There are college hockey stars, and then there is UMass sophomore defenseman Cale Makar. Rink verbiage doesn’t quite do the man justice. “Stud,” “special player,” “sick”—none of these terms captures his essence. Sometimes you have to get to the rink and apply the eye test. Joe Bertagna is not only the commissioner of Hockey East, but a writer, historian and sage of college hockey. His take on Makar might be the most telling.
“I often observe that women’s hockey is more like the men’s hockey of my era, where there was a visible gap between the best players and the pack,” said Bertagna, who was a star goalie for Harvard in the early 1970s. “At most men’s games I attend, I have to work hard to identify the best players, the special players. Not when I watch UMass. Makar reminds me of the old days when the stars stood out. He is different from the rest.”
If you start with the premise that Makar is in a class by himself, then his accomplishments all fall in line: he’s a defenseman with 30 points in 25 games; he has powered UMass to its startling transformation from Hockey East doormat to dominant front-runner; during his extended Christmas break as a freshman, he returned to Amherst with a World Junior gold medal and All-World status. Now in his second, and by all projections, final season of college hockey, he has figured things out, to the woe of his opponents.
“Last year was a big learning curve for me,” said Makar after Tuesday’s practice. “Just being able to find that consistency throughout the year was a struggle. I think it’s been a lot different this year.”
That’s a massive understatement, if you ask any of the 3,000 fans who attended the BU-UMass game at Agganis Arena last Friday. Makar was a blur all game long, hounding the puck, setting up goals and stapling unsuspecting Terriers to the boards.
Cale Makar is very good at hockey. pic.twitter.com/FkooOtTGeQ— Mike Grinnell (@MikeGrinnell_) February 2, 2019
“In a game that had three first-round draft picks for BU, he was the guy who jumped off the page,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “He is an explosive skater, he plays with an edge, he’s so quick and skilled. He absolutely should be the Hobey Baker winner, he’s the most dominant player.”
Carvel’s bias notwithstanding, it’s a foregone conclusion that Makar will be a Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist, but unless UMass is in the Frozen Four, he’ll have already bolted college for the next level, playing for the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him fourth overall in 2017. “He’s too good,” said Carvel with resignation. “He needs to move on, that’s the way it should be.”
Trying to get Makar to project about anything other than his next game, however, is an exercise in futility. “Right now, we’re focused on the day-to-day process,” said Makar. “I give a lot of credit to the team this year, the fact that we’ve been rolling and everybody’s been able to stay focused every day, not looking too far ahead into the future.”
So, it’s up to the pundits to project Makar’s future, that he will join his mates at Boston Garden for the Hockey East Championships next month, and we’ll get to watch him dominate the college game in an NHL palace. We will see him in an NCAA regional, probably New Hampshire or Providence, trying to reach hockey’s Holy Grail via the Frozen Four. He will then shift jerseys to a slightly darker shade of maroon, and jump into an NHL pennant race with the Avalanche.
And then this comet will be gone. The kid from western Canada will have left a star trail reminiscent of another Hockey East immortal, Paul Kariya: World Juniors, NCAAs, Hobey Baker. The college he feels so indebted to for assisting in his development—UMass—has become a national power in his wake.
UMass hockey SID Jillian Jakuba sees Makar nearly every day. She helped produce a video this fall promoting the Minutemen, and got to see Cale in a brand-new role. He did not disappoint.
“This video shoot really led me to believe that there’s nothing Cale can’t do… I ask him to act, and he does it perfectly, in one take!”
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.