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The most penalized player in Toronto Maple Leafs history returned to the fold yesterday and will again ride shotgun for his teammates.

Tie Domi agreed to a three-year contract that will reward the stocky enforcer with between $5.5- and $6-million (all figures U.S.), agent Pat Morris confirmed.

"My heart was always here and my home is here," Domi said in a small Air Canada Centre boardroom, packed to the brim with reporters. "I didn't want to leave my mother, especially with just having one parent. Having her here is a big reason for my decision."

Domi phoned his mother to tell her the news shortly after making the decision at 11:30 p.m. Thursday to re-sign with Toronto.

"She started crying and she hung up on me," he said. "I still haven't talked to her since."

The Leafs, too, seemed happy to have Domi back.

"Tie is our guy," bragged Bill Watters, assistant to the president and chief contract negotiator for the Leafs. "He does his job better than anyone [and that's]why we had to sign him."

Domi, with 1,777 penalty minutes while with the Leafs, will be compensated nearly the same amount as one of his chief protagonists after Donald Brashear received a three-year, $6-million deal from the Philadelphia Flyers. Both were unrestricted free agents.

But, even by combining salaries, they'll come up well short of Tony Amonte, after the right winger with 352 regular-season goals in the National Hockey League got a four-year, $24-million contract from the Phoenix Coyotes.

Amonte became the best-paid player with the desert dogs, leaving Theo Fleury and Byron Dafoe the pick of the diminishing free agent litter in the unrestricted category.

The Leafs managed to sign two of this year's unrestricted crop, the other being goaltender Ed Belfour after Curtis Joseph opted to cast his lot with the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

The well-scarred, hard-headed Domi will be 33 in November and frequently takes a beating against larger ruffians, but unfailingly comes to the defence of teammates, which makes him a valuable commodity in the serve-and-protect role.

Toronto management had its hand forced to a point when rugged left winger Gary Roberts underwent surgery on his right shoulder this week and will be out until the all-star break. Roberts also needs an operation on his other shoulder.

The Leafs missed out on free agents Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis in an attempt to give the team a harder edge.

Toronto had dealt Domi to the Nashville Predators just before the free-agency period began July 1 because the Leafs were not in position to receive a compensatory draft pick when Domi tested the free agent market for the first time.

Now he's back, free of charge, give or take a few million after listening to offers believed to be from the Dallas Stars, Anaheim Might Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks.

"Tie Domi is a very difficult guy to replace," Watters said. "We're glad he's back."

Domi is ninth on the NHL's list of career penalty leaders with 3,027 minutes and next season will be his eighth with the Leafs. Domi had nine goals, 19 points and 157 penalty minutes last season when he earned $1.69-million.

Defenceman Nathan Dempsey, who saw action with the Leafs last season, signed with the Blackhawks yesterday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Dempsey, an unrestricted free agent, appeared in three regular season games for Toronto last season without scoring, but had two assists in six playoff games.

He spent most of last season with St. John's of the American Hockey League, where he had 13 goals and 48 assists in 75 games. Dempsey has 73 goals and 196 assists in 508 career AHL games.

Dempsey, who turns 28 on Sunday, was drafted 245th overall by Toronto in 1992. He has two goals and 12 assists in 48 NHL games.

Amonte, considered a prime catch, was the last of the most-desired free agents to select a new location after playing with the Blackhawks for eight-plus seasons. He has great speed and a deceiving shot from the off-wing.

It was thought that the American-born Amonte would land with Dallas, or one of the New York-area teams, so it came as a surprise to some insiders when he chose the Coyotes.

"They are building a great team and heading in a new direction," Amonte said of Phoenix. "The best is still ahead for the Coyotes."

Said Mike Barnett, Phoenix general manager and former player agent: "Tony has been one of the NHL's most exciting players over the past eight seasons. He is a prolific scorer and a durable player."

In other developments, it was reported Daniel Alfredsson had agreed to a two-year deal with Ottawa that would pay the Senators captain $9.5-million before bonuses. He scored 34 goals last season.

Fredrik Olausson changed teams when the defenceman, at first thought to be heading back to his native Sweden, elected to sign with Anaheim. He had previously played two seasons with the Mighty Ducks.

Olausson competed in 21 playoff games with the Red Wings and one of his two postseason goals came in overtime. He had the luxury of being partnered with Detroit star Nicklas Lidstrom, selected the most valuable player of the playoffs.

Also yesterday, the Buffalo Sabres re-signed reserve netminder Mika Noronen, while tough guy Steve McKenna, an unrestricted free agent, moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins after a year with the New York Rangers. With a report from Canadian Press