Hockey’s Max Domi: Stickhandling Celiac Disease
Max Domi’s Journey to the NHL has been a story of resolve, talent and team health management. This profile is from Allergic Living’s Winter 2015-16 magazine; to subscribe click here.
When the Arizona Coyotes took to the ice to play the Los Angeles Kings for their season opener in October 2015, Max Domi finally conquered the mountain he’s been climbing since he was 12 years old. He’d achieved his lifelong dream of making the National Hockey League, just like his father, Tie Domi, did 25 years ago with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
On his way to the big time, the younger Domi helped his Ontario Hockey League (OHL) team to two league titles in 2012 and 2013. Then in January 2015, he played a leading role as Team Canada took the gold at the 2015 World Junior Championship in his hometown of Toronto. But his ascent to the top of the hockey world hasn’t been easy.
Eight years ago, Domi, now 20, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It wasn’t all that surprising, given a family history of the disease on his father’s side (though his dad doesn’t have it). But then came the double-whammy four years later, when he tested positive for celiac disease.
“It turned out that my whole esophagus was covered in ulcers and I had no idea,” Domi says. “I was just so used to the whole acid reflux and heartburn feeling that I didn’t really think much of it.” Once on a gluten-free diet, “honestly, it was life-changing how much better I felt and how much more energy I had,” he says. “Everything to do with living a healthy lifestyle just started kicking in, and then my diabetes started improving.”
Domi’s situation isn’t unique. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, prevalence of celiac disease is eight times higher in Type 1 diabetics than in the rest of the population, and 85 percent of people with both diseases get diagnosed with diabetes before discovering they also have celiac disease.
But having these conditions and playing at the NHL level?
That’s practically unheard of. Yet for the aspiring hockey star, these health concerns have been springboards, not obstacles, to playing in the pros. After eight years of dealing with diabetes and four years handling celiac, Domi has everything down to the smallest detail when it comes to managing the two diseases.
Take his unique game-day preparations: Domi starts with a gluten-free pre-game meal of chicken and brown rice. He checks his blood glucose level two to three hours before the game, and then after each period. He prefers to start with his level a bit on the high end (between six and eight millimoles) and takes his test kit with him on the bench.
After every shift, he sips Gatorade — enough to ensure his blood sugar doesn’t drop too low but not so much that he swings too high. If he feels his blood sugar is not in line, he tests himself during the game, but he can count on one hand how many times he’s had to do that. If it’s too low, he has gluten-free snacks and juice (apple or orange) nearby. If it’s too high, he’ll use his insulin pump,” which he either wears on the ice or has at the bench.
“I’ve got it down to a nice little science,” Domi says. “It’s just about being zoned in with your preparation and making sure you do it the same way every time, whether it’s practice or game day or a workout day.”
As with any professional athlete, however, Domi isn’t a one-man show. He’s had a supporting cast working behind the scenes every step of the way as he climbed the ranks to the NHL. The Coyotes, who drafted Domi 12th overall in 2013, have gluten-free meals prepared for him regularly, as did the OHL’s London Knights, where Domi played the past four years.
Still, Domi is the one who directs the show. “Max was very much the captain of the whole thing, and we just supported him in what he wanted to do” says Doug Stacey the trainer-physiotherapist for the OHL Knights. “He probably was pound-for-pound the fittest guy on the team, and he was very good in terms of watching what he ate and his diet — almost preaching to the other guys, like, ‘Hey, if you want to be pro, start thinking and eating like a pro.’”
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For Domi, that includes one of his go-to meals, gluten-free oatmeal. It satisfies his appetite without making him feel too heavy, and being a slow-release carbohydrate, it doesn’t give him a sugar spike. While Domi was with the Knights, Stacey would bring a kettle and packets of gluten-free oatmeal on road trips in case Domi ever needed a quick meal during a long bus ride.
Back in London, Ontario, it was Gail Tooke, who billeted Domi for his four years with the Knights, who cared for his dietary needs. Tooke has a diabetic son, so she knew how to support Domi with that condition. Celiac disease was new to her, but she took her cues from Domi.
Tooke bought everything gluten-free, including pasta, bread, pancake mix and, of course, oatmeal. Lasagna and spaghetti with meatballs were two of Domi’s staple meals, while muffins and yogurt-covered pretzels were his favorite gluten-free treats. She made everything from scratch and prepared it in a separate area to avoid cross-contamination. (Domi had his own toaster.)
Eventually, the Tookes ended up adopting much of Domi’s gluten-free diet because they wanted to gain the benefits of his overall healthy regimen. “I know it isn’t normal for a hard-performing athlete like Max to have both celiac and diabetes, but it really was normal for him,” she says.
“When you grow up with it and into it, you understand you have no choice. Max didn’t want to be treated differently than any of the guys on the team. He never wanted special treatment. He just did what he had to do to become the athlete he is now.”
Domi has never hidden his diabetes. In fact, he wears it proudly. He has a tattoo on his left forearm showing he has Type 1 diabetes, and he wears No. 16 in homage to Bobby Clarke, a fellow diabetic who won two Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s.
Nor has Domi ever run from his celiac disease. He’s as adept at surfing for gluten-free friendly restaurants and scanning labels in grocery stores as he is stickhandling his way around a defenseman or sniping a goal top-shelf past a goalie, just as he did against the L.A. Kings in October. That’s right, he scored his first NHL goal — in his first NHL game. And Domi hasn’t looked back: With about a month left in the 2015-16 season, he ranks second among all rookie scorers with 42 points [Updated Feb. 29/16].
He considered celiac disease “the same way I looked at my diabetes, which was, ‘This could make me a better player, a better person and a more responsible young man,’ ” Domi says.
“If you’re trying to make it to the NHL at a young age, what it comes down to is just trying to be a pro and trying to fast-track that process of becoming that person and that hockey player,” he says. “It’s not easy, but all this little stuff just adds up together to make you the athlete you want to be.”