Max Domi, a rookie on the Arizona Coyotes, has a bright future in the NHL.
Domi, who is only 20 years old, has Type 1 Diabetes.
In order to live his normal life and his life as a professional athlete, he has his best friend, Orion to help him out.
Orion is a diabetic-alert dog who can communicate to Domi when his blood sugar is low. Pretty cool!
At the push of a doorbell, Orion fidgets at the entryway until he can greet visitors with a friendly sniff.
“He’s a happy boy,” Domi said. “Doesn’t like to sit still, that’s for sure.”
Domi is in the midst of his first season in the National Hockey League, a highly regarded draft pick of the Coyotes who possesses the skill, speed and spirit the team is seeking to boost it back to the competitive ranks after finishing 29th among 30 teams last season.
Domi isn’t making the transition from junior-hockey standout in Canada to a potential star-in-the-making alone; Orion isn’t the average four-legged pet.
The 2-year-old, 70-pound yellow lab is a diabetic-alert dog offering Domi comfort, confidence and companionship.
“He’s my best buddy,” Domi, 20, said.
It was not a decline in health that motivated Domi to embark on this phase of his life alongside Orion. Instead, he is trying to take advantage of as many resources as possible to make his childhood dream a permanent reality.
“This is going to be huge for me, and it’s helped me a lot since he’s been here,” Domi said. “He’s awesome.”
On skates at the age of 2, Domi seemed destined to become a hockey player.
He grew up in Toronto where his dad, Tie, toiled for the Maple Leafs as an enforcer for the majority of his 16-year NHL career.
After wrapping up a minor-hockey tournament in Detroit when Domi was 12, he and his mom, Leanne, began the drive back to Toronto. But their progress on the highway stalled whenever Domi noticed a convenience store.
“Hey, Mom,” he said, “pull over. I have to go to the bathroom, and I’m really thirsty.”
Leanne watched her son chug a bottle of water in one gulp and knew something was off. By the eighth stop, Domi was puzzled, too.
They visited their family doctor and described what happened during the car ride. The doctor reached for a glucometer and told Domi he would need to go to the hospital.
He had type 1 diabetes.
“When your kid gets diagnosed with something, it’s life-changing,” Leanne said.
Though there isn’t a cure, type 1 diabetes is manageable.
Domi was at the hospital from 7 in the morning to 6 at night every day for a week after his diagnosis to figure out how to cope — learning to count carbohydrates in food to be able to assess how much insulin his body would require.
A year later, he acquired an insulin pump that stores three days’ worth of insulin, and filters it into his back hip.
As Domi continued to play hockey, Leanne worried about his blood sugar dipping when he went to bed after a game. She read about kids suffering such severe lows in the middle of the night that they didn’t wake up.
Leanne kept a close eye on her son. On the nights Domi went to sleep following games, Leanne would slip into his room at 3 a.m. and prick his finger to check his level.
“I kept thinking, ‘How is this kid ever going to move away from home?’ ” Leanne recalled.
About six years ago, she was doing research on the Internet and stumbled upon the concept of an alert dog for diabetics. After talking to a few different organizations, she settled on Canine Hope for Diabetics, a non-profit based in Riverside County in California that has placed 30 service dogs with diabetics since its inception in 2010.
“As a type 1 diabetic trying to be an athlete, it’s not the easiest thing in the world,” Domi said. “I mean it’s definitely not not doable, but to have something like that makes a huge difference and makes everyone around me a lot more comfortable.”
Domi still had to go through an application process that included writing two essays explaining why he needed a service dog and what he and the dog would get out of a potential partnership.
The door of Orion’s gray crate, the one tucked behind the dinner table in the kitchen, is open, which means he is on the clock.
He approaches Domi in the living room and grabs at the bringsel, which looks like a foam roller, attached to Domi’s hip and waits for Domi to notice.
The bringsel is how Orion communicates to Domi that his blood sugar is off and, sure enough, he’s low – 4.3. A normal range would be between 4.7 and 8.
Domi rewards Orion with a peanut-butter treat and a chorus of “good boy” before he swigs a bottle of grape juice to boost his level.
“He’s right 99 percent of the time,” Domi said.
During the night, Orion sleeps on the floor in Domi’s bedroom — when he doesn’t hop up onto the bed — and will wake Domi when, using his keen sense of smell, he notices a shift out of range.
Since Orion is technically still working when Domi is sleeping, Domi carves out time during the day for Orion to spend in his crate to let him rest.
It takes two years for a dog to be ready to be placed with a diabetic.
Year 1 is dedicated to normal obedience lessons, and through his work, Orion earned a slew of titles from the American Kennel Club. During Year 2, he honed his ability to identify low blood sugar.
Saliva gives off a scent and when Domi’s blood sugar is out of his target range, his saliva emits an odor unlike the one produced when the level is normal.
Service dogs for diabetics have gained popularity in the past five years and the acquisition can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000.
When they’re grocery shopping at Fry’s, walking around the Scottsdale Quarter or eating at Kale & Clover Mindful Kitchen, Orion wears a vest with a badge that identifies him as a service dog.
Strangers will stop to compliment his cuteness, but they’re not allowed to pet him.
Domi is eager to share the impact Orion has had on his life and the belief that a diagnosis like type 1 diabetes shouldn’t squash dreams.
Domi appears on TV commercials in Canada, a face of Bayer’s diabetes-care campaign. With every video share online, Bayer makes a $1 donation to diabetes research. Even actor Mark Wahlberg, – family friend of the Domis, posted the link on social media.
Domi’s already been asked by some Coyotes personnel if he’d be open to being a resource for local diabetics in the Valley, and his answer was, “I’ll do absolutely anything.”
For Domi, that ambition is being in the NHL and in only three weeks of action, he’s thrived — ranking among the leading scorers for rookies.
Years of practice, unwavering commitment and probably some natural talent have elevated him to that level.
But the steps he takes off the ice to ensure his health is OK, like the addition of Orion, can only help keep him there.
“You try to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible,” Domi said. “If this is going to make me even healthier, why not? Obviously, the lifestyle I’m trying to live is not easy and not comparable to other diabetics, so I’m trying to do as much as I possibly can to make that not a factor.”