When former UMass hockey head coach John Micheletto was fired back in March of 2016, sophomore defenseman Cale Makar didn’t bat an eye.
Playing in Alberta for the Brooks Bandits at the time and already committed to the Minutemen for the 2017-18 season, Makar, drafted 4th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, decided to play the waiting game instead of jumping ship immediately while a search was underway for a new leader.
“I think when that whole coaching change happened, I just wanted to stay loyal because I knew that they were gonna get someone good here and I just wanted to wait,” Makar said. “I knew there were other schools that called my (Brooks) coach but I didn’t talk to any.”
Luckily for UMass, Athletic Director Ryan Bamford made the right call in hiring Greg Carvel, who brought in assistants Jared DeMichiel and Ben Barr to round out his coaching staff.
This proved to be the final reassurance Makar needed to stay true to his initial commitment.
“The day that Carvel was hired here, along with Jared and Ben, they gave me a call right away and we talked and I loved it from the first time I met the guys,” Makar said.
Fast forward to this season, and the duo of Carvel behind the bench and Makar out on the ice have gotten the Minutemen, who are 5-1 and ranked 11th in this week’s USCHO polls, off to a flying start.
“I think we’ve just been consistent,” Makar said. “We’ve been playing to our strengths so far and been able to exploit teams in some of their weaknesses, which comes with being prepared for every game.
“Obviously it’s really early in the season and at the end of the day we still have a long ways to go but I’m happy with how we’ve started and where we’re at right now.”
Highlighted by two sweeps over Merrimack and Rensselaer and a split with Ohio State (the top team in the nation at the time), UMass has gone from being an unranked team to a program inches away from cracking the top 10.
Despite the national recognition they’re receiving, Makar and Co. are taking a modest approach to the team’s early success.
“I don’t think we embrace (the rankings) too much,” he said. “It’s really early in the season so far, obviously 11 is alright at the end of the day but we’ve only played six games and it’s not a telltale of how our season’s gonna go.”
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the Minutemen’s hot start this year is the play of their special teams. Through its first six games, UMass has converted 37.04% of its opportunities on the man advantage, which is good for tops in the nation (Harvard and Dartmouth have a higher percentage, but each team has only played one game). Meanwhile, the Minutemen also rank inside the top 10 of penalty kill percentage, killing off 89.66% of opponents’ power plays.
Makar attributes the special teams play to simple execution.
“We worked on both a lot before the season,” he said. “Obviously special teams are areas where you can steal games from your opponents and I think just on the power play we’ve been executing our systems and been able to retrieve pucks very well.”
He added: “We like to move it around very quickly in the offensive zone and at the same time we have to be diligent in the way we move it as well. I think we’ve been doing a good job.”
With three goals and eight assists, Makar’s 11 points are tied for second-most in the country, four of which came in an opening night 6-1 victory over the Engineers. The Calgary native credited his hot start to those around him.
“This year, things are just clicking, whether it’s me getting a few lucky opportunities to put the puck on net or just having guys on our team that are able to finish,” Makar said. “I give all the credit to my teammates right now just because they’ve been able to put the puck in the back of the net and obviously give me those points for the first six games.”
This past offseason, however, fans of UMass were unsure if they would ever see Makar skate out onto the Mullins Center ice again.
As a top draft selection, the general consensus was that the star freshman blue liner would follow in the footsteps of former Minuteman and current Anaheim Duck Brandon Montour and hightail his way out of Amherst after one season.
To much delight, though, Makar had always been leaning towards coming back for one more season.
“I think it’s always been in the back of my mind to have two years of college. For me, I really wanna be prepared in every aspect of my game to be able to make the move to the next level,” he said. “I just felt that there were a few aspects of my game that I needed to work on at this level a little bit more and there are a few things I wanted to finish up. I felt that it was a great call for me to come back and develop one more year and we’ll see where this year takes us.”
Up next for UMass and Makar is a one-game weekend on the road against University of New Hampshire, a place that hasn’t been kind to the Minutemen.
For Makar, it’s all about keeping their foot on the gas and never being satisfied.
“The way that I look at it now is we’ve played three teams in the country, so we really don’t know how we compare with all those other teams,” he said. “We can never take a day off and I think that’s where our heads are at right now and the day that we do get complacent is the day that we start falling down.”