MY STORY doesn’t begin with me. It begins with my parents. Growing up in Albania, my dad, John Domi, experienced a lot of hardship, both during World War II and after the war, under the communists. While my sister, brother, and I were growing up, one of the earliest stories we remember being told was about the time that my father was shot in the head while he was fleeing Albania. For the rest of my dad’s life, long after the wound healed, the bullet fragment stayed lodged in his forehead. I guess there was a piece that the doctors weren’t able to remove, and so it was just left there until the day he died. It was on the outer part of his left eyebrow, and when you touched the spot, you could feel the bullet fragment; it was like a small rock stuck under his skin.
I can’t count the number of times we heard that story when we were kids. Every time we felt for the bullet, we heard it told again. But I’m not sure my brother, sister, or I ever understood the reality of it. As we listened to the story, we sat in our living room, on our dad’s lap, with the comforts of a good home and a nice family. His
stories of tough times and the war were, to us, just that—a bunch of stories. Dash and Trish and I were all born in Canada. We didn’t know anything about war or what it was like to be shot at. We were more worried about the kinds of things most kids are worried about: school, our friends, or what sport we would play next.
My dad’s struggles only began with the war. His life in Albania and his journey to make a better life for himself and his family were ordeals in and of themselves. Following the war, the communists in Albania—who had led the resistance against the Italians and the Nazis—became the main military and political power in the country. After Albania had been liberated from the Nazis, it officially became a communist country and changed its name to the People’s Republic of Albania. The communist regime that then followed was nasty. My dad was completely anticommunist. He remembered how anyone caught practising any kind of religion would be arrested, tortured, and even killed. Albania eventually became part of the Soviet Union’s communist bloc, and my dad could only see life getting more difficult because of it. Albania was not a good place to be living in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Not everyone was happy with where the country was headed. There were lots of people who served in the anticommunist movement, but in reality, many of them were actually spies for the communists. My father and his brother were in the same unit working against the Communist Party. But their unit had been infiltrated by a group of these spies, so all of their activities were being reported to the communist powers that had taken over the country. I am not sure exactly when or how my father and uncle realized they were in trouble, but it was clear that they were at risk, and so, in 1950, they decided they had to get out of the country immediately.
At that time, Albania was one of the hardest countries in the
world to enter or exit. So just getting out was an incredible challenge. But it was even more difficult for my dad and my uncle—because their anticommunist past had been reported, they had to avoid any official exits. That meant they would have to sneak across the border. It took my dad and uncle a long time to get out of the country. They moved only by foot or car, and only at night. During the daylight, they would hide out with sympathetic Albanian families in their barns or basements. They were smart and lucky, and eventually they made their way to the border of what was then Yugoslavia, which they finally ended up crossing in the middle of the night.
After escaping, my dad found himself in a town called Pristina, part of present-day Kosovo. It was there that he met my mom, Meyrem, in 1954. It didn’t take long for my dad to promise my mom that he would marry her, but neither one of them expected that to take as long as it did. Things got even more complicated when my mom and her family immigrated to Turkey. My grandmother on my mom’s side was Albanian and my grandfather was Turkish, and they would switch between languages whenever they felt like it. Luckily, my dad could keep up—he spoke seven languages. But he couldn’t travel to Turkey with my mom and her family, so he ended up bouncing through Austria, Germany, and Italy, trying to find the right country to settle his new family in. Dad ended up spending time in seven countries before deciding that Canada was the place for him.
My dad finally arrived in Canada in 1963. When he first got there, he settled in Winnipeg and worked for a time for the Canadian Pacific Railway; it was common for new immigrants to work on the railway. After a lonely year of working out west and saving money, my dad moved to Toronto, where he worked for Cara Foods,
loading supplies onto planes at the airport. Finally, nine years after they had met in Pristina, my dad managed to scrape together enough savings to bring my mom over to join him in Canada.
