23-year-old forward juggling his famous father’s legacy, type 1 diabetes and pre-season suspension

Douglas Gelevan · CBC News

Max Domi doesn’t remember a time when hockey wasn’t the centre of his life.

“I wasn’t the type of kid that slept with a teddy bear,” the 23-year-old told CBC Sports. “It was a hockey stick a wooden stick. So I wasn’t sure how comfortable that was in bed, but I enjoyed taking that stick around everywhere.”

As the son of legendary Maple Leafs tough guy Tie Domi, Max was born with a front-row seat on the NHL.

He says he would carry his stick from his bed to the Air Canada Centre, where his father played home games, and in the wives’ room during the game, he’d play mini-stick and imagine scoring the big goal.

“That was a lot of imagination, but stuff that really set it up and drove me to push toward being an NHL player,” Domi says.

Naturally, Domi grew up idolizing his father and wanting to play in the NHL, just like he did — a dream that came true when he was drafted by the Coyotes in 2013.

However, getting to that point wasn’t without some speed bumps along the way.

Living with type 1 diabetes

At 12, Domi was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He worried that it meant he wouldn’t be able to keep playing hockey, but doctors assured him otherwise.

NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke showed him it was possible.

Clarke had become an NHL champion for the Philadelphia Flyers while living with diabetes. Domi says meeting him made a world of difference.

“You see someone doing what you’re trying to do, and all of a sudden that person is kind of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Domi says. “That’s what Bobby Clarke was for me.”

Domi says Clarke inspired him to develop the discipline required to manage diabetes and still perform at an elite level on the ice.

It’s not easy. Domi has to monitor his blood sugar level constantly, to make sure he’s ready to perform. There are dozens of factors which can throw his system out of whack.

“You’re almost like in science class every day,” He says. You learn a lot, and you’re very observant — and you turn into a pro.”

As an NHLer, Domi believes it’s his responsibility to set an example for kids with diabetes by giving back through hockey camps, charities and telling his story.

“Not one day goes by that I haven’t thought of that encounter” with Bobby Clarke, says Domi.

“Knowing how powerful that was for me and that it really drove me to have the career I’m having. I just try and repay that in any fraction I can — and that’s by giving back to a community.”

Stepping out from his father’s shadow

Growing up with a famous hockey-playing father certainly helped determine Domi’s path, but he admits it also came with some baggage.

Tie Domi had a reputation in the league as a brawler who was ready to drop the gloves at any moment to defend a teammate and wasn’t above landing a cheap shot to take out an opponent. Max Domi has to carry that.

“Everyone’s always comparing me and my dad. Obviously, we’re a little bit different,” he says.

Max Domi plays with more finesse and less brawn than Tie. Yet while he tries to distance himself from some aspects of his father’s reputation, there are other parts he wants to replicate.

He believes his father is unfairly remembered only as a fighter.

“He had a lot of speed and could play. He never really gets the credit he deserves,” Domi says.

“Everyone wants to be like their old man, and he set the bar pretty high, so now it’s awesome I get the opportunity to represent a franchise that is better than the one he represented, and I’m looking forward to that.”

Shaky 1st impression

However, if Domi was trying to distance himself from the undesirable parts of his father’s reputation, he didn’t do himself any favours at his first pre-season game at the Bell Centre.

Domi dropped his glove and punched Florida’s Aaron Ekblad in the face when Ekblad clearly wasn’t interested in fighting him.

Domi’s punch made news across Canada and grabbed headlines in the U.S., too. It was universally seen as a dirty play, and he was suspended for five pre-season games as a result.

Canadiens’ Max Domi suspended for remainder of pre-season
He admits the excitement of playing the Bell Centre with the Canadiens for the first time clouded his judgment.

“It was a mistake,” Domi says. “You don’t want to see that in any game but especially an exhibition game with two veterans.”

The suspension is one form of punishment, but Domi also knows that hockey’s unwritten code requires he’ll have to answer for what he did the next time he suits up against the Panthers.

“I understand that comes with consequences whatever those may be,” says Domi. “I’m very prepared to handle those down the road.”

“Scores will be settled at a later date,” said Ekblad a day after the incident.

The Habs next play the Panthers on Dec. 28.

Optimism for the new season

The Habs had a good training camp and have shed a lot of the problems which dragged them down last season.

Domi’s acquisition was part of that makeover. He arrived via a trade for the team’s former third overall draft pick, Alex Galchenyuk.

“We’re a team that’s going to work hard,” he vows. “We’re not going to give up on plays. We’re not going to give up on pucks and definitely not going to give up on games.”

“We’re excited about it.”

He’s not, perhaps, so excited that he will be sleeping with his hockey stick like he did as kid — but maybe excited enough to breathe some fresh life back into one of the league’s most storied franchises.