CRAIG MORGAN – arizonasports.com
A reporter asked Max Domi if he could envision himself becoming the next face of the franchise. Domi wanted no part of that conversation — not with the current face of the franchise still lacing up skates a few stalls down in the Coyotes locker room, and not when Domi has less than a year of NHL play on his resume.
“I’m still a really young guy trying to find my way in the pros,” he said. “I don’t even think about that stuff.”
Shane Doan does.
“He has the personality and he has the leadership to do whatever is required,” Doan said of Domi. “It’s not too often you get that combination of talent and personality and he’s got them both. I think he’s comfortable with that role and it takes someone special to handle that.”
Doan should know. He’s been the face of the franchise ever since the Coyotes moved to Glendale in 2003. No player has done more for this organization in its history, and it’s debatable whether any player in the league’s history has meant more to his franchise.
“You look at a guy like Doaner, he’s been in the league a million years and he’s still trying to get better,” Domi said. “We’re lucky enough to have a guy like that to look up to. For me, it’s just (about) soaking that all up and trying to continue to become a good pro.”
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is widely regarded as the Coyotes’ best player. The Swedish superstar is considered one the game’s elite defenseman, he is easy-going with reporters and fans and Coyotes community relations director Olivia Campos said Ekman-Larsson recently requested to take an even more active role in the community.
Ekman-Larsson will probably be the next Coyotes captain when Doan retires and his local popularity is immense, but Domi has more esoteric qualities beyond his mastery of the English language that magnify his marketability.
There’s that impish grin he uses to incense opponents after on-ice scraps. There’s his alert dog, Orion, that helps him manage his Type 1 Diabetes, and then there’s his willingness to discuss the disease openly.
“The fact that he’s willing to show his vulnerability can create strong emotional connections with fans,” said David Eichler, the co-founder and creative director for Decibel Blue, a marketing and P.R. firm in Tempe and Denver. “He doesn’t have to be the tough, invincible jock and that resonates with people.”
A lot of players make community appearances. A lot of them are good at it, too, but Domi seems to have a special connection with fans that can’t be taught or faked.
“He does an incredible job of making them feel special,” Campos said. “He shows genuine interest in what they have to say and a genuine interest in sharing what he has learned.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Doan has been doing that for years and it is often the fans that have to break off the conversation.
“Max doesn’t talk to people quite as long as Shane,” Coyotes vice president of communications Rich Nairn said, laughing. “But I’ve been involved with him on numerous meet-and-greets on the road and the amazing thing about Max is when he’s talking to these kids who also have diabetes, he talks to them as if they’re the same age and he doesn’t pity them in any way when they share their experiences. He’s just very supportive; almost matter of fact. That makes the kids comfortable and allows them to have confidence.”
Domi’s approach to the public is a simple one.
“You’re not going to be a hockey player forever so you make the most of it while you have that and you try and change people’s lives in whatever way you can,” he said. “I believe you should go out of your way to try to make a difference. When you meet new people you should always try to help or at least get to know them and everything else comes from that, but the way I look at is I’m going to enjoy every step of it and I really am so far.”
Domi has been involved in countless community events already this season.
He spoke to 900 kids at Western Sky Middle School in Goodyear for the American Diabetes Walk Kickoff. He also took part in a private meet-and-greet with about 20 kids.
In coordination with the nonprofit Dream Factory, Domi had lunch with 7-year-old Jaxson Ryan, a diabetic from Rochester, New York whose wish was to spend time with Max at a practice and talk to him about how he balances hockey with his illness.
Domi met another boy who has Type 1 Diabetes, Isaac Jensen from Whitefish, Montana. When Jensen came to town to pick up his alert dog, he attended two Coyotes games and the two spent time together along with the dog after the games.
Domi was part of the Skate with Foundation for Blind Children, he did a Q&A with a crowd of about 250 people after a game for the American Diabetes Association and he does private one-on-one meet-and-greets with local kids once a month.
Couple that with his electric offensive ability and it’s easy to see why Domi has taken Coyotes nation by storm.
“It’s the stuff he does for the community, particularly what he does for others with Type 1 Diabetes, the things he does to help promote the Coyotes brand any chance he gets, his willingness to stick up and fight for his teammates and the fact that he works hard every single shift he’s out there,” said longtime fan Tim Greene, a Goodyear resident who changed the name on his Twitter handle to DOMInation. “It’s the whole package.”
Domi almost seems embarrassed when talk turns to his community appearances, and he shrugs off the idea that fans gravitate to him.
“I’m not even sure if I’m popular,” he said. “But it’s always nice when you get support from the fans.”
As he was leaving Gila River Arena after Saturday’s home finale against the Washington Capitals, Domi stopped to talk to the rows of fans that always wait outside the gated area where the players park.
“A lot of them were there just to say thanks for a great year, but I enjoyed talking to whoever it was about whatever they wanted to talk about,” he said. “I guess I like being social and meeting new people. That’s what life is all about.”
The Coyotes figured they were getting an exceptional talent when they drafted Domi 12th overall in 2013, but the early returns on that investment are far greater than they could have imagined.
“Marketers search endlessly for someone who has that ‘it’ factor,” Eichler said. “Maybe it’s the sparkle in the eye, maybe it’s some other intangible but it creates the difference between a movie star and a competent actor.
“Some guys just have it, and when they have it, you know it.”