I can’t even imagine how tough it must have been for my mom when she settled in Canada. She was in a strange country and she didn’t speak a word of English. But she and my dad had each other, and in May 1965, a year after my mom arrived in Canada, my brother, Dash, was born. When my mom gave birth to Dash, she didn’t know a single person in Canada other than my dad, and she felt incredibly lonely in the hospital as she watched the woman next to her receive flowers and visitors. But then, one day, a woman arrived with flowers not for the other person in the room, but for my mom. This woman came over and actually introduced herself in Albanian. It turns out that my father had met the woman’s husband while frequenting a coffee shop where he met with other Albanian men. He told them that he and my mom had a new baby boy, and they all knew my mother was new to the country. So this woman’s husband had come home and suggested that his wife go to visit my mom, and she did. From that moment on, they were best friends for life. Suddenly, my parents had a whole new connection to their new home, and their community began to grow.
It was about this time, when Dash was a baby and my dad was still working at Cara Foods, that Dad took a trip to Windsor, Ontario, where he heard some other Albanians had settled. Nobody in our family had ever been to Windsor or the surrounding area before. The only thing they knew was that there were some Albanians living there. My dad got to know some of the people from that network, and so, once he got to Windsor, he discovered that the people he was supposed to meet actually lived outside of Windsor, in a town called Belle River. He arrived there and found that
the family he was supposed to meet owned a restaurant. And that restaurant just happened to be up for sale.
All of a sudden, my dad loved the idea of living in Belle River and running that restaurant. As a place to raise a family, Belle River was a good spot. There weren’t many people living there—maybe 3,500 at the time—and it was a tight-knit community with a large number of French-Canadian families. Above all else, it was a very safe little town. Back in those days, nobody locked their front doors. And after what my mom and dad had gone through their whole lives, a nice, small, safe town was just what they were looking for.
Using whatever savings he had, and partnering with another Albanian family friend, my father was able to buy the restaurant. It was called Edna’s Lunch, named after the cook and owner. At the same time, my parents moved into a nice little house. It was an orange brick bungalow with a big backyard. When my sister, Trish, was born, she had her own room. And when I came along, I got to share a bunk bed with Dash. The house had a basement, where we would play, but only in the daytime—my sister thought there were Martians that came out at night. Much as we loved playing there, we spent just as much—if not more—of our childhood at Edna’s. It was like our second home. We could always swing by to have a hamburger (still the best I’ve ever had), bring our friends to eat, make our own milk shakes, play the jukebox, do the dishes for twenty-five cents (which was a lot for a kid back then), serve from behind the coffee counter, work the cash register (which was cool when you’re a kid), play tag, and drive the employees crazy.
Because we spent so much time outside our home, we weren’t just raised by our dad and mom. My dad had made a promise to
my mom when they were young that they would bring every single one of their family members over to Canada. Everything they did and every hour they worked was all for that. My dad was the driving force that kept that going, and eventually, he and my mom were able to bring over a number of their relatives, including my mom’s mother, two of her brothers, and two of her sisters. My grandmother even lived with us for a time. In the world I come from, family stays with family, and there’s always room for one more. It was important to my parents to never forget or let go of their connection to the lives they’d had to leave behind in Albania. When I was born, my parents had given me the traditionally Albanian name Tahir, and for the first few years of my life, I went by that. But my name quickly changed when I started school. For some reason, my kindergarten teacher started calling me Tie, and it stuck. Before long, even my mom was calling me Tie. Still, with so much family starting to gather around us, we never forgot where we’d come from, and my immediate family learned to always stick together.
As I grew up, my dad did well with Edna’s, and so he started buying a number of other properties across the street. He eventually bought a pizza place, another restaurant, a couple of Laundromats, and a variety store. Of course, with so many businesses to run at once, my father was always at work. I’m not sure why he was always working; maybe it was an old-country Albanian thing. Whatever the reason, we simply didn’t know any better. We thought that’s the way it was supposed to be: a dad was supposed to work all the time to provide for his family.
