The story is not about me,” the father says. “I’ve had my day. It’s my son’s turn.”
The father says this in a rink where 8,000 people have crowded to see his son and his son’s teammates play. The father is recognized more often than his son and his teammates. The father played in the NHL against his son’s coach, but the farther you get from this arena in London, the more anonymous the son’s coach becomes. The father’s fame radiates from Toronto and New York like it’s broadcast from a 50,000-watt radio tower.
The father hasn’t played an NHL game in six years, but wherever he goes, people stop, stare, smile, point and talk. They do this not because he played 1,000 games—many have done that, including the son’s coach. No, what makes the father so memorable was how he played the game. In his role, everyone understood that any game could have been his last, something that came down to the potential of injury or what they thought would be the inevitable erosion of confidence. Everyone came to understand that. The father was, grudgingly, the last. The fear he set aside, the awful spectacle of his role, that sticks with people years later and will for years more.
But this is, as the father says, not a story about him. It’s a story about the son.
It’s a story about Max Domi, a skilled centre whose arrival had been anticipated by people in junior hockey since he was 12 years old, a prospect projected to be a first-round draft choice, a kid who is thoughtful, articulate and engaging, one whose room-warming smile comes as naturally to him as a malevolent glower did to his father. In these ways, Max Domi is like a lot of 17-year-olds who graduate at the top of their year in junior hockey, their confidence and self-possession being both the source and by-product of their success.
Max, however, is not quite the average emerging star.
He stands out in conventional ways. He looks smaller than most but is, in fact, only shorter. NHL Central Scouting lists him at five-foot-nine-and-a-quarter, but he seems an inch or two south of that mark. There does seem to be truth in his advertised weight: 193 lb., packed disproportionately below the equator. Thus, opponents who try to knock him off the puck are thwarted by his low centre of gravity—“low” being somewhere around the top of his socks. Just like his father on those counts. With his elite puck skills, vision and stature, Max might be compared to Sergei Samsonov at the same stage, except that he already has at least one more gear than Samsonov ever had.
Max stands out in more controversial ways, too. Kingston selected him eighth overall in the 2011 OHL draft, even though Max and his father had made it known that he wanted to go to major-junior on his own terms. The Frontenacs’ GM, Doug Gilmour, knows Max. He played with his father, as did Kingston’s coach, Todd Gill. Gilmour thought he could convince them Kingston would be a good place for a prospect to grow his game. He ended up having to trade Max’s rights to London. Gilmour was disappointed but won’t get into recriminations. Max wasn’t the first top prospect to hand-pick the team he would play for, and he won’t be the last.
What separates Max from almost all other prospects is that he grew up in, or at least around, an NHL rink. “I can’t remember not going,” he says. His memory begins after his father had been traded by Winnipeg to Toronto. Maple Leaf Gardens and later the Air Canada Centre were where his father went to work and where Max went to play. “While my father was on the ice at practice, the trainers would throw me in a laundry hamper and push me down the hallways,” Max says. “When you’re that young you have no idea what it all means and how different it is from other people’s experiences.”
By age 10, he fully understood. Other kids in his Grade 5 class hoped to go to see a Maple Leafs game, but if they were watching a game that March they saw Max standing alongside his mother and sisters at centre ice at the ACC while the crowd cheered his father for lasting 1,000 games in the league. When Pittsburgh won the Cup, he was ushered into the room by Mario Lemieux, a friend of his father. At 15, he was working out in the off-season with Sidney Crosby, thanks to the agent they share, Pat Brisson.
Still, there are a bunch of sons or cousins or nephews of NHLers in junior, those who grew up in the game, but Max Domi is different—because he is his father’s son.
He stands with his father in the hall outside the London Knights dressing room 40 minutes after the home team has lost in a shootout to Guelph. His father is in high-priced jeans, running shoes not meant for the gym and a designer sweatshirt—Holt Renfrew casual. The son has stripped down to a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Their conversation is muted. It wasn’t a great night for Max Domi. The Knights dominated play the way you’d expect a defending league champion to dominate. Midway through the game they had outshot the Storm 20 to five but still trailed 1–0. That goal was scored on a Guelph breakaway after Max had committed a painful turnover in the neutral zone. For stretches after that, he stayed on the Knights bench. By game’s end, he was taking his regular shift, shifts on the power play, and he was flashing skill. He didn’t figure in any of London’s three goals, but he had the game on his stick in the shootout. He tried a deke, something less than his best, and it ended up being one of 47 shots Guelph goaltender Garret Sparks turned aside. “A bad bounce on that pass,” Max tells his father about the giveaway.
His father bites his lip and nods. There’s not much he can tell his son about the game now. Max can do things with the puck his father never could. He can see passes to be made that no one else in the arena can. He’s in a small fraction of the top one percent on that count.
