Air Canada runs a direct flight from Phoenix to Toronto once a day, otherwise, there’s no direct route. The flight travels through seven states on clear day to bring passengers from the sandal-melting desert climate of Maricopa County to the lakeside city, north of the border with a bone-chilling winter that means business. The two cities may as well be a world apart.
Max Domi, the second-year forward for the Arizona Coyotes and former first-round draft pick grew up entrenched in Canadian hockey culture. His father, Tahir “Tie” Domi, spent the bulk of his playing days as a legendary enforcer for the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Tie routinely and without fear went skate-to-skate, fist-to-face with some of the toughest, meanest hockey players to ever play the game, names like Bob Probert and Marty McSorley. The fights are almost as legendary as goals scored and games played throughout the era.
On the ice surface, the two could not be perceived as more dissimilar. Max, drafted for his opulence of skills, scored 52 points as a 20-year-old rookie. Tie, never topped high watermark of 28 points in a year and took seven seasons to reach 52 career points.
But the elder Domi was like a rabid pitbull when he pulled that sweater on. He was a manic little wrecking ball, only five-feet, eight-inches tall. He played like an imposing titan.
Max is like a first-chair violist when he pulls that sweater on, technical in nature, displaying his natural ability for a nightly audience. He’s an integral part in the beautiful execution of something bigger than an individual, like symphony playing Frédéric Chopin, or in this case, a hockey team trying to win a game.
“I like offense and I like to make a lot of plays,” Domi says, describing his game. “I guess you could see I’m more of a passer than a shooter, I love setting up my teammates and watching them score is really rewarding for me.”
Growing up, Max always knew he wanted to be a skill player, known for contributing on the scoresheet. He grew up in the era of Youtube, fantasizing about breaking down the wing on a give-and-go, tic-tac passing, playing with the puck like a cat plays with its prey before delivering the final fatal blow.
“I kind of grew up in the whole Youtube era, when it was just starting to get big with all of the highlight videos and whatnot, [watching] guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Patrick Kane,” he explains. “Just really skilled guys like that were guys that I really looked up to and those were the kind of guys that I wanted to play like.”
He loves and respects his dad, but those were the players he wanted to be like.
“For me personally, I would spend hours watching what they would do, then I would go into my garage and try it myself, then I’d try it in practice,” he adds.
He also had a front row seat to some of the most talented players of a generation, so his dad would always encourage him to watch the skill players.
“[My dad and I] would joke about it and say, ‘What’s better than watching guys like Mats Sundin on a daily basis?'”
If you speak with the younger Domi, he says that the resemblance between he and his father doesn’t start and end at their last name and chosen occupation.
“My dad doesn’t get enough credit for how skilled and how fast he was,” Domi says. “He could score, it’s just his role was different than mine for sure, but he definitely had the ability to have an offense side to his game.”
Players often have specific roles and that sometimes they have to adjust for the good of the team. That’s the way it works. Max Domi has a different role than his dad’s.
“Overall I don’t think we’re too similar,” he add. “But I try and take as much I can from his game as well.”
Yet Domi never looked more like his father than a couple weeks ago, when he dropped the gloves and engaged Ryan Kesler, a grimey forward for the Anaheim Ducks with over two dozen career fights under his belt and at minimum a five-inch height advantage. That’s not to say Kesler is an enforcer or a even a grinder, but he knows his way around a brawl. Domi knocked him out with a singular, perfectly placed uppercut punch. The fight had the entire internet talking. The son of one of the game’s great fighters knocking out a larger opponent.
“I’m definitely not one to go look for a fight,” Domi admits. “But there’s a point in time where you have to step in for your teammates or protect yourself.”
Of course, Domi admittedly learned from the best, landing a punch that echoed the days of his feared father walloping the faces of other large men.
“He definitely did give me little pointers here and there on how to stick up for myself,” Domi says.
He explains his father gave him three specific tactical areas to focus on when he’s engaged in an on ice brawl: calmness, grip and stance. He said staying calm is first and foremost because the last thing you want to do is go in their wildly flailing.
“If you can control those three things, you’ll set yourself up in the best way possible,” Domi says his father told him. “He really preached those three things.”
“I have that in my back pocket, but at the same time he’s not a happy camper when I go out of my way to fight,” he adds. “He seems to think it’s a little better to play my game and stick to that.”
There’s also been a lot of discussion about the dangers of fighting around the sport. A number of ex-enforcers have died at alarmingly young ages and battled the ill-effects of head injuries very publicly.
The aforementioned Probert died at 45 and a study of his brain by Boston University researchers revealed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
It’s sensible that Tie wouldn’t exactly be a champion of his son following the road that could lead to major health problems down the road.
Max Domi is certainly carving his own path in the league, one far away from his father’s, despite the flash-back moment a couple weeks ago. He admitted, he probably isn’t where he is today without a father that played the game – even in terms of how to deal with pressures, the fans, the media – but people don’t often bring it up to him. He’s mostly able to avoid the pressure of being an NHL legacy.
It also helps to avoid that shadow and constant reminder, that Glendale, Arizona – where the Coyotes play their home games – and Toronto are separated by 1875 miles, or 3017 kilometers if you’re in Canada, and their cultures couldn’t be more different.
The weekend activity in Glendale is hitting the golf course in shorts. In Toronto, it’s a pickup game of shinny on a frozen lake or an outdoor public ice hockey rink. That Arizona life suits Domi just fine.
“Oh man, it’s unbelievable,” Domi says of living in Arizona. “It’s second-to-none in terms of living, the people out here are great … you wake up every day and it’s sunny, you can hang out in your backyard.”
The team suits him well too. They’re anchored by youth, after years of drafting well, hitting the jackpot with some high picks and making savvy trades to acquire young talent. Even their general manager John Chayka is a 27-year-old analytics expert, the youngest in the league. Domi says that the young guys, mixed with the perfect veterans to guide them like captain Shane Doan, is how they’re looking to build a winner out in the desert.
“We’ve got a great mix,” he says. “Everyone always talks about how young we are, but the older veterans we have are really the ones that have kind of shaped our team to what it is now.”
He adds, “They’re the ones that we go to the rink and learn from every day, so they don’t get nearly enough credit for this.”
In Toronto, fans want to build statues of Tie Domi. He exemplified a toughness, a traditional hockey culture that was born and bred in Canada. But two time zones west and nearly a continent away, Max Domi is hoping to be an integral piece to a winning franchise. And he’s looking to do it in a much different way than dad, despite sharing what seems like a god-given talent for fisticuffs.