When NHL legend Bobby Clarke walked into the dressing room of a team competing in a junior hockey tournament near Toronto a few years ago, the players were awestruck. But his pre-game talk meant more to young Max Domi than it did to his teammates.

Like Clarke, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987, Domi has type 1 diabetes, a serious disease in which your blood sugar can soar to dangerous highs and lows because the pancreas in unable to produce insulin, which is needed to regulate sugar levels in the body.

“If you think of yourself as a diabetic who plays hockey, you can use your illness to explain away a bad game. I never wanted to have that excuse.”

Achieving greatness

“I think it’s amazing that he accomplished all he did,” Domi says of the two-time Stanley Cup winner. “His success made a big impact on me.” Domi now wears No. 16 on the ice, just as Clarke did. “He’s a huge role model for me on and off the ice.”

The 20-year-old seems to be following in his idol’s footsteps. In the eight years since Domi was diagnosed with the disease, he has been managing it not just well, but well enough to establish himself as one of the best junior hockey players in Canada. He was selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL draft, and is expected to be one of the league’s top rookies.

In addition to following a strict diet and exercise regimen, Domi uses cutting edge technology to manage his disease. He wears an insulin pump throughout the day, even when he is playing hockey. The pump is customized to the different insulin rates that he needs on an off the ice.

Modern pumps also have an optional continuous glucose monitor known as "CGM," that collects readings every few minutes and can assist you in finding better ways to manage your condition. This technology is an important step towards development of a fully "artificial pancreas", that could be realized in the near future.

“I use the Medtronic MiniMed pump because it’s the best one out there, in my opinion,” he adds, “and I use the CONTOUR® NEXT LINK to monitor my blood. It doesn’t get much better than those two.”

Domi has to go to great lengths to stay healthy, but he doesn’t view that obligation as something to be endured. He views it as something to be embraced. “Dealing with adversity has made me a stronger person and a better athlete,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in that.”

Domi feels especially lucky when he compares his junior hockey experience to that of his hero. When Clarke started his junior career in 1966, he didn’t have access to the sophisticated devices that now play an integral role in Domi’s life.

Clarke managed his disease by maintaining a careful balance of diet, exercise and daily insulin injections, but it could be tricky. It was difficult to monitor glucose levels at the time — urine tests were used — so when he grew weak during a game he often couldn’t tell if it was high blood sugar, low blood sugar or just plain fatigue.

Clarke persevered and became one of the best junior players in the country, but NHL teams were hesitant to take a chance on him because of his illness. He wasn’t selected until the second round of the 1969 NHL draft.

NHL legend says diabetes ‘won’t limit’ Domi

His detractors ended up with egg in their faces, of course. Clarke went on to become captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and lead the team to back-to-back championships, in 1974 and 1975. He also won a half-dozen individual NHL awards and played for Team Canada in two historic series. He is considered one of the best players in the history of the game.

“I used to say to myself, ‘I’m a hockey player who has diabetes, not a diabetic who plays hockey.’ That is the only way to think about it,” Clarke says today. “If you think of yourself as a diabetic who plays hockey, you can use your illness to explain away a bad game. I never wanted to have that excuse.”

He sees that same toughness in the young man who looks up to him. “I think Max is going to be a really good NHL player,” says Clarke. “He knows what he has to do to keep his diabetes under control,” says Clarke. “It won’t limit him.”

Domi seems up to the task. “I always tell kids who have diabetes that it’s important to have a support network but at the end of the day, it comes down to you,” he says. “[The strength] comes from within. You have to manage your disease. Own it.”