Max knew his father fought. Before he’d head off to grade school in the morning he would see him. Sometimes he would have cuts on his face from the previous night’s game. Sometimes it looked like his father’s hands had been put through a meat tenderizer. As Max got older, he started to understand. “Playing 1,000 games in his role would have been like playing 2,000 in a different role,” he says. And what Max grew to understand, better than most who were never in the dressing room, was that his father was by all conventional standards wholly unsuited to his role, giving away six inches and 50 lb. to Bob Probert and others. His father shouldn’t have been an opponent. He should have been a casualty. He sometimes lost, but he beat the odds in almost 300 NHL fights, scores more in junior, and no counting how many in the street as young man. Max knew that whatever his father lacked in stature, he compensated for with fearlessness. And Max had a sense where it came from.
He never met his grandfather, who died not long before Max was born. Still, he knows the stories. His grandfather escaped Albania after the Second World War with a souvenir, a bullet fragment embedded in his skull just above his left eye. His grandparents had taken a chance with their lives and his grandfather had come within an inch of losing his. Once they had settled in Canada, his grandfather slaved in a restaurant in Belle River, Ont., near Windsor, no garden spot, and saved until they could bring his extended family over from Albania. “That’s where my father got his work ethic from,” Max says. “His toughness.”
The son won’t be in 300 fights like his father. He might not even be in three; he’s not that type of player. To his father’s relief, Max doesn’t need to be. That’s not to say he isn’t as tough as his father, just that he’s tough in his own way. Yeah, it was hard for his father in Belle River and when his family moved to Toronto, but it had to have been hard for Max to grow up with the same surname as an NHL enforcer. True, he had opportunities his father never had. Max attended Upper Canada College from Grade 3 to Grade 10. His father’s fame mattered less at the tony prep school than other places. “Everybody’s parents there are somebody,” he says. Still, he would hear it from opponents. “Players would say stuff to get under his skin,” says Bob Marshall, who coached Max with the Don Mills Flyers in minor hockey. “I don’t know how often it crossed the line. The arena can be a nasty place. It didn’t seem to bother him.”
And later, it wasn’t just the fact that Max was the progeny of a tough guy. He was also collateral damage in a divorce that went very public. His parents’ woes, and even his own, played out in the papers. In that way, he stands apart from the other sons of NHLers—not that other players’ domestic lives weren’t shattered, just that in his case, everyone, total strangers, knew. It would be enough to break the average adolescent, but not Max, at least not on the ice. “I don’t know that it ever really affected him,” Marshall says.
Max and his sisters live with their mother, Leanne, in Toronto during the off-season. While others just draw a parallel between the father and the son, Max gives a lot of credit to his mother. “When I was a little kid, a lot of times it was my mom who drove me to the arena first thing in the morning,” Max says. “My father would have practice or be out of town. She had a lot to do with me being here.”
It was Leanne, not his father, who took him to a peewee tournament in Detroit and on the drive back realized he wasn’t well. “I was thirsty all the time and we had to keep pulling over so I could go to the washroom,” Max says. She took Max to the hospital. The diagnosis was instant: type 1 diabetes.
Max makes it seem his diabetes is no hardship, just a blessing dressed as a curse. “It forces me to be aware of my diet and have good habits, what you’d have to do anyway to play in the NHL,” he says. Max wears an insulin pump and makes his diabetes regimen sound as low-maintenance as a potted cactus. “Diabetes isn’t a bad break for me. It’s just a part of a lot of people’s lives.”
After the loss to Guelph, like other games with his father in attendance, Max is one of the stragglers, one of the last to join his teammates in the hallway or lobby or out by the team bus. Before showering, he had met his father away from the crowd. There’s always too much going on, too many people who want to say something to his father, who doesn’t want his brief time with Max to be interrupted by an autograph request, a handshake, a stranger or even a friend. It’s not because his father is anti-social. The exact opposite is true. His father always has to be on, always a businessman, always aware that he worked all those years to become a name and then a brand. He can’t say no.
His father has already left the building when Max exits the dressing room for the final time and heads out into the arena halls where the players’ families and friends are waiting. People look over Max’s shoulder for his father, but he is out in the parking lot, signing an autograph, or already on his way back to Toronto.
Max, now talking and joking with his teammates and their parents, seems more composed and self-assured than any 17-year-old has a right to be. He seems to take it all in with an appreciation of his good fortune, a wide-eyed wonder of all that might await him. Maybe the other parents notice that. Maybe they miss it. If they watch him on the ice, and talk with him off it, and come to know him and his story, they would say with confidence that wherever he goes, whatever he does, he’ll be OK, no matter the outcome. Win, lose or tie.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.