Max Domi relishes being on the biggest stage for the Maple Leafs in the playoffs

Shane Doan has a specific way of getting a feel for new teammates. And he’d never gotten the feel he did in the fall of 2015.

The then-veteran Arizona Coyote would size up players by – quite literally – leaning on them on the ice. It was his way to sense what kind of vigour they could bring against the physicality in the NHL.

Doan had spent 20 years in the league when he tried to lean on 20-year-old Max Domi, then vying for a roster spot as an NHL rookie, in practice. Should be a walk in the park given Doan had a few inches on Domi, right?

But almost 10 years later the Maple Leafs special advisor to the general manager still hasn’t felt a player bring what Domi did.

“You lean on (Domi), you feel the energy. It’s crazy. When I lean on someone on the ice, you can feel their strength. But with Max…” Doan snaps his fingers. “It’s a different feel.”

Energy can come in different forms for NHL players. What Doan saw through their two seasons together was how Domi’s energy manifested in injecting life wherever he went. In their time together, Doan got the sense that Domi was always destined for bigger things because he had not just the capacity – but the desire – to be in the spotlight.

“When (Domi) walks into a room, he fills the room,” Doan said. “People’s energy goes up when Max comes in the room. You want to be around people like that.”

Not every player has the makeup to flourish in Toronto. The pressure to succeed is greater than in most NHL markets, given the 57-year Stanley Cup drought. But this season Domi has proven himself to be a rare breed: After signing a show-me one-year contract as a free agent and enduring some early-season struggles, he craves everything that comes with being a Leaf on the biggest stage.

“Some people aren’t a big fan of (that stage),” Domi said, before his grin stretched out toward his ears, “but I’ve always been a big fan of it.”

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Max Domi with the Coyotes in 2015. (Tom Szczerbowski / USA Today)

Given the hundreds of players Scott McLellan played with during his professional career or watched over as a minor hockey coach, including with the Don Mills Flyers, you might expect it to be difficult for a player to stand out.

But even as a child growing up in Toronto, that’s what Max Domi did.

“The one thing I remember about Max was he had a passion for the game that you don’t see in a lot of young kids,” McLellan said.

Drill after drill, Domi wanted to top his Flyers teammates. He also wanted to forge bonds with those teammates in a manner McLellan didn’t always see.

“I know this sounds crazy, but if (Domi) was ever sick, it drove him crazy that he couldn’t be with his teammates or on the ice,” McLellan said.

Where did that passion come from?

You could draw a short line between father and son, given how Max would have had a constant front-row seat to Tie’s own gusto-filled performances including the parts of 11 seasons he spent at the end of his career in Toronto.

But whereas Tie’s passion manifested in a devilish snarl and a propensity to punch his way through opponents, Max’s passion came to life with a smile that was born as a kid and never left his face.

As a child, Max grew up in dressing rooms, following his father through his NHL career and growing comfortable around NHL stars. Max Domi still counts Leafs legend Mats Sundin as a close friend.

Watching how his father handled the constant attention that came with playing in the NHL gave Max the capacity to do the same. Bigger rinks than teammates could ever dream of playing in became like second homes. And he learned to treat his teammates like family, just like his father did.

Most of all, growing up in the NHL made Max love the attention that came with success.

“Max used to get unbelievably excited when a third-line guy who never scores would score. He’d be high-fiving coaches on the bench saying, ‘Did you just see that?’” McLellan said. “And then the hugs in the dressing room after, they were sincere.”

Tie may have coached Max with the Flyers but Max outgrew his father’s presence from a young age. Watching the game at the highest level up close as a child instilled confidence in Max that has never left him. He was gifted with offensive instincts. Perhaps the most important attribute he developed as a child was his ability to play a different game than his father.

“The only thing that (Tie and Max) have in common,” McLellan said, “is a last name and a passion to play.”

In the OHL, Domi was truly challenged. Originally drafted by the Kingston Frontenacs, Domi wanted to work his way through major junior on his own terms. His rights were traded to the London Knights. When Domi arrived in London to play for the esteemed Knights program, the coaching staff had preconceived notions about him.

