By Ryan Pyette, The London Free Press
TORONTO – He had the famous last name, thanks to his notorious ex-Maple Leaf dad Tie.
He was a hot-shot prospect able to attend all the top-notch skill camps and, thanks to his family connections, there was hardly an NHL superstar he hadn’t met along the way.
And then before ever playing a single OHL game, his camp committed what many consider to be the Cardinal Sin of major junior hockey — demanding a trade from the Kingston Frontenacs, the team that picked him in the first round, to the London Knights, already one of the Canadian Hockey League’s most successful franchises.
A lot of people hated Max Domi right then and there four years ago, pegging him as the latest example of Lindros-ian puck privilege.
It may have been hard to imagine the same guy would wind up at the Hockey Hall of Fame Tuesday, the seventh recipient of the Mickey Renaud Captain’s trophy. The prestigious honour, named for the Windsor Spitfires forward who died suddenly from a rare heart condition in 2008, is given annually to the OHL captain who “best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice with a passion and dedication to the game of hockey and his community.”
Domi, in a season that started with him devastated at being cut by the Arizona Coyotes, didn’t only prove himself to be a decent guy. He developed into one of the great leaders in Knights history.
“When I was voted captain by my teammates this year, humbled is probably the No. 1 word to use,” the 20-year-old forward from Toronto said. “No one likes to talk about themselves and it’s not something you should do very often, but when your best buddies are acknowledging you like that, it’s one of the most rewarding things I ever felt.”
London wasn’t supposed to do much of anything this year. The Knights were too young at the back end and traded two of their best players — Domi linemate and pal Michael McCarron and over-age defender Dakota Mermis — to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals.
London Knights captain Max Domi receives the Mickey Renaud Captain’s trophy at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Tuesday. (Stan Behal/Postmedia Network)
But they still won 40 games and a playoff round while their in-demand captain grew into hockey’s biggest role model for diabetes since Bobby Clarke played for the Philadelphia Flyers.
When the world juniors ended in Toronto and Domi was named the tournament’s top forwards, hundreds of letters and personal requests started pouring in, many from Type-1 diabetics looking for a little inspiration and hope.
Domi took the time to sit down and answer every one, either with words of encouragement or the invitation for a face-to-face meeting at Budweiser Gardens.
“There would be games where there would be six or seven kids, all with their families, and after, I would do everything I could to answer all their questions,” he said. “The hockey players, they would ask what’s your favourite meal to stuff about blood sugars. The way I handled it was, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to help you and you’ll help me’, and by the end of this, I’ll learn something about how to handle my diabetes from you and hopefully, you will from me, too.
“I didn’t know it was possible to make a difference like this and everyone in this league can do it. To show the guys on the team how special that is was pretty cool.”
Domi’s world junior buddy Connor McDavid was the face of junior hockey this year. But the Otters wunderkind often says how lucky he was to play three years in Erie, where the hysteria over his talent isn’t quite the same as back home.
Domi, Knights GM Basil McRae said, faced a special situation playing four years in London, armed with unreal expectations from three straight Memorial Cup runs.
“Because Max is playing not only in Canada versus the States, but in a real junior hockey town in London, there’s added pressure,” the former NHL tough guy said. “I don’t think his last name was as big a deal as that standard of playing here — with 9,100 fans a game and all the great players who have gone through this organization.
“Max’s dad is Tie Domi, but from the first game he played and scored three goals, he carved his own identity.”
McRae and Dale Hunter watched Domi, like McDavid on the road this year, spend time signing autographs while his teammates were waiting on the bus. At his final London mall appearance, he stayed an extra hour-and-a-half to meet with fans.
“I forget who was in my group with me, but they were pretty mad,” Domi joked. “Taking that extra second goes a long way. I got to learn first-hand we have so many fans in London, and they’re the best fans in hockey, and I saw how much you can change someone’s day just by saying hi or posing for a picture.
“In another rink, fans cheer their team but after the game, you’re still someone they may look up to. I love interacting with people and just tried to take it to a whole new level this year.”
He is going to one of the NHL’s most dubious markets, Arizona, this fall. He’s no saviour but this attitude will help.
He also makes no apologies for forcing Doug Gilmour’s hand in Kingston. He believes it was his destiny.
“It was meant for me to end up in London,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been a London Knight and always will be. I was lucky and some guys aren’t as lucky as that. Everything lined up perfect and the teammates I got to share this experience with were second to none.”
That is why he refused to be moved at the trade deadline. The Knights would’ve pulled in a king’s ransom for a half year’s service elsewhere, but Domi took the bigger picture approach.
He still had more lives to touch in London. Plus, he wasn’t exactly worried about the state of the club.
“That team is going to be a helluva hockey team this year and the year after that and probably the one after that,” he said. “Watching who they’re picking up now (with Max Jones and Matt Tkachuk), it’s typical London Knights style. They get the best players and the best people.”
Of which, for four years, he was one.