And my mom’s work ethic was no different. She was a typical, old-school European mother. She kept the house spotless—you couldn’t help but take your shoes off when you walked in, it was so clean. Laundry had to be ironed and folded perfectly, right down
to the underwear. There were fresh sheets on the bed every day. My mom spoiled us at home. On top of that, she cooked for an army every day. Friends and family were constantly coming and going, and they always knew my mom would have a ton of food ready.
But as hard as my family worked during the week, we always tried to have a little fun on the weekends. Every now and then, we would get together with family and friends, with all the kids playing games like hide-and-go-seek or kick-the-can together. It was a classic Albanian scene: all the mothers preparing a meal and talking together while the men played cards and argued about politics. At these sorts of get-togethers, my dad was the only father who would take the time to see what the kids were doing and goof around with us. All of the kids loved him. To this day, a lot of our cousins have favourite stories about my dad. My dad took care of people. He was a loyal man, the kind of person we always wanted to be around. He was constantly cracking jokes to make us laugh, and he woke up and went to bed every day with a smile on his face. He did what so many people struggle to do: he came to Canada with nothing and built a good life for his family. To us, that was something to treasure.
Because my dad’s work took him all over the place, and with all of the sports my brother, sister, and I were playing, everyone in my family had different hours. We were constantly arriving home at different times of the day, so we didn’t have any set mealtimes; my mom would just feed us as we got home. Thanks to all of my dad’s hard work, we weren’t poor. But that being said, we didn’t have much extra, either. Of course, we didn’t know any better at the time. We had a decent house, plenty to eat, and clothes on our back. We played sports and had fun. What else did we really need? Despite that, my dad never let us forget how hard he and my mom
had to work for it all. When we were young, he would tell us stories that most immigrant children have heard some version of. Stories about his childhood, how he had had no money, how he would walk to school in two feet of snow with holes in his boots, and if he was lucky, he would get one sugar cube to lick—half on the way to school, and half saved so that he had a treat for the walk home. Every time we walked in the door with a bag of candy, the stories would start up again.
My dad was like a chameleon. He could go anywhere and deal with anyone. Our house was always full of people. Some of them would be very successful and some would be very poor. It didn’t matter where they came from; to my dad, they were all equal. My siblings and I all inherited that characteristic from him. I quickly discovered I had the gift of getting along with everyone at school. I was able to hang around with the jocks, the academics (who sometimes let me cheat off of them), the yuppies, and the heavy-metal rockers. I could hang with kids who smoked, or who spoke different languages, or who played sports. All of those different people, and I was friends with them all.
Because he could get along with so many different groups, Dad would take us with him to spots that were different than the places most other fathers took their kids—places that were off the beaten track or that weren’t considered proper for children. Sadly, there was a lot of poverty in the neighbourhoods where my dad owned his shops. The worst of those neighbourhoods surrounded the Laundromat he owned in Detroit. We would drive over to East Detroit to check in on it, and we would pass through rough neighbourhoods along the way. As we made our way into the building, all of the locals standing outside would greet my dad by name on his way in. “Hi, Johnny,” they’d say. We never stayed long—just
enough time to check up on the place and pick up the money from the machines. It was my job to take the brown money bag full of coins and cash and put it inside an empty soapbox the size of my chest, and then carry the whole thing to the car. Before we’d leave the building, my dad would say, “Don’t make it look like there’s money in there.” I could barely lift the thing—any other kid would have fallen over trying to lift it up—but I didn’t want to let my dad down. I guess that carrying open cartons of money in East Detroit in the 1970s helped me become fearless.
My dad trusted most people, and he went out of his way to help everyone he could. But he eventually got burned trusting so many others. My dad couldn’t always cross the border to check on his Laundromat in Detroit, so he hired an employee to help him watch over the business when he wasn’t there. It turns out my dad trusted the wrong guy. In one of the periods when my dad didn’t drive down to check in, this employee stole all of the cash that the Laundromat made each day. Not only that, but he even had all the washers and dryers cleared out and sold the day before my Dad got back. Then he disappeared; my dad never saw the guy again.
