On the ice, the talent of Colorado Avalanche rookie defenseman Cale Makar really speaks for itself. With just half a season’s worth of NHL games under his belt, so far all signs point to Makar being an elite defenseman in this league for years to come, and he has all the qualities that one would come to expect of a future Norris Trophy winner.
It’s uncommon for a 20-year-old rookie to jump right in the league and make such an immediate impact — especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, no less. But that’s exactly what Makar did in Game 3 of the 2019 playoffs. In just under 72 hours, the Avs first-round selection (fourth-overall, 2017) went from accepting the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, to playing in the NCAA National Championship game with the UMass Minutemen, to scoring his first NHL goal in his debut.
If you ask Makar’s former college mates or coaches, they’ll tell you they’re not surprised in the slightest at how quickly their former star defenseman was able to figure out the NHL and then proceed to take it by storm.
“I’m not shocked at all, I don’t think any of us were shocked when he left after the National Championship and went straight to Game 3 in Calgary. I don’t think any of us were shocked, we were watching and we were really pumped,” said Marc Del Gaizo, Makar’s former D partner at UMass. “We didn’t really expect anything less, he’s an unbelievable player and a generational talent.”
“No not all, he’s just that kind of player,” added UMass’ Oliver Chau of not being surprised by Makar’s quick takeoff. “You see a player like him maybe once every 10 years. He’s just dynamic with the puck and with his skating. I saw him fitting in (the NHL) right away and then obviously what he did in the playoffs coming right from (UMass) and I knew he would be able to just slide right in.”
While Makar may already look like a veteran who’s played half a decade in the National League, the Avs top defenseman has barely played half a season. The league — and the world — are starting to learn more and more about this kid, who has become the frontrunner to be the league’s next Calder Trophy winner. He’s a quieter guy — and that may just come with the territory of being a rookie — but there are a few other things his former UMass Minutemen teammates and coaches want you to know about him.
“There aren’t a lot of him out there,” said Minutemen associate coach Ben Barr. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing what he’s doing. It really doesn’t. Just being around him for a couple years, it really doesn’t. Just watching how he did his work and how serious he was. He doesn’t get overwhelmed by stuff and obviously right now he’s on the biggest stage.
“We were just out there (in Denver) last weekend and we get on the tram and he’s on the PA speaker in the airport. None of that stuff gets to him and it doesn’t affect him. That’s just the kind of person and player he is.”
Barr coaches the defenseman at UMass and also serves as the recruiting coordinator, although he says he did not have a hand in recruiting Makar to the university, it was actually the program’s previous staff that deserves that credit.
John Michaletto had served as the head coach of the Minutemen from 2012-16, and he and his staff are the ones responsible for recruiting Makar to the university. But after a 39-88-13 record during Micheletto’s tenure behind the bench, he was relieved of his duties before his future Hobey Baker winner enrolled in his first classes.
In a situation like that, almost every player would decommit, given that they’re agreeing to play for the coach that recruited them when they sign their letters of intent. That said, when the coach leaves, nine times out of ten, their commits will follow suit.
Makar, however, did not. He made a commitment and he was going to stick to it. Coach Barr shared this anecdote that he says really “speaks volumes” to who Makar is as a person.
“The crazy thing is that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that he was committed to UMass before any of us were here…He was committed here and the staff got let go. I think out of the 999 out of 1,000 kids in his situation would not have stayed committed to UMass,” said Barr. “We won five games the first year we were here and it was a new staff that hadn’t recruited him and all that kind of stuff.
“I think that kind of tells you a lot about the kind of person he is, where he wanted to take the challenge on. When he got here the team had been in last place in the Hockey East for the last four or five years in a row, and this is the No. 4 draft pick that could go anywhere he wanted. I mean, pretty impressive...To me, that’s probably the one thing that people don’t realize about him and that speaks volumes to him.”
Barr adds Makar never let anything get to him and he took everything in stride, including his decision to forgo his Olympics invite to instead help UMass during his freshman season.
“He plays in the World Juniors that first year and he gets asked to play in the Olympics and he decides not to go to the Olympics because he felt responsible and didn’t want to miss more of our team’s games,” Barr said. “I mean, who decides to not go to the Olympics? And then he decided to come back (for his sophomore year).
