On the ice, Blackhawks forward Max Domi plays like there’s a fire brewing beneath him.
He’s always ready to erupt in celebration after a goal. He is also always ready to burst into a rage if an opponent irritates him. In fact, there’s rarely a quiet moment during his shifts.
“That’s just Max,” Hawks coach Luke Richardson said recently. “He takes matters into his own hands. He’s a physical guy, an emotional guy [and] I can tell when he’s upset and he implements it in his game. He adds this extra gear.”
But once Domi drives home to his self-proclaimed “full zoo” of pets, his emotional personality manifests in a very different way. There is no more devoted animal lover among the Hawks.
“I try to live every day like it’s your last,” Domi said. “But everyone is going to go through tough times, whether it’s with your work, your relationships, or your family, or you’ve been cut off on the freeway. But when you walk back to the front door and see your dog, all that stuff means nothing.
“I am a big advocate of a dog. You are like a person who unfortunately does not speak. But it’s almost as if you could have a conversation with them. The connection between dog and human is incredible.”
Since his 2015-16 NHL rookie season with the Coyotes, Domi hasn’t gone anywhere without his beloved yellow Lab, Orion. Last year Domi added a Bengal cat, Leo, to his family. And Domi’s friend Estelle had a rabbit that died last week; Domi dedicated his winning goal against the Red Wings to him.
The son of legendary NHL enforcer Tie Domi, Domi grew up surrounded by many dogs in Canada. But after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12, he needed a special dog – and so he found Orion, who had been specially trained for diabetics by an organization in California.
“I would take cotton swabs from my mouth if [my blood sugar] low or high,” explained Domi. “It gives off different smells for dogs; It’s totally different if it’s low range or high range. He’s been trained from puppyhood to find that smell again after he’s done all his obedience stuff. He would know something was wrong. If he got that smell he would do something to warn me or whoever [was around].”
For a long time, Domi didn’t like the idea of having “too much equipment” on his body, finding it bulky and uncomfortable under his hockey gear. That meant he really needed Orion to keep an eye on him at all times – or more accurately, a nose. His health depended on it.
When Domi’s glucose levels deviated from the normal range, Orion would grab a dog toy-like reel attached to Domi’s belt called Bringsel to notify him. If Domi was sleeping or not noticing, Orion would improve things a bit by barking or jumping on him. In Domi’s first few NHL seasons, which he admits were “overwhelming” at times, having a literal minder was an invaluable resource.
“If I was at a dinner, at a movie theater, on a plane, wherever it may have been, and he was with me, he would warn me,” he said. “I would know I was low and I could treat it before I got into a bigger situation. What he could do was fascinating.”
Three years ago, he finally gave in to technological advances and started wearing a continuous glucose monitoring device — a Dexcom G6 — on his triceps. He also wears an insulin pump on his buttocks, and both devices stay on even during the game. Domi has encountered complications in the game before.
“You’re going to have to go through something every day,” he said. “You just have to take the punches as they go. You establish a good routine over the years: if that happens, I’ll do it, [or] if that happens, i will. There are many times when you have to fight your way through not feeling so hot. It makes you pretty strong mentally. It’s something that has definitely made me who I am.”
The decision to wear the Dexcom changed his life, he said, and made Orion less important for health purposes.
But it certainly hasn’t made Orion any less important, for their bond is based on far more than a logistical necessity.
“If he knows you better than anyone, that’s a pretty spectacular connection,” Domi said. “I love him more than anything else on the planet.”
Domi has bounced around far more than most 27-year-old forwards in the league, stopping in Arizona, Montreal, Columbus and Carolina before landing in Chicago this summer, and Orion has gone everywhere with him.
Given the Hawks’ rebuilding plans and Domi’s one-year deal, they’re a good bet to move back before the March close. In the meantime, Domi has clicked straight away with the Hawks and scored seven points (including four goals) in his first seven games.
Back home, Orion was joined by Leo in spring 2021 after Domi — who had previously “never been involved with cats at all” — realized he loved her, too, thanks to a chance encounter while on a Caribbean vacation in the Turks and Caicos.
“We stayed at this beautiful resort and this cat was just a part of the resort in the lobby,” Domi explained. “He kept coming back to me throughout the trip. And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m the cat whisperer! That’s pretty cool. This cat is fantastic.”
“I joked about it [Estelle] like, ‘Hey, I could get a cat.’ She said, ‘No, you’re not.’ And sure enough, there was a knock on the door and my cat appeared. I love him as much as I love my dog.”
And that says a lot, because Domi loves his dog.
“It’s amazing how smart dogs are and I think my dog is the smartest dog out there,” he said with a grin. “I’m not biased at all.”