My dad blamed himself, saying it was his fault. That’s what he was like—always refusing to talk badly about anyone or blame others. He helped people find houses, get jobs, buy restaurants, and when he went through some tough times, he never showed it. He stayed upbeat and positive. That was the thing that always stuck with me—my dad always made sure to downplay how hard things were when he was going through those rough times. He made it sound like there was always a way to get through whatever struggle he faced. It drove Mom crazy sometimes, but Dad never worried about anything.
Or at least that’s the feeling we got around him. If he was ever
stressed about anything, he never let on and nobody ever knew about it. I know he must have been stressed at that time, too, because after we lost the one Laundromat, my family went through some down times. We had to sell our family home and move into a small unit at the back of the variety store that my dad owned in Belle River. But because of the example my parents set, none of us let that get us down, and we made a new home. My dad built my grandmother a new greenhouse; I would still buzz around town on my bike—a Yamaha YZ80—with no helmet on; and when my friends came over for sleepovers, we’d camp out in the back of the convenience store and have the run of the place.
There is no question that I was a bit of a wild child when I was young, especially when I wasn’t playing sports. Because of that, my brother worked hard to try and keep me in line. I could easily have been a loose cannon, but Dash was tough on me because he wanted people to be proud of me and our family. He kept me on track. There were plenty of other parents who thought I was a bad kid, and they didn’t want their kids to hang around me. If only those parents could have seen what their own children were up to. I wasn’t a bad kid, but still, sometimes I lived up to my reputation. When I was twelve years old, I decided to knock out my two front teeth so I would look more like Philadelphia Flyers star Bobby Clarke. Now, my dad never hit me, and in general he was a calm guy, but that was the one time he really lost it. He was livid. I didn’t realize what the big deal was at the time; I thought that if I knocked out my teeth, more would grow back. But those were my real, adult teeth that I’d broken on the thick chrome handlebars of my bike. Still, I didn’t care; all that mattered to me was that I was able to look like Bobby Clarke. Goes to show you what idols can do to you as a kid.
There was no question that Mom was the real disciplinarian in the family. Dad was always hard on Dash because he was the oldest child, but when it came to Trish and me, he was soft. But not Mom, not ever. We all loved each other, but Mom was a strict, old-fashioned woman, and she wouldn’t let us get away with anything. When she was frustrated with me, she’d give me a light smack with the broom handle, the flyswatter, shoes, hockey sticks, those plastic race-car tracks—whatever she could get her hands on. We never thought anything of it—it wasn’t harmful, and it wasn’t a big deal for us to be disciplined. In fact, I made a game out of it. My mom would go to smack me and I would shout, “Palmateer! Palmateer!” and lift my arms up to block her shots. Mike Palmateer was the star goalie for the Leafs back then, so I pretended I was him, blocking shots from my mom. My poor mom couldn’t pronounce “Palmateer,” and unfortunately, she would end up hurting herself more than she would me. My mom gave up on chasing me around like that when I was thirteen. She’d grabbed a hockey stick, but as soon as she got close to me, I caught the blade of the stick and, with her holding on to the other end, used it to lift her off her feet. After that, she knew there was nothing she could do anymore; my poor mom.
At times while we were growing up, our mom was both a mother and a father to all of us. She was very strong, and she would do whatever she had to do for her kids. That’s all that mattered to her. Since my parents were busy all the time, they weren’t always able to drive me to my sports games. My whole life revolved around coming home, dropping off one sports bag, grabbing a bite to eat, and then picking up another bag and heading out the door to the next sport I was playing. Mom didn’t drive, so we were lucky to live in a town as small as Belle River. There was one taxi in town at the time, and during my first year of hockey, if my dad or one
of my aunts or uncles couldn’t drive me, my mom would flag the cab down to get me to my practice or game on time. We couldn’t afford for me to be taking taxis to my sports all the time, but my mom was determined to get me where I needed to be. I didn’t miss a single sporting event growing up. My mom always found a way to make sure I got there. She was amazing in so many ways.