“There’s not a lot of top-five draft picks that make it to the college game...but very rarely do they stay for more than a year. But he comes back for his second year. It was all part of his plan.”
Perhaps Makar knew he’d get more opportunities to attend the Olympic Games in the future. But either way, that’s never a guarantee, and to pass up on an opportunity like that because he put his college team first says everything you need to know about what kind of teammate Makar was and currently is.
“He said he was going to do all this stuff that he did before he even got here because he knew that was best for him. And now look what happened,” added Barr. “He was right about all the stuff...He took a lot of heat for not playing for the Canadian Olympic team his freshman year — like, a lot of heat. It never bothered him. That’s what his plan was, he wanted to play for the World Junior team, win a gold medal and he didn’t feel it was right to go play in the Olympics right after that and miss half his team’s season. That takes a really special person.”
On the ice, Makar was a “coach’s dream,” says Barr. And off the ice, he was a good friend to many of his teammates.
Del Gaizo, Makar’s former defense partner, spent plenty of time with his teammate on and off the ice. The two still Snapchat and talk everyday, he says. Like coach Barr, Del Gaizo said Makar is a very down-to-earth guy.
“We would hang out a pretty good amount. He lived right across the hall from me,” said Del Gaizo. “My first impression of him was that he was really humble and it was never really about him, it was always about the team. He was always really good to me, he was one of my mentors. From Day One he was always really good to me and he’s just a good kid.”
Oliver Chau and Makar go back to their days playing for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He says it’s been a “pleasure” just seeing Makar’s improvement from their Brooks days to UMass and now to the NHL.
“He’s one of my really good friends,” Chau said of Makar. “Just seeing his growth — he’s always been a great player — but just seeing his growth from when I first met him, he wasn’t as highly-touted as he is now, into just seeing where he’s progressed to where he is now. It’s just awesome...He kept getting better every year. I know his freshman year, he himself wasn’t too pleased with it. He thought he could have contributed more and that just motivated him and then he had that Hobey Baker-winning season.”
Makar’s teammates know him best having spent all of that time together on and off the ice. They were kind enough to share a few fun closing anecdotes.
Living across the hall from Makar, Del Gaizo said the two had a weekly routine they’d do before the games on the weekend. The two would play NHL or Madden every Thursday to rest and prepare mentally.
“It’d get pretty competitive,” Del Gaizo said. “If you ask Cale, I took most of the games. I didn’t lose very much.”
His D-partner also said Makar was a creature of habit and would always have the same thing while they were playing.
“He would always have a smoothie the night before the game,” he remembered. “Every Thursday night he’d play Xbox and then have a smoothie after. Every single Thursday.”
And while the world is embracing the pun-fueled “kale” smoothie trend, Del Gaizo said Makar preferred a different kind of blended beverage.
“It wasn’t a kale smoothie, it was just anything in the freezer — strawberry, banana, or whatever,” he added.
He also adds that his former teammate was obsessed with one particular meal option at Berkshire, Makar’s favorite dining hall at UMass.
“He’d have stir fry every single day, for lunch and dinner. He even tried to get the recipe from UMass dining for his own use in his apartment,” he laughed.
No luck, though, he said.
While Makar was more social and liked to kickback with friends during the week, on game days, however, Chau says it was the exact opposite.
“He’s more of a quiet guy, especially on game days he kind of likes to do his own thing,” Chau said.
And while most players partake in a friendly pre-game match of “two-touch,” — a warm-up competition that has the team gather in a circle and keep a soccer ball in the air using a max of just two touches per player — Makar would not.
“I don’t know if it’s changed but I know on game days he wouldn’t let himself touch the soccer ball,” Chau shared. “So even if it rolled to his feet he won’t touch it and someone else would have to go over and get it from him...on practice days he loves it, but just not on game days.”
Much is expected of fourth-overall NHL draft picks. For the most part, however, it still takes years to become the caliber of player that earns that prestigious top-five selection. For Cale Makar, it took no time at all, as the Avalanche are finding out now. But if you ask his former college teammates and coaches, they knew this was coming.
“That was Cale,” Del Gaizo finished. “...That’s why he’s a Calder Trophy candidate now, and someday he’s going to be a Norris Trophy candidate.”