Last of a dying breed

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You can't be a professional athlete without some physical gift from God, and best I can tell, Tie Domi's gift was possession of the thickest skull on earth.

I don't mean figuratively, as in Domi was stupid. I mean literally. There is no medical proof of this, but seriously, what a block of granite Domi had working as a forehead, a boulder of a bean that allowed him to slug it out with every goon the NHL could throw at him for nearly two decades.

The last of a dying breed – hockius goonus – retired Tuesday after 16 seasons, 3,515 penalty minutes and nearly 400 NHL fist fights, ushering out the end of an era that, despite my better and more mature instincts, I will greatly miss.

Domi wasn't the greatest fighter of all time – he didn't even rank in The Hockey News' top 12 (Bob Probert, No. 1) – but at just 5-foot-10, he was a fearless, ferocious maniac on ice.

He had the ultimate love-hate relationship with fans. They once voted him their league-wide favorite player, but one of them also jumped the glass and fought him as he sat in the penalty box, aka his home away from home.

But that was Domi and that was what, for decades, the NHL was built on. These showmen, these tough guys, gave bloodthirsty fans plenty of violence, mayhem and white hat/black hat escapades right out of Vince McMahon's play book.

It's all gone now. Gary Bettman has cleaned up the league and you can debate amongst yourselves whether that is a good or bad thing. The mature adult understands. But the kid who used to watch hockey every single night back in the 1980s – and then rush to school the next day to discuss the fights as much as the goals – misses it.

Domi bridged the gap between the violent legends of the 80s and the modern guys, who just don't brawl on a nightly basis like they used too.

There isn't a place in the NHL for someone like Domi anymore. A lightly skilled Ontario native, he knew his only chance at the NHL was as an enforcer and he wasn't going to apologize for it. In his first two career games, he racked up an impressive 42 penalty minutes.

While he wasn't as big as guys such as Probert – a 6-foot-3, 223-pound brute – Domi had that brick forehead.

The guy would gladly take three punches just to land one. He would just stand there getting whacked on top of his head just biding time until an opening allowed him to unleash a haymaker.

He was the master of spinning guys off balance with his low center of gravity, pulling their sweater over their head and then pounding them through the ice.

He was an instant sensation. Just about every week, Don Cherry, the old-school analyst, would laud him on "Hockey Night in Canada." Domi's trademark whirl of the fingers after a big brawl would send the crowd into hysterics. He once cut Probert with a vicious punch, unofficially winning the fight, and then skated off while gesturing that he now wore the heavyweight championship belt.

It was great theatre.

And it went down almost every game in the old NHL. Every team had a goon or two, guys who would get on the ice to either intimidate a skill player or just square off with the other team's muscle. Two fighters on the ice at the same time would cause excitement that rippled through arenas and prompted television viewers to sit up and watch.

The names are legendary and colorful, often with menacing nicknames. Tiger Williams, the all-time penalty leader, Tony Twist, Marty McSorley, Clark Gillies, Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, Dave (Cement Head) Semenko, Larry Playfair (who rarely did), Basil McRae, Mike Vukota, Jay (the Killer) Miller, Shane Churla, Dave Brown, Willie Plett, Behn Wilson, Craig Berube, Rob Ray, and on and on.

Domi was one of them, maybe the last of them.

Last season, the Detroit Red Wings had a total of six fights. The entire team. The entire season. Six!

On a good night back in the day, Probert and Joey Kocur used to combine for six in a single Red Wings game. This was back when the NHL had one of my favorite rules – three fights and you are ejected.

Not one – totally acceptable. Not two – probably stretching it, but circumstance could merit that in two unrelated incidents a player might need to try to beat the hell out of someone during the course of a game.

But three? Well, now, you miscreant, now you've crossed the line.

Of course, for plenty of guys, the three-fights-a-night-club wasn't enough.

Consider Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, a legendary Broad Street Bully who in 1974-75 racked up a never-to-be broken NHL-record of 472 penalty minutes, which means he spent about one-tenth of the season in the box.

Or Churla, who averaged 4.72 penalty minutes per game (nearly one five-minute major) over his 10-year career before retiring due to – surprise, surprise – "facial injuries."

Or how about 1997-98, when Domi broke the Maple Leafs' all-time record by earning 365 penalty minutes, surpassing his boyhood hero, the immortal Tiger Williams. It was enough to nearly cause the brawler to bawl.

No, it wasn't all good – Domi's 2001 elbow on Scott Niedermayer, knocking the then-New Jersey Devils defenseman unconscious, was inexcusable – but for the most part, these guys were a rowdy, rollicking part of a glorious and more popular era of hockey. They mostly policed the game, settling wrongs like Old West gunslingers.

Such as the time Domi cold-cocked noted cheap shot artist Ulf Samuelsson, a one-punch, sucker-punch knockout that delighted just about everyone because, while it was a dirty stunt, it couldn't have been delivered to a better guy.

So pleased was the announcer on "Hockey Night in Canada," he actually counted Samuelsson out. And when they brought out the stretcher, he lectured a still unconscious Swede that "if you live by the sword you die by it."

They don't do hockey like that anymore. And I know I am supposed to be better than this, but I wish they would.