHL.

Domi does address it, with poignancy and introspection, in a chapter about the life of Wade Belak. Domi's words about Belak are a careful celebration of his history, and outlines his time with the Maple Leafs in a way that reveals the pain and fear that can come with the role. Belak, like Domi, was an enforcer. Unlike Domi, Belak did not enjoy it, and ultimately was unable to find a way to survive it. Domi pays him respect, both by attending his funeral and memorializing him in his book, and uses the moment to reflect upon his career.

A diminutive, dyslexic, attention deficit disorder-driven kid from a first generation immigrant household, Domi’s book guides us through the people he cares about.

What does it mean to be an enforcer? How did Domi survive such a rough, physical role, especially without resorting to painkillers or alcohol to ease stress and physical pain? What legacy did Domi build? The answers to these questions appear, bluntly but honestly, in the pages of Domi's book.

Domi’s new memoir, Shift Work, is often more a story about his family – his children, his parents, and his teammates – than it is about him. Shift Work doesn’t quite let us inside the brain of its subject. Instead, the reader is presented with someone who reveals himself most through his actions, and through more than 200 pages of storytelling, lets his guard down only when discussing that beloved family.

A diminutive, dyslexic, attention deficit disorder-driven kid from a first generation immigrant household, Domi’s book guides us through the people he cares about, from his brave, do-it-yourself Albanian father,  to the likes of Pat Quinn, Don Cherry, Mats Sundin, Mario Lemieux, Pat Burns, Bob Probert, Wade Belak, and his three children Max, Avery, and Carlin. Throughout, the reader is left to infer Domi's personality through how he interacts with the people he loves.

The chapter that describes his parents' background and his childhood integrates a harsh reality into hockey in a way that many stories about the lives of good Canadian hockey players do not. Examples of hard work and fearlessness were always in front of Domi -- with parents that survived ethnic cleansing in Albania, nothing in comparison was as difficult as surviving war, not even helping his father run a laundromat in the worst parts of Detroit, or finding a way to remain a hockey player at the highest level of the game.

Through short, stunted, simple sentences, Domi sometimes presents himself as a can-do-no-wrong character. Because the book is a memoir, he uses it as an opportunity to explain "his side" of some of the worst moments of his career, falling occasionally into the sticky mire of focusing on other people's roles in these situations.

When he’s nearing retirement, and sees his Leafs team and his career fall apart, he blames then-general manager John Ferguson Jr. (JFJ) for forcing Quinn to limit his ice time because the new boss was "threatened" by how well-liked Domi is. When he loses everything during the financial crisis, he blames others for taking advantage of him. And while he continually says he learns from his experiences, and brags a bit about his business acumen, there are several moments where it’s clear the former enforcer is flawed but won’t quite let you in.

Domi claims he was always in control of his emotions, but casually waves off the "street fights" he got into as a minor in bars. "I wasn’t just the strongest kid on the team, I was the mentally toughest," he says, after telling the story of the time he beat up a chicken mascot (yes, chicken mascot) after a game – en route to a visit to a cop car.

Each glimpse into vulnerability is matched with a "my brother can vouch for me, I’ve never lost an arm wrestling match," or stories of how people, both before his NHL career and during, became "jealous" of his popularity.

On the other hand, there are two moments Domi doesn’t qualify with any excuses: his elbow to Scott Niedermayer in the 2001 playoffs which he admits he was waiting for, and his sucker punch to Ulf Samuelsson. In both of these stories, Domi shows honest regret, carefully outlining his impetus for each of his actions, and shouldering the responsibility of the results.

In perhaps the gentlest passage of the book, Domi describes how he and Sundin would insist on booking hotels that served Haagen-Dazs, so that they could eat an entire container together.
Some of the most vivid writing in the book comes when Domi is discussing the nuts and bolts of being a good enforcer. When Domi is brought back to the organization that drafted him, he describes a meeting with Pat Burns during which Burns tells him in no uncertain terms that he needs to play hurt. Instead of using Leafs organization medical staff, Domi builds his own behind-the-scenes staff so that he'll never look injured at work.

Thankful for his high pain tolerance, Domi tells story after story about how it helps his game. In what Domi describes as a pivotal moment in his career, he writes about when he finally lures Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert into a fight, and wins. The sheer physical intensity of the scene makes it clear that Domi considers this the heart of the book, his role as a hockey player, and his career.

