Linemate, parents helping Coyotes rookie Domi find his rhythm

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Max Domi's face has a pulpy quality. A little overripe eggplant, a little beat-up tomato look. The Arizona Coyotes rookie insisted that there are only five or six stitches, mostly along the right side of his nostril, and the rest is medical glue holding various flaps of skin together above his blackened right eye.

Still, it's not a pretty sight.

First there was the face-plant into a Minnesota Wild defender while he was traveling at breakneck speed on what Domi acknowledged might have been the most unnecessary play of all time.

"I've never skated as fast," Domi said with a laugh.

Then there was a high stick to the face on the next shift and a puck in the face in front of the Wild's net during an Arizona power play -- a place Domi joked he's not used to going -- and then a second puck in the face at practice on this Wednesday morning.

"I'm not the most handsome guy to begin with, so this isn't helping," said Domi as we head from Glendale to his home near Scottsdale across the valley. "It adds character. The guys got a good laugh out of it."

When captain Shane Doan finds out we're going to spend some time with the Coyotes' top rookie, he rolls his eyes in mock horror.

"You're going to ride with Max?" Doan asked, shaking his head.

Actually, Domi is on his best driving behavior, following all the posted rules of the road. He doesn't get agitated even when the motorcycle in front of us in the high-occupancy lane settles in at about 50 miles an hour.

Domi apologized for being late from post-practice lunch, but this is his routine.

He's a rink rat, always among the last to leave the rink, hanging out with the training staff, taking advantage of the hot/ice tubs, eating lunch.

"I was in a hurry today and I was still one of the last guys," he said.

What has always been a passion and continues to be so now is also very much a job, and Domi, 30-plus games into his first NHL season, is soaking up every moment, moments he was seemingly born to embrace.

Domi's father, Tie Domi, the longtime NHL tough guy and most recently a best-selling author having written a memoir of his times as an NHLer, had the day before departed the Domi domicile, a house in a gated community that used to belong to former Coyote Peter Mueller.

"So I'm not sure how messy the house is going to be," Domi said.

It's not at all, although Domi frets about a foreign smell. "It must be something in the fridge," he said. His place is warm and comfortable.

Father and son speak almost every day.

"He's the worst with the phone," Domi said with a laugh.

It's kind of an ongoing joke that Dad will call or text incessantly until family members respond. Often there is a text before games that includes nuggets of wisdom, bullet-point suggestions on how to have a good game.

Keep your head up.

Make smart plays.

Just little reminders, the kind that Tie has provided to his son from the get-go.

None of that has changed since Max started his first NHL season in September.

"It's the exact same," he said of the relationship with his father. "He's the same, hasn't changed one bit and neither have I."

Tie regularly visits Arizona and always stays with his son, although he has kept a low profile around the team. Max's mother, Leanne, is also a regular visitor and has been to visit recently as well; Max's house has a festive look and feel thanks to her. There's a nice wreath on the door. A series of stockings hangs on one tall bookcase. There's a holiday greeting strung over the fireplace and festive pillows on the couch. And there's a tree the two decorated together.

If there is food in the fridge that requires cooking, it is there because of Max's mother.

Max admitted that he has not yet cooked a proper meal in the house.

Breakfast, yes. But that doesn't really count as cooking, does it?

Instead Domi and close pal, neighbor and fellow rookie Anthony Duclair are most often out for dinner in the neighborhood.

They play on the same line and their instant karma is a key component of a surprising first third of the season for the Coyotes.

Domi is second among NHL rookie point producers, with 25 points, behind the Chicago Blackhawks' Artemi Panarin, who has 31 points. Duclair is fourth, with 19 points.

Domi and Duclair shop together, hang out, play games, drive around, share rides to and from the rink. They even share the same barber/hair stylist.

"We actually do," Duclair admitted. "He's actually a big Coyotes fan, so that's pretty cool."

When Duclair was first traded from the New York Rangers to Arizona at the trade deadline last season, among the first people he contacted was Domi.

"I guess we like the same things," Duclair said. "We have a lot of similarities and things like that off the ice. On off-days, we like to do the same thing. We joke around, we chirp each other. We like to bug each other but at the same time it's all good and fun."

The two are sharing time and experiences both good and bad, and that commune has been more than a little helpful in making the transition to the NHL.

Domi believes strongly that their bond away from the rink has been a key to success on the ice.

"I think the coolest thing is how close we are," Domi said. "We're best buddies off the ice. It definitely translates. We push each other. We know what we're both capable of doing. He's a pretty special guy."

One of the big differences between junior hockey and the NHL is the schedule, not necessarily the travel part -- which is highly organized -- but the time spent at home, away from the rink.

In junior, Domi would practice with the London Knights late in the day and then that would bleed into dinner and the evening. In the NHL, there are longer stretches of time during the day, when most players are heading home to be with their families, when a young player might feel isolated or at loose ends if he didn't have a good pal like Duclair to help fill the void.

"It's not lonely, but it's different," Domi said.

At one point, Duclair was planning to live with Domi, but Duclair is allergic to dogs and Max has a special roommate who took precedence.

Orion, Domi's service dog trained to help him deal with diabetes -- a disease he has dealt with since childhood -- emerges from his crate with great bounds of energy when Domi arrives home. The 20-year-old plays with Orion, giving him quiet instructions as the two prepare for their daily walk. If Orion isn't put to work, which means being with Domi in public, where he can monitor Domi's blood sugar levels through his canine sense of smell and taste, he gets a bit owly.

Growing up in the game has given Domi a bird's-eye view on how the greats handle attention, how they make time for people, how they understand the gift they possess and how they can make a meaningful impact on other people's lives, and he has tried to take that to heart.

"It's definitely something that's changed me and how I interact with people," Domi said.

