ED WILLES – THE PROVINCE
VANCOUVER — They met as rivals, the best players on their respective teams, locked in a fearsome fight for a championship.
“He was always the best player,” says Bo Horvat.
“I still can’t believe they beat us in the final, but that’s Bo,” says Max Domi, smiling and shaking his head.
That, more to the point, was a 10-year-old Bo, leading Toronto Pro Hockey to the title over the 10-year-old Domi’s Toronto Bulldogs in the 2005 Brick Tournament played, of course, in the West Edmonton Mall.
You can see highlights of that tournament on YouTube.
Video highlights from a 10-year-olds’ hockey tournament. We live in a fabulous age.
A decade later, and through the worldly eyes of a 20-year-old, Horvat and Domi can now look back and laugh at their remarkable journey together. There would be many more battles, mostly fought as confederates, and now they’re in the NHL, living a 10-year-old’s dream.
Bo and Max. Max and Bo. The uniforms have changed over the years. The friendship hasn’t.
“It’s weird seeing him in a different-coloured jersey, and it was definitely weird playing against him,” says Horvat, the Canucks’ centre. “But it’s fun. You want to beat him for bragging rights.”
“We lean on each other a lot,” says Domi, the Arizona Coyotes’ winger. “It’s good to know he’s in your corner. But, as soon as the puck drops, we both want to win. Then we go back to being friends.”And they make the transition easily even if their back stories couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Horvat is a country kid from the London-area farming community of Rodney, Ont. Domi is a city kid, the son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi, who was almost raised in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room.
But the game brought them together, first when they were in short pants, then through various U13 and U15 competitions, then in a three-year tour with the London Knights, when they went to three Memorial Cups together. Horvat was the Knights’ first selection, ninth overall, in the 2011 OHL Priority Draft. Domi was taken by Kingston in the first round of the same draft but traded to the Knights shortly thereafter.
In their first game together as 16-year-olds, Domi scored three goals in an 8-0 win over Saginaw and Horvat drew the primary assist on the first marker. The Knights would win the OHL championship that season and again the following year with Horvat and Domi as the team’s core.
Both would be taken in the first round of the 2013 NHL draft — Horvat ninth overall to Vancouver, Domi 12th to the Coyotes — before they made their third straight trip to the Memorial Cup and failed to bring home the hardware for the third time.
Horvat casts a rueful smile as he talks about his history with the storied trophy.His face changes when he talks about his time with the Knights and Domi under Dale and Mark Hunter and Basil McRae.
“My dad had season tickets and I really got into it around 2005 (the year a stacked Knights team rolled to the Memorial Cup over Sidney Crosby’s Rimouski team),” he says. “Just to be part of that team is something special. They have so much history, and so many great players have come out of London. You’re definitely aware of it.”
Domi, who would stay for a fourth year, and Horvat are now part of that history.
“It’s funny,” Domi says. “We ended up in London together and our friendship flourished there. We became really close. When you win together, you become even closer.”
Those three years together also forged something special in both players. Talk to anyone around the Canucks and Coyotes about their young stars and their first response isn’t about their talent or skill. It’s about their character. Horvat we’ve come to know in Vancouver, but Domi has been a revelation in his first season with the rebuilding Coyotes.
He’s second in the NHL among rookie scorers (10 goals, 18 assists). He’s also won over his veteran teammates with his approach to his craft.
“He’s the best, such a good kid,” says ’Yotes captain Shane Doan. “There’s probably more pressure on Max than our other young guys but he handles it so well, it makes it easier on all of them. They understand if he can manage it, we can too.”
Doan was asked if he had any concerns about Domi in his rookie season.
“Not after I met him the very first time. I was blown away. I talked to him for about a minute and I just thought, ‘Wow.’”
Adjusting to life in the NHL, moreover, is just one part of Domi’s story. A Type-1 diabetic, he lives in the Phoenix area with his service dog, Orion, who’s been trained to detect fluctuations in Domi’s blood sugar. The saliva of a diabetic emits an odor when blood sugar is low and Orion, who sleeps at the foot of his master’s bed, will wake Domi when he smells a change.
“He’s right 99 per cent of the time,” Domi told The Arizona Republic, before adding. “He’s my best buddy.”
Well, maybe his best four-legged buddy.
“He’s awesome, full of energy but a very humble kid,” Horvat says of Domi.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy who’s as humble and down-to-earth as Bo,” Domi says.
And that’s the way it will always be for these two; teammates once, friends for all time.