“We expected a little bit more ego,” Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter said, “but he was brought up in the right way.”

The expectations to contribute and win were greater than what Domi had previously faced, especially given his hopes to play for the junior team of his choice. This was coupled with the expectations that come with being the son of a famed NHL player. Hunter has seen young players with fathers from the NHL before and understands what comes with a highly recognizable name.

“Sometimes it can be a burden. It can be a weight,” Hunter said.

But Domi realized he could rise to the occasion in London. Ahead of big games, Hunter remembers Domi becoming even more bubbly around his teammates. His attitude put a pin in the ballooning pressure and he carved out his own name for himself as his playmaking skills became his calling card. Domi finished third in OHL rookie scoring and then further elevated his game when it mattered, finishing second in playoff scoring among rookies.

After being drafted 12th in the 2013 NHL Draft, Domi arrived in Arizona eager for his next step. Jordan Martinook was also a rookie on the Coyotes and can’t help but smile when looking back on their debut seasons together.

Martinook may be one of the more gregarious personalities in the NHL now. But in 2015-16, he was far more reserved, like most NHL rookies.

Except for Domi.

“(Domi) played with swagger. And that makes sense: He dresses good, he always had nice stuff,” Martinook said. “He had the sickest house on our team when he was a rookie.”

As a 20-year-old, Domi backed up that flair with his play on the ice. Domi finished second on the team in scoring and third among all NHL rookies.

“Coming in, in Arizona,” Martinook said, “(Domi) had to be the guy on our team.”

As Domi moved throughout six NHL teams, including a two-season stint with the Montreal Canadiens, before arriving in Toronto, he learned how seasons are wrought with ups and downs. Demands mounts. Bodies break down. Faces grow long.

And so to continue to be “the guy,” Domi grew more and more comfortable showcasing the person he was at a young age: Always eager to put a smile on people’s faces.

Few Leafs are as recognizable as Domi, in part because of his father’s history in Toronto. It’s not uncommon for arena staffers to stop and ask Domi when his father will next attend a game. Nor is it uncommon for Domi to raise the spirits of teammates with his smile.

“Whether I’m groggy or whatever it is, I see (Domi) and it puts a smile on my face,” Jake McCabe, who also played with Domi in Chicago, said. “He knows everybody, everybody knows him. But he shows up every single day with the same demeanour. That good attitude, it’s contagious.”

Matthew Knies shakes his head when he thinks about Domi bouncing around the locker room, shrugging off any concerns and then noting him posting on social media freely without worry about how he’ll be perceived.

“(Domi) just feels like it’s a privilege to be here,” Knies said.

Domi has showcased his lighthearted personality through social media in a way many teammates haven’t. He serenaded teammate and friend Tyler Bertuzzi on his birthday on Instagram. He’s tweeted cheekily about travelling Leafs fans in Buffalo.

“He’s a great fit for the market here,” Ryan Reaves said. “Take a look at his Instagram, he’s always got something going on. (Domi) has a good personality that you can market easily. He’s such a lovable guy with that smile.”

When the Leafs have needed a much-needed physical edge, Domi has brought it. Plus, his 36 5-on-5 assists this season was sixth in the NHL. And he’s produced with one of the lowest ATOIs of his career. His 2.23 5-on-5 assists per 60 minutes were second only to Connor McDavid, per NaturalStatTrick.

His two single-best seasons in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes have come in arguably the two most demanding hockey markets: Montreal and Toronto.

“When the spotlight is on and the pressure is on, that’s when you can find out if you can play in certain situations,” Domi said. “I’ve always been able to find my best hockey at that time.”

The Leafs will need him to do that in the playoffs. Domi has ascended to a first-line role late in the season, indicative of his ability to weather the storms around him.

Those storms could gather momentum should the Leafs get behind in a playoff series as they did last season.

But if they do, Domi’s teammates can count on two things: Domi doing his best off the ice to deflate the pressure around them, and trying to raise his play on the ice.

These are playoff games that he has been waiting his whole life for.

“It’s an opportunity that I’m not going to take lightly.”

(Top photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

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