I was 13 years old at a hockey tournament in Whitby, Ontario, the day I met my hero for the first time.
I remember I was just sitting in the dressing room with my teammates, sorting through my equipment, when I look up and … Wait … that’s Bobby Clarke!
Yes, that Bobby Clarke. Philadelphia Flyers legend. Two-time Stanley Cup winner and three-time Hart Trophy winner. One of the greatest two-way forwards ever. The big man with small man’s skills.
My mom had spotted him near the concession stands prior to the game and decided to approach him because it seemed meant to be. She never did stuff like that usually. But this time was different. This was Bobby Clarke.
That Bobby Clarke. The player I emulated on the ice growing up. The guy who inspires me to wear the number 16 to this very day. The Hall of Fame hockey player who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, just like me.
And my mom told him my story. How I thought it was cool we were both on the Flyers (well, I was on the Don Mills Flyers of the GTHL, and he was on the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL – but close enough). And I guess he and my mom talked enough to convince him to surprise me.
When I spotted him in the locker room, it was an almost surreal moment.
I have to be honest here though, and you’re probably going to shake your head. But if this were right before I was diagnosed, I’m embarrassed to say that I would have had no clue who this guy was. But when I found out I was a diabetic, he immediately became a very important figure in my life. In fact, right after Dr. Strachan, our family doctor, gave me the news, my first question wasn’t about how my diet would change, how to take insulin shots or how it would change my lifestyle. All I wanted to know was, “Can I still play hockey?”
I remember the doctor giving a slight smile and asking, “Do you know Bobby Clarke?”
I shook my head.
“Well, he was a great hockey player and he has diabetes. Of course you can play hockey, Max.”
When he told me that, I remember letting out an audible sigh of relief. Like a calm rushed over me.
I was going to be like Bobby Clarke.
And now, here he was, taking a couple of minutes out his day to encourage me and give me his best wishes. I was in total shock. It meant everything.
Looking at Bobby, I realized there was no reason why I couldn’t achieve my dreams. Why couldn’t I make it to the Show with diabetes? If he was able to do it all those years ago, what was stopping me from doing it now?
I didn’t realize how cool it was at the time. I didn’t realize that growing up around professional hockey players was every Canadian boy’s dream. To me, it was just normal. As a kid, my dad, Tie Domi, would bring me to the rink when he practiced. And that’s where I fell in love with the game.
While my dad was working on the ice, I had to find a way to entertain myself. So I spent much of my childhood goofing around with Scotty McKay, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ head trainer, as well as the rest of the training staff. They were obviously much older than I was, but boys – especially hockey guys – will be boys. Maturity wise, we were all at about the same level.
Some days, I’d climb into one of those big laundry carts they haul around. I can still smell the sweat stuck to the sides of the cart. Behind the locker room at Maple Leaf Gardens, there was a big cement ramp that was at a ridiculous angle.
I bet you know where this is going.
Scotty would get right behind the cart, give one gigantic push, and I’d go absolutely flying. The sides of the hallway were blurs. I had no control over where the cart would go. It was the coolest thing ever. That was until the cart eventually crashed. There was always a crash. But – silver lining! – those crashes probably prepared me for some of the hits I’d eventually take on the ice. And over time, my daredevil runs in the cart sort of became a thing. The guys on the team would come watch me and get a big laugh out of it.
The atmosphere around Toronto during that time was just wild. The Leafs were strong contenders year in and year out, with a deep roster of talented players. It was a fun time to be around the organization. And if you ever flipped on a game, you were sure to find my dad’s gloves on the ice and his fists held up in the air. He compiled the third-most penalty minutes in NHL history. I actually did the math one time and figured out that if you added it all up my dad spent nearly 2½ days in the box during his career.
People always ask me what it was like to watch my dad fight. I don’t really remember too much about it, to be honest. He was just doing his job. And he was apparently doing it really, really well. Even when he brought me to the arena, I’d barely even watched his games. I’d just find a ball and a stick, head to the wives’ room, and deke out imaginary defenders or send a wrister into the buffet line.
As I got older, my love for hockey kept growing. My dad and I were very different players, but I got his passion for the game.
And when you’re raised by a hockey dad like mine, your discipline level goes through the roof. Some games I’d get a hat trick and be so pumped to get back to the car to hear what my dad had to say. And I’d be met with, “You gotta backcheck better,” or, “You gotta pay attention to the little details — you lost your guy here and you turned over the puck there.” I’d be like, “K. Got it. What about the three goals?”
