What’s it like to be a rookie when: Max Domi

Coyotes rookie Max Domi joins Hockey Central at Noon to talk about his first season in the NHL, and being an ambassador for diabetes.

Max Domi skates along the boards at morning practice and flashes a grin before he stops short of the blue-line. A kid wearing glasses and a white Coyotes sweater runs over and pushes his face up against the glass. When No. 16 moves up in line for a passing drill, the kid moves with him, shuffling in his sneakers.

This is not a scene you’d expect to see in Hockeytown. In Arizona, maybe. But here in Detroit there are only five Coyotes fans in the stands watching an off-day skate, and three of them wear the sweater of the dynamic winger who’s played just half a season in the NHL. After practice, Domi signs autographs and talks with his fans. He’s the last Coyote to take his skates off.

Domi looks like a natural because he is. The 20-year-old is as prepared as one could possibly be for this life, thanks to being the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs fan favourite, Tie. But Domi is the first to admit you can never be entirely ready for your rookie year in the NHL, even if you text regularly with Mats Sundin.

For starters, he’s playing hockey in the desert. Growing up in one of the busiest markets in hockey and watching your father and his teammates surrounded by fans and media does not prepare a person for the polar opposite. Hockey is not king in Arizona as it was in Toronto; not even close. You will find two reporters covering a Coyotes skate on an off-day in Detroit, and only one beat reporter travels regularly with the team. Domi draws the biggest scrum after the skate, but that calm—compared to what he’s seen in Toronto and the attention he got at tournaments like the World Junior Championship—is taking some getting used to.

Captain Shane Doan has been a Coyote for 19 of his 20 NHL seasons. “I told Max that as time goes by the spotlight’s gonna get brighter and brighter on him,” Doan says. “He’s gonna appreciate playing in Phoenix more and more. There’s an element to that privacy that’s very nice.”

The other big change for Domi this season has been playing with older guys. “In junior, you finish at practice and you hang out with all your buddies, you go to a movie or you go to the mall,” he says, sitting in his stall in the corner of the visitor’s dressing room in Detroit, arms resting on his hockey pants, skates still on, curly brown hair peeking out from under his flat-brimmed Coyotes ball cap.

“Now after practice, most guys are going to hang out with their families. It’s really an adjustment, and you realize, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool that they have families, and I’m just 20 years old.’”

Though he doesn’t act his age on the ice — which his points total can attest to — there are ways in which Domi very much seems the rookie: He brings up the shopping mall, for starters. And he is still wide-eyed. It makes Doan laugh to think of all the times he’s listened to Domi talk about playing against some of the league’s superstars, or comment on the stickhandling ability of a guy like John Tavares and be in awe.

“There are times you see him get really excited,” Doan says. No, Domi doesn’t have that been-there-done-that attitude, despite his upbringing. He’s full of questions, and almost all of them have to do with off-ice life: signing autographs, talking to fans, being involved in the community. “You know what?” Doan says, “He wants to do everything perfect. You have to admire that.”

Domi has hit the ground running in that respect. He is polished, so much so that the team’s PR staff points out he came this way; they didn’t need to teach him a thing. Domi’s hockey-speak is perfect, and any question about him circles back to the team somehow. Asked to recall his first NHL goal, he responds: “The play, or how it felt?” The kid is a veteran.

This is the environment he was born into, after all. Domi thinks back to the days when he was little Max, wearing a tie and button-up shirt and dress pants, going to Dad’s office. “It’s kind of scary to think about it now, but I thought that was the norm,” he says. “Showing up at my dad’s work and hearing, ‘Hey, Max, what’s goin’ on?’ That’s Mats Sundin asking. Any kid would be in shock if he saw him. I’m talking to him like he’s my buddy.”

Domi learned what it takes to be a pro back then, watching the guys prepare for games, seeing them in the gym, knowing what they ate. “I wouldn’t be here without that experience,” he says.

Like most rookies, Domi says he doesn’t read about himself or watch highlights. No first-year player will admit they watch their highlights on repeat, even if they do. Most say they stay away from it entirely, or at least try to. It’s humility. But Domi’s reasoning has another layer. It’s advice he got years ago from Tie.

“The best guys he played with were the guys who didn’t ever watch highlights or read that stuff,” Domi says. “The media’s gonna get on you about the lows and they’re gonna get on you about the highs, too.
You don’t want to make the roller coaster even worse.” The rookie has got a point.