But in a way that reveals much about Domi, the story really isn’t about Domi. It’s clear there are many people around him that he cares deeply about, that he would do anything for -- and ultimately, it’s a story of Domi's losses. Many members of his actual and adopted "family" are gone. There are entire chapters, with great insight, dedicated to the lives of the late Quinn, Burns, Probert, and Belak.

Quinn’s firing is carried out despite the players – Domi and Sundin included – fighting for him to stay. Quinn, unlike anyone, has the respect of every player, according to Domi. They always trust his judgment, and build a special dressing room culture as a result.

"This guy, every day that he sat next to you, he brightened up your life," Domi says of Belak, someone he cared deeply about and tried to mentor on and off the ice as a friend. Anecdotally, Domi recounts the time he visited Belak after he retired when the troubled enforcer was upset in the dressing room during a prolonged stint in the press box. Shockingly, Domi recounts that only he, trainer Scott McKay, and Bryan McCabe attended Belak’s funeral from the Leafs. What the enforcer does for a team will never be understood, he says, and Belak’s funeral is a testament that Domi is right.

The insight into people that readers know only from television doesn’t end there either. Stories of guidance from Don Cherry, Mark Messier and Lemieux highlight individuals he describes as a "father figure" after his own father passed away, a "mentor," and "selfless" respectively. He credits mythologized characters like Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan as generous, deep down. Jordan, after beating Domi in a pick-up game of pool when they’d never met, gave Tie and Max courtside seats, acknowledged Max mid-game, and brought him to the dressing room.

There is also previously untold insight into the Leafs organization, particularly Sundin. In perhaps the gentlest passage of the book, Domi describes how he and Sundin would insist on booking hotels that served Haagen-Dazs, so that they could eat an entire container together, adding chocolate sauce as they went, the night before a game. Ironically, this kind of moment is one that Tie's son Max, who suffers from diabetes, will never have.

Sundin does everything with humility, according to his longtime friend and protector.

There are insights into curious goalie Ed Belfour, who drunkenly tries to fight several people at a bar when he loses in an arm-wrestling match, only to be dragged into a taxi where Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, and Domi have to sit on him to restrain him. At the hotel, Domi is forced to punch him in the face and knock him out to keep him from escaping. Belfour’s response? A hug the next morning.

There are also looks into how the previous generation of Leafs greats operated. Dick Duff, Johnny Bower, and George Armstrong scouted in a pack, according to Domi.

The second all-time right winger in playoff games played (behind only Armstrong he’ll have you know) also doesn’t shy away from his love for the training staff. Domi credits McKay and others for taking care of him, and tells of how they would leave unwrapped pieces of chewing gum for him because he couldn’t open them with his fingers. Chewing gum, it turns out, is Domi’s go-to scare tactic in warm-ups. As a rookie still proving his place, he would chew gum and stare down opposing players in order to look relaxed and confident.

At a higher level, Domi provides a glimpse into his relationship with two executives, aforementioned Leafs general manager JFJ and then Players’ Association (NHLPA) head Bob Goodenow. JFJ, who bought out the fan favourite, dismantled a competitive, tight-knit team, and left it in shambles. And while Domi wanted to continue playing hockey and says he was offered a three-year deal in Pittsburgh, he wanted to retire as a Leaf, so it signaled the end of his career.

This comes after Domi says JFJ met with him and Sundin to discuss free agents only to sign all the players he and Sundin didn’t want. Goodenow, Domi says, is responsible for failing to compromise on the best deal the players got early on in the 2004 lockout because he insisted there wouldn’t need to be a cap when he was done. A small group of players, Domi and Lemieux included, met without Goodenow and agreed on a cap that was $10 million higher than what they ended up with. Domi recalls standing up in an NHLPA meeting to tell Goodenow if he couldn’t get a better deal he better resign when it’s all over – which is exactly what happened.

In the end, the reader is left feeling two things. First, that Domi makes his point. Loyalty for his family, team, and the larger "team" that surrounds him are what drove him and kept him going through the heaviest adversity. But second, you are left wanting to know more about him.

The reader doesn’t get this satisfaction until the final chapters, when Domi reveals himself as, above all else, a loving father who credits his ex-wife Leanne as an "incredible mother," and tells of the times he cried when Max spoke at the 2015 Conn Smyth sports dinner or his Goddaughter gave her valedictorian speech.

In those moments, you see a glimpse into the heart of a man who writes that "your kids always come first" and leaves you with fatherly pride of Max’s most valuable forward award at last year’s World Junior Championships.

"I felt my shift was done," concludes the memoir of a man who still, in true enforcer fashion, has his guard up.