Max Domi still has the picture. A couple copies, in fact. One is displayed in his office. Another is framed near the entrance to his bedroom. “At the time I was like, ‘Why do we have to do this? It’s so weird,’” the 24-year-old Canadiens center says. “Now I look back and it’s the coolest picture that I own.”
He was only 10 or 11 then, a standout member in the Toronto Marlboros youth program, if not for his minor hockey acumen than certainly for his familiar NHL surname. Come to think of it, the whole photo thing was dad’s idea. Recognizing how much Max especially admired one of his Maple Leafs teammates, Tie Domi arranged for them to pose at the center dot inside Toronto’s Air Canada Center, both wearing their blue-and-white No. 13 jerseys while pretending to take a faceoff.
“Obviously we meant a lot to each other,” Max Domi says. “My whole life was geared towards, I want to be like Mats Sundin.”
Mats Sundin has a different picture, albeit with a similar spirit. It was taken after one of their semi-regular skating sessions, when young Max would wait until Toronto finished practice and then hop onto the ice for a few twirls. Wearing game jerseys and full gear, the Maple Leafs captain and Max are captured leaning against a net. Sundin has a small memorabilia room at his house in Sweden. He treasures the copy that is there. “Really special,” says Sundin.
Plenty of current players hail from NHL bloodlines: Tkachuk and DeBrusk, Nylander and Foligno, the list goes on. But how many of those second-generation skaters also became legit friends with a Hall-of-Fame legend who once played alongside their kin? “Everyone’s like, how was it being your dad’s son?” says Max Domi, now enjoying a breakout season in Montreal with a team-leading and career-high 69 points. “The best part of it was the connections he had.”
To wit, once Max played mini-sticks in the basement of the family’s Mississauga home with Bret “Hitman” Hart. But there were other perks too. Like the bubble hockey table at Air Canada Center. And the little jar of paraffin wax, in which Max loved sticking his hands to soften them while the real Maple Leafs were receiving medical treatment. “I would jump in the hot tub, cold tub, legit do everything like the other players,” he says. “That was cool.”
More often than not, though, he just paid attention to Sundin. “So many little memories, even just coming to the rink and sitting next to him in his stall and talking about stuff was pretty special,” Max says. “I looked up to him, on and off the ice. How hard he played every shift, how much he sacrificed, his ability to make everyone around him better were things I admire and would love to even take a fraction of too. He’s an uncle, a godfather to me. He’s a big part of my life.”
Whether because Sundin and Tie were close friends, or because the rock-solid center simply took a shine to the wide-eyed kid with the waxy mitts, their relationship was strong from the start. “Genuinely trying to engage in a conversation with me,” Domi says. “He cared.” Sundin fondly recalls whacking around a tape ball with Domi on the floor of the Maple Leafs locker room, using two spare gloves as goalposts.
“For him, it was something very natural to be in an NHL dressing room and on the ice,” Sundin says. “I think that gave him a mental edge as he grow older, that there’s nothing to be nervous about.”
Clearly Domi has settled down in Montreal, ranking second among forwards in average ice time (17:20) and first overall with 42 assists through Thursday's 6–2 loss to Columbus, which dropped the Canadiens into a tie with the Blue Jackets for the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot. This followed a change-of-scenery trade from Arizona, where Domi had spent three uneven seasons after going No. 13 overall in ‘13. Staring down the opportunity of his career with an Original Six franchise, Domi reached to Sundin for help.
One day last summer, he and trainer Mark McCoy—a former Olympic hurdler whom Domi came to know through Tie—met Sundin in downtown Toronto for brunch. They discussed ways of strengthening Domi’s “engine,” as Sundin put it, so Domi could develop the stamina required to handle 17 to 22 minutes at center every night. “It’s the hardest position,” Sundin says. “You have to be one of the fittest guys on the team.” Over the meal, Sundin handed a piece of paper with his personal conditioning program. McCoy agreed to implement some of the exercises.
And so it was, every week, that Domi and McCoy headed to the track and performed what came to be known as the Mats Workout: run 500 meters, rest for 90 seconds, 1,000m, two minutes, 500m, 90 seconds, 1,000m, two minutes, 500m, done. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s tough,” says Domi, a notion reinforced whenever Sundin relayed the times that he had been recording in Sweden … which were usually faster.
“He definitely comes across like family,” McCoy says of Sundin. “He’d text Max all the time, give him words of support. It’s probably one of the most important parts of the puzzle. Max respects him so much, because he’s been there, he’s done it, he knows what it takes.”
And because Domi saw it. “One of the coolest things about him: After games my dad was pretty slow, so I had a chance to rip around while the guys finished their workouts,” Domi says. “I’d walk in the gym and he’d be there, absolutely drenched with pouring sweat, and he’s just bagging himself on a bike or doing a lift. Nowadays when he tells me to grind through workouts, even if you feel tired or you want to rest, it instantly resonates with my childhood.”
Sundin remains a resource during the season, but mostly they just communicate as friends; Domi talks about the time Sundin sent video from a Swedish House Mafia concert in Swedin, knowing that Domi was a big fan. Even so, Sundin doesn’t hide his pride for the progress that Domi has made this season, leading the playoff push in the bleu, blanc et rouge. “He’s really followed up on what he set out to do this summer,” Sundin says. “He’s a totally different player. You can tell he’s more confident, he’s skating, he’s becoming the star player I think we’ve known he can be.”
Perhaps the jersey has something to do with it. Domi wore No. 16 with the Coyotes, an homage to fellow Type 1 diabetic Bobby Clarke. But after Arizona swapped him for Alex Galchenyuk on June 15, he chose No. 13 as a way of honoring Sundin. “We’ve known each other for a long time, and we have this friendship, and it’s great to see someone wear that number because he looked up to me,” Sundin says. “Of course it makes me happy.”
Habs fans hardly needed long to feel the same way about Domi, whose genetic pugnacity was quickly unveiled in his exhibition debut with two left jabs, a right cross and a suspension. The hot start continued into the regular season; he had already registered six points in seven games entering Oct. 23, when Sundin and Tie watched Max dish a pair of secondary helpers in a 3–2 win over Calgary at Bell Centre.
Later, the trio met up outside the Canadiens locker room. Sundin wrapped a right arm around Max, and they smiled for another picture.