How trade to Canadiens reignited Max Domi’s passion for hockey

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi (13). (Nathan Denette/CP)

GLENDALE, Ariz.— Max Domi has never had a disparaging word to say about his three seasons with the Arizona Coyotes. When he says it’s special for him to go back to the Grand Canyon State — and he has several times since coming over to the Montreal Canadiens in a one-for-one trade for Alex Galchenyuk in the summer of 2018 — take him at his word.

Domi built relationships in Arizona that will last a lifetime. He came of age there and he says he grew by leaps and bounds as an individual under the cherished guidance of coach Rick Tocchet and long-time Coyotes captain Shane Doan. And it was there, in the desert surroundings, that Domi realized his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

But when the plucky Canadiens centreman says that it was special playing in Arizona, what he displayed over his final two seasons with the Coyotes betrays that notion.

When you think of the Domi who’s been a near point-per game producer in 93 games with the Canadiens, his passion for the game has to be the first thing that comes to mind.

As teammate Nate Thompson put it on Monday, “Domes plays a very emotional game.”

The emotion Thompson is referring to propelled Domi to 12th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. And he originally brought that same emotion to Arizona as a 20-year-old rookie who scored 18 goals and 52 points.

But in front of half-full crowds in Glendale, and playing for a team that was missing too many components to contend for a playoff spot, the passion that had previously propelled Domi through his hockey career seemingly waned in his second season and all but evaporated in his third.

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Granted, those were still formative years for Domi. He was a young player navigating the ups and downs of playing in the world’s most challenging league, going through the trials and tribulations that every player faces.

But even if Domi won’t ever say it, you have to think the biggest reason his production regressed over his sophomore and junior campaigns with the Coyotes — he had just nine goals in both seasons and topped out at 45 points — is because the reality he was living was nothing like the one he dreamed of as a Toronto kid who grew up around a Maple Leafs team his dad, Tie, was a legendary member of.

And going from playing a starring role on one of Canada’s most successful junior teams (the London Knights) to playing in relative anonymity in Arizona was a transition he tried to embrace, but never fully succeeded at.

By the same logic, it’s not hard to understand why Domi came to Montreal and exploded in his first season with the Canadiens — leading them in scoring with 72 points in 82 games from October of 2018 to April of 2019.

“It was something that I was thinking about for a long, long time and I was just super excited to be a Montreal Canadien,” the 24-year-old told Sportsnet just before the 2019-20 season got underway. “I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was like, ‘Finally I have an opportunity to chase my dream.’”

Yes, finally — five years after he was drafted.

When you look at what Domi has done in bleu, blanc et rouge, you can’t help but conclude he was born to play in a market like this.

“He will love it,” Doan told Sportsnet the day after Domi was traded to the Canadiens. “He enjoys playing in the pressure situations, and he enjoys the expectations being high.”

That much became abundantly clear from the minute Domi first pulled on a Canadiens sweater, and he’s spent every minute since confirming it with his spectacular and passion-oozing play.

Domi has always possessed the talent to produce at this level, but his desire to live up to lofty expectations and to thrive on one of hockey’s biggest platforms in Montreal has pushed him to a level of consistency that was hard to imagine he’d establish while he was fading under the dim lights in Arizona.

“Playing (in Montreal) has pushed me to keep trying to get better at everything and to perform every day,” he said last week.

The results? Domi never went more than three games without registering a point last season, and this season he has three goals and 10 points and has produced in eight of 11 games.

“I think (it’s because) he’s excited to be here,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Monday. “How can you not (be)? You come to Montreal, the stands are full every game, great crowd, great following and fans. We know it’s heavy at times with the number of (followers) that there is. But on the other side of it, it’s great to have that. He loves that. He loves the fact that he’s in a big market … He loves being here, he loves doing what he’s doing.”

Domi always says he loved doing it in Arizona, too.

But it’s quite telling that when he was asked what he misses most about playing there, his response was: “The weather.”

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