Although I sometimes gave them a hard time, my parents raised me better than I could have ever asked for. I tried to carry myself in a way that showed that, so I was the kind of kid who treated all of my teachers at school with respect. But I had a real problem: I couldn’t keep my attention on anything long enough to finish it. So, in every class I was ever in, I was constantly asking the teacher to let me go to the washroom. I remember telling one teacher, Mr. Brachen, that I had a bladder problem as a way of explaining why I had to go to the bathroom so often. I would end up out of the classroom for twenty or thirty minutes; sometimes I wouldn’t even come back. I would just wander the halls, talking to everybody, and that way my dyslexia and attention deficit disorder wouldn’t affect the rest of the class.
I found out later that the teachers knew what I was doing the whole time. But they also knew that I wasn’t using my time to cause trouble. Most of the time, I would just walk to the gym and play sports to keep myself busy. Sports was my medicine; it was how I got by. Of course, the result was that I barely passed most of my classes. My teachers tried to help me, but they couldn’t really identify what was wrong with me; we just didn’t know then what we know now. I wonder what my fifth-grade teacher, who failed me, would have done if she’d known I was dyslexic. I never disrespected my teachers, though. Most of the time, it was up to me to find a way to get through. A teacher once told my mom that I needed to go to a school for children with learning disabilities. My
mom didn’t quite understand what that meant, so she replied, “My kid is not stupid!” But my teacher explained the situation more, and my mom realized that this new school might be helpful for me, so we decided to give it a try. After just two weeks, the teachers at the new school contacted my parents to say that I didn’t belong there—I was getting perfect scores on their tests, and they didn’t feel that I needed the level of help that they provided.
Despite that, I still struggled in school. It was hard to describe what my dyslexia and my short attention span were like as a kid. I would try to tell my dad that I couldn’t actually read a book. He wouldn’t accept that. He would just say, “You’ve got to study, you’ve got to do your homework.” I’d try, but I would still confuse my letters; I had no control over how all the c’s and s’s got mixed up, for example. To me, that’s just the way it was. Some of my teachers really helped me get through public school. My eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Parr, and the vice principal, Mr. Glidden, were probably the most help. They were both sports guys and coaches, so they understood me. The other thing that saved me in school was my memory. Since I had a hard time reading books, I learned to read people. I trained myself to pick up on the smallest cues—a person’s body language, their tone of voice, the way they approached me—to make up for my lack of reading. And most important, if someone said something or physically demonstrated it to me, I would never forget it. But if I had to read something in a textbook, I was toast.
While I was respectful of all of my teachers, my attention deficit disorder meant that I was often being called out by the impatient ones. Once, in fourth grade, I went so far that the teacher decided to give me the strap. I didn’t fight it; I got in trouble enough to know when to push back and when I was better off just accepting what was coming. I got up and stood in front of the teacher, and as he was
hitting me with this thick, leather strap, I stared straight at him as if nothing was happening. I didn’t say a word, but I gave him that “Are you done?” look. He kept hitting me with the strap, but I gave no reaction, and his frustration started to show. It got to the point that he stood up on a chair and jumped off of it to hit me. It was almost like he was throwing all of his weight into each blow, and he was breaking out into a sweat in the process. As he jumped, I started laughing at him—he couldn’t hurt me. When he finally finished and we went outside for recess, the whole class looked at me in silence as I walked out and played soccer. I just acted like nothing had happened. It was at that point that I realized I could take whatever anyone threw at me.