It's one of the reasons he's active in supporting diabetes research, bringing attention to the disease and giving encouragement to young people who have the disease.

Not long ago friends of former Coyotes GM Mike Barnett told Barnett of their son's diagnosis with diabetes at age 21 after the young man was hospitalized. It was a scary time for the family, and when Domi learned of the family's situation through Barnett and the Coyotes, he happily met with the family when the Coyotes were in Los Angeles. The two are now in regular communication.

It is a rare road trip that doesn't bring with it multiple requests of the team to have Domi meet with youngsters with diabetes. While at home, Domi hosts a group of diabetic youngsters at a practice, meeting with them to talk after the team finishes its skate.

Domi has never known a life that wasn't a hockey life.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Tie played parts of three seasons, Max spent most of his formative years in the Toronto area when his father was a mainstay with Pat Quinn's Toronto Maple Leafs until the elder Domi left the NHL after the 2005-06 season.

Max has never known a life where he couldn't walk into a room and chat with Mario Lemieux, another of his father's close friends, or speak to Mats Sundin as he would a favorite uncle.

Sundin and Max still keep in touch, Sundin sending texts after games, while Domi inquires about the big Swede's family and his life post-hockey.

Mark Messier, with whom his father played in New York, is another close family friend.

"It's pretty ridiculous, when you think about it now," Domi admitted.

Domi recalls a special Messier moment before he started his junior career. Playing on a top Toronto youth team in the playoffs, Domi was struggling against a specific opponent in the faceoff circle.

Tie offered advice, but none of it seemed to work.

Finally, as the two were headed out the door one day, his father got off the phone and told Max to go back in the house and get a couple of sticks and pucks. Gear in hand, they went to a Toronto hotel, where Messier was staying while shooting a commercial. After some pleasantries, Messier got up in the hotel restaurant and told Max he would teach him some of the finer points of the faceoff, and so the two did a little drill right in the restaurant.

"I was 15 years old and here we were in the middle of the restaurant at the hotel," Domi said. "I don't think I lost a draw the rest of the year," he added with a laugh.

Some veteran players who played with or against Tie take time to chat with Max as he's making his way around the NHL in his first season.

One night against the St. Louis Blues, Domi found himself lining up for a faceoff against Alex Steen. Steen's father, Thomas, was a former Winnipeg favorite and teammate of Tie's. Max recalls hanging out with the younger Steen when Steen was first drafted by Toronto, and at one point Alex played on a line with Tie.

"Alex, he was always so good to me," Domi said.

On this night, then, as the two prepared to do battle in the circle, Steen simply looked at Max and started laughing.

"This is hilarious," Steen told Domi.

Then he told Max that his skates were untied.

And Domi looked.

"But I still managed to beat him on the draw," Domi said with a rueful shake of his head, even though Steen needled him throughout the night about having fallen for the old "skates are untied" gambit.

It hasn't been all roses, of course, this inaugural trip through an NHL season.

Head coach Dave Tippett has talked about the learning curve for his talented rookies, and while the creativity has been a welcome tonic to the rebuilding Coyotes, there are still plenty of mistakes to factor into the equation.

There's no denying that, Domi said.

He recalled thinking before the game one night in Detroit: Do not overcommit on Niklas Kronwall at the point. But there was Domi, barreling in on the veteran Red Wings defender at the blue line only to find Kronwall deftly sneaking by him and making a pass that led to a goal.

"You learn the hard way and then you don't do it again," Domi said. "As a hockey player, you know when you've messed up. I've definitely had my share of mistakes this year."

Or you try not to repeat those errors. That is part of the learning curve too, not just recognizing the mistakes but learning not to put yourself in the position to repeat them.

Whatever ups and downs there have been on the ice, Domi and the rest of a youthful Coyotes squad that includes Duclair, Jordan Martinook, Tobias Rieder and Klas Dahlbeck have had a positive impact on the rest of the team. And that's not necessarily a given, noted captain Doan.

"Young guys coming in sometimes have a feeling of entitlement," Doan said. But with Domi leading the pack, there has been no such awkwardness or dressing room tension.

"There's a lot of recognition that comes with somebody that's had as much success as he's had on the ice already, and there is not one ounce of that," Doan said. "And every single vet in the room is as big a fan of him as anybody. It's just human nature in sports when the new guy comes in to feel a little bit, I don't know, you want them to earn it, I don't know how to express it other than there can sometimes be resentment from the veteran guys.

"It has made our room so much fun ... They've just been so eager to learn and at the same time they're driving the bus for us, so they've had the right to feel some entitlement. It's pretty awesome."

Domi has become an instant fan favorite in Arizona, although he acknowledged that it's a different kind of attention than his father and entire family endured and/or celebrated in Toronto as he was growing into a top-end hockey player himself.

Domi recalled when his parents split up, a separation that, given the hockey-mad culture in Canada, became a news event that saw the family's personal relationships played out in full view of the public.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tough," Domi said. "That was a pretty tough little spell of weird stuff going on. It was crazy. It was everywhere. It was the talk of the town."

His parents are both in serious relationships and remain close, Domi said. And the period of time helped galvanize a strong relationship with his two sisters, one attending the University of Western Ontario in London, where Domi played his junior hockey, and the other a senior in high school in Toronto.

"We really leaned on each other," he said.

Is he the doting brother scaring off prospective suitors?

Not really. If potential dates have hurdles to face, it will be from Tie, not Max.

In fact, Domi's sisters might be more protective of their hockey-playing brother than the other way around.

Domi takes little for granted.

He understands the learning curve is just starting and the final 50 or so games will be a real test of his own worthiness and the worthiness of the surprising Coyotes.

"Every day, you learn something new about playing in the NHL," he said. "It'll be interesting to see how we all do."