Team Canada’s top forward back in the dressing room he grew up in
BY RYAN PYETTE, THE LONDON FREE PRESS
He is the star of the show in London – one of the country’s great junior hockey markets.
This week, he had fans in Montreal’s Bell Centre chanting his name.
And now, Max Domi is back home in Toronto, ready to play in the NHL rink he knows best, where his dad and former Maple Leafs fan-favourite Tie still looms larger than life.
“It’s never going to be different,” said Domi, who has emerged as Canada’s top forward at the World Junior Hockey Championship, as he prepared to face Denmark Friday night at the Air Canada Centre. “My dad is my dad and I can’t really change that. I’ve always tried to use that to my advantage. I just try to be myself, to be honest.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do. Everyone got here for a reason, so don’t change that. It’s something we all learn as a young age and we grow up with it.”
His inspiring play and stirring production so far at the world junior isn’t really about stepping out from anyone’s shadow or carving out his own path.
He has provided the same fiery brand of hockey all season as captain of the Knights.
But while some aspire to conquer the grandest stages, Domi’s a kid just trying to get it done on, for him, familiar ground.
He grew up running around Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark, garnered advice from Mario Lemieux and has a photo of Teemu Selanne holding him as a newborn.
A few years ago, Max was going through his usual drills in London when Wayne Gretzky showed up.
The Great One was there to pose with him for a picture, as a favour to Tie.
“My dad has helped me along the way, he’s my No. 1 fan, but in the sense of how I’m playing, you think of Mark and Dale Hunter,” Domi said. “Every guy who goes through London has to figure it out eventually, or they don’t keep you around.
“They just teach you how to win and I just bring that here with me.”
Dale Hunter, Domi’s head coach in London, interviewed with Hockey Canada for the position that eventually went to Benoit Groulx. Mark Hunter, Domi’s old general manager, is now the Maple Leafs director of player personnel.
Shortly after arriving in Toronto, Domi found out new Knights GM Basil McRae traded his linemate Michael McCarron, a Montreal Canadiens first-round draft pick, plus veteran defenceman Dakota Mermis to the now-Memorial Cup favourite Oshawa Generals.
“I didn’t really see that (trade) coming,” said Domi, an Arizona Coyotes first-rounder who has said his wish is to remain in London this season. “It’s two of my best buddies, so it sucks. This isn’t really the best time to dwell on it. I called them and wished them both luck. It’s a great spot for both of them to go. The Generals have a great team. I’m happy for them but first thing’s first – I have to take care of business here first.”
A gold medal in Toronto, especially the way he has been playing, would be a fairy-tale ending to a storied junior career. It would also help relieve some of the pain of playing in three straight Memorial Cup tournaments – and not winning it once.
“I’m just enjoying this whole experience and soaking it all in,” the 19-year-old said. “(Wednesday’s) game against the U.S., it was the experience of a lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game like that before. Now that we’re in Toronto, we’re trying to do whatever we can to win and first thing’s first, we have to take care of Denmark.”
Domi’s linemate, Buffalo Sabres prospect Sam Reinhart, has noticed what has brought his game to the next level.
“His maturity and competitive level is great,” Reinhart said. “It’s huge for our team and he’s really bought into what we’ve needed out of him.”
Lawson Crouse, Canada’s youngest player at 17, is from the London area and has watched Domi’s growth with much interest.
“When Max got traded to the Knights (after Frontenacs GM Doug Gilmour couldn’t convince him to report at 16), I followed his journey until I came into the OHL,” he said. “Max has had an amazing tournament and he’s doing everything right. Not only that, he’s a great guy in the room, a fun character, but when the game comes, he brings it every night.
DOMI IN THE DRESSING ROOM
Max Domi grew up in the Maple Leafs dressing room.
But when the Canadian national junior team moved in Thursday, they assigned him a relatively unfamiliar spot.
“I don’t know whose stall I have,” Domi said, “but (defenceman Madison) Bowey is sitting in my dad’s old stall, so I told him that.
“He just laughed.”
It was suggested he should work out some sort of trade with Bowey so he could suit up where his dad did in his Toronto heyday.
“No, I’m not sitting in that one,” he cracked. “I don’t know what went on in that stall.”
Moving from the Montreal Canadiens’ room to the Leafs space at the world junior is like trading in a Ferrari for a Rolls-Royce.
“They’re both obviously unbelievable,” Domi said. “They’re very different and a lot of history in both of them, but I’ve been in this one a few times.”
This is a comfort zone for him, even though he looked right at home at the Bell Centre, too.
“It’s a little weird walking around (the Leafs room) and actually getting dressed in it for an actual team, not just myself,” Domi said. “It’s pretty cool. We’re happy to be here now.
“There’s a lot of history in this rink and the Toronto Maple Leafs are a lot of our favourite teams growing up. It’s a big stage and it should be fun.”