I really don’t know why I was so much stronger than the other kids. My family used to joke that it was because I ate so much spinach. My mom’s spinach was my favourite meal. She would make spinach pita, and this being the time when Popeye was Popeye, I was one of those kids who believed that the more spinach you ate, the stronger you got. But I wasn’t just the strongest kid in our area growing up; I was also the mentally toughest. Looking back, I realize that our childhood helped make me that way. I come from humble beginnings. Everything I have in life, I have earned. Nobody gave me anything, nor did I expect anything from them. If I wanted something, I had to earn it. It was that way when I was young, and it is still that way today.
While my academics were an issue, sports never were. As a kid, I would often play sports with Dash and his friends. Dash is almost five years older than me, which meant that I was playing against kids his age. That could have been a setback, but I soon figured out that I wasn’t just keeping up with Dash and his older friends at sports; I was actually beating them. At fourteen, I was even taking on adults in arm-wrestling competitions and winning those. Dash can vouch for me—I have never lost an arm-wrestling match, now or then.
By the time I entered high school, I was confident that there was no one around me that I should be afraid of. When I started ninth grade, I was given locker number 212, and I never put a lock on it. I didn’t need one. I knew that if someone messed with my stuff, I could deal with them. But I also knew that nobody ever would.
As a kid, hockey wasn’t my best sport. In fact, I didn’t even start playing hockey until I was nine years old. I had no business getting on the ice that year—I couldn’t even skate! My dad had to sponsor our jerseys just so I would be given a spot on the team. I spent the first few games skating on my ankles, and at my first practice, I didn’t let go of the boards once. But over the course of the season, I learned the basic skills. I was determined and worked hard to get better, and by the end of the year, we had won the league championship and I’d been named the MVP. It was at that moment that my dream of being a pro hockey player was born.
Despite my hockey dreams, soccer was easily my number-one sport as a kid. I still think one of the reasons I made it as a hockey player is that I was always a good all-around athlete. As a kid, a junior, and a pro, I wasn’t just a hockey player. Playing other sports—and believe me, I played every sport I could—made me a better hockey player. Playing so much soccer when I was young really helped build up my legs, and that went a long way towards making me a better skater.
At sixteen, I actually almost moved away from hockey forever. That year, I received an offer to go play soccer professionally for a team in Europe. Not long after that, other offers from overseas started to come in, and I found myself with an opportunity to move to half a dozen countries across the pond. But my father turned them all down; he didn’t like the idea of me moving to Europe alone as a teenager. It didn’t matter how much money I was offered—it was never an option.
So I stayed in Belle River, and I started to distinguish myself in a
few different sports: soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and football. By the time I started high school, I had won a championship in every one. A couple of years before I started high school, my baseball team won the peewee all-Ontario championship. After we won, the mayor of Belle River was there to help us celebrate, and he started placing the championship medals over everybody’s head like it was the Olympics. As he was coming towards me, I thought, That thing isn’t fitting over my head. Sure enough, the mayor gets to me and the ribbon of the medal gets stuck on the top of my head. It didn’t faze me. Rather than have the mayor try to force the thing, I just grabbed the medal and walked off the stage with the whole town watching. What can I say? My head was my head, and it’s been big my whole life.
When I was in ninth grade, we won the regional football championship. This would have been in November 1984, when I was playing for the Belle River Nobles. In our final game that season, I accounted for 12 points, including a 43-yard field goal, as we beat the Amherst Generals 18–14 to capture the ECSSA junior football title. The game was held at the University of Windsor, and I played middle linebacker, kicker, and fullback; I didn’t leave the field. Some US college scouts had come down that weekend to watch our senior team play, but most of them ended up watching me kick instead. It didn’t faze me, though. I knew college football would never be an option for me because of my academics.
For a time, I was a big fish in a small pond in Belle River. In the same way that my dad successfully owned and operated so many different businesses, I was successfully competing in whatever sport I tried. And it had given me a taste for winning. I was becoming a better athlete by the day, and I wanted more. More challenges, more opportunities, and more championships. But to make that happen, I had some tough decisions to make.