After games, for a good hour or more, depending on the traffic, I would sit and get my ear chomped off. My dad’s the most honest person you’ll ever meet. He gave it to me straight. And I listened and got better, which is a lot better than just celebrating all the goals I scored. And on top of that, my mom was just as into the game as he was. She’s just as big of a reason, if not more of a reason, that I’ve made it to where I am today. I didn’t always get it at the time, but their mindset and attention to detail — tagged along with my rigid diabetic schedule — really set me up well for success.
I got to know Drew Doughty after playing four years for the London Knights. He’s from London and practiced there during the lockout. But it wasn’t until I made it to the NHL that I learned just how different it is to practice with a guy like Drew as it is to play.
I’m in Los Angeles. The Staples Center. It’s my first NHL game. The place is massive. I was nervous as hell, but coach put me out there for 19 shifts. That was good because I got into the flow of the game, but it was also bad because I started forechecking Doughty. He literally just looked at me. I’ll never forget that glare – kind of similar to my mom’s when I was acting up as a kid – like, What are you doing?
It all happened so fast.
I lunged at him, he went around me and skated up the ice. I looked so stupid. I heard about that one in our video session the next day. Doughty is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, so I couldn’t have gotten a much more fitting introduction to the game at this level.
But, slowly but surely, I’m learning. Oh, there are mistakes. Plenty of them. But I try to take a new lesson from each game and more and more things start slowing down. And when I’m not battling some of the biggest superstars on the ice, I still have to grapple with my diabetes.
In general, people think being diagnosed with diabetes means swapping butter tarts and cookies for healthy (aka not fun) alternatives. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, particularly for Type 1 diabetics like myself. My blood sugar is affected by many other things other than my food intake, including exercise, stress, an illness and hormones, just to name a few. So in addition to carefully monitoring my food intake, I have to monitor my blood sugar constantly throughout the day to stay level.
What’s that like? Let me give you a rundown daily schedule:
Pretty much every day, Orion will wake me up in the morning. He’s my service dog and he can sense when my blood sugar gets out of range. He’s probably better at his job than I am at mine. I’ll feed him, take him outside, and then get some food for myself. If my blood sugar is a little low, I’ll eat a bit more. I’ll adjust my insulin pump for my breakfast and then test myself one more time before I leave the house.
I’ll get to the rink, tape my stick, test myself one more time and then start getting dressed. Depending on what the previous test tells me, I’ll test myself again before I get on the ice. Every 20-25 minutes during practice, I’ll test depending on what the trainers say. Those guys make my life easier.
Right after practice, I’ll hang out and eat at the rink, then go home, take a nap with the dog and then test myself one more time when I wake up. Then I’ll get some dinner, hang out and then test myself once more before I get to bed.
If that sounds crazy, this is what I do on game days:
On days when we have a game, I’m just trying to make sure I’m not out of range because that’s when I’m at my best. It’s tough to describe being out of range, but as soon as I feel it, I’ll be able to tell you. Getting a high number, you get pretty irritable (just ask my teammates). Tons of mood swings. You get tired real quick. When you’re on the ice during a high, it’s almost like bag skating after every 25-second shift. Then going low, you get a little loopy – you’re just not as sharp. You do not want to be loopy when you’re trying to avoid guys who want to run you over. Keeping everything in check isn’t easy by any means, but there are a bunch of measures that the staff and I take to make it easier to deal with.
Before a game, I’ll test a couple of times.
Then halfway through the first period, and after the first period.
Then halfway through the second period, and after the second period.
Then halfway through the third period, and after the third period.
Don’t ask if the game goes into overtime.
But that right there is like seven or eight times throughout a game. Game day is huge, because you can’t get out of range at all.
Writing it all out, it looks kind of nuts. But now? It’s just like every other player on a game day. It’s just routine.
After almost every game I played in London when I was in juniors, there’d be a group of kids waiting for me. Some of them would have notepads to scribble on. Others might just be leaning against their parents because they were a little nervous. But all of them would have some question about hockey or diabetes.
I’d meet with them, and stick around to find out their stories. I’d ask them what about having the disease made them worry the most. I’d tell them that I had the same fears when I was their age. And I’d tell them that having diabetes ultimately made me a better hockey player, because it instilled a discipline in me at a young age that not many people develop.
Then I’d tell them that there is going to be adversity in their lives, whether it’s as a result of being diagnosed with diabetes or something else that pops up unexpectedly. But what happens to you isn’t as important as how you react to it. Bobby Clarke helped me figure that out when I needed it, and now I’m honored to pass along his message whenever I can.
In one way or another, by the end of the night, the kids and I would touch each others’ lives. They’d leave the arena knowing how I made it here, and I’d leave with a reminder of how far I’ve come.