Cale Makar is back in Buffalo for a big-time hockey event.
The last time the 20-year-old University of Massachusetts sophomore defenseman participated in a gigantic tournament here it turned out to be a life-changing event for the native of Calgary, Alberta.
The 6-foot Makar scored the first outdoor-game goal in world junior tournament history while playing for Canada against the United States at New Era Field. He piled up points at such a rate during world juniors in helping the Canadians win gold that he was the other defenseman to earn a spot on the all-tournament team – joining current Buffalo Sabre Rasmus Dahlin.
Even more important than all of that, Makar learned about the importance of having a daily routine from some of the top players in the world.
When and what to eat. When to sleep. When to arrive at the rink.
“You get to dress up beside the star players from Canada every game, and you get to learn their routine and I think that’s one thing that really helped me,” said Makar, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award given to college hockey’s top player on Friday.
“I was struggling at the beginning of my first year finding a routine at a new place at UMass,” Makar said. “I think those guys really helped me. I studied some of their games. They helped influence me.”
It’s a good bet Makar will follow his routine, which he didn’t disclose, to the letter Thursday as the Minutemen prepare for their biggest game in program history.
UMass participates in its first Frozen Four where it faces one of the most successful programs in NCAA hockey history in eight-time national champion Denver at 8:30 p.m. at KeyBank Center. Both teams come into the contest having posted back-to-back shutouts to win their respective regions during the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
While both teams have talent, UMass has a special game-changing one in Makar – a 2017 first-round pick, fourth overall, of the Colorado Avalanche.
There’s a reason he’s coveted. He’s a nice skater who has a knack of producing offense. The Hockey East Player of the Year leads the association in points (48) and assists (32).
Makar broke the UMass single-season record for points and assists by a defenseman previously set by NHLer Thomas Poeck. He’s listed as No. 1 on ESPN’s list of 50 drafted NHL prospects. In 111 junior games with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, he recorded 135 points.
“When he's on the ice, you know there's a pretty good chance we're going to possess the puck,” forward Jacob Pritchard said. “He makes things a lot easier.”
Makar with assists from Pritchard, Mario Ferraro and the vision of third-year coach Greg Carvel helped turn UMass from a five-win team just two years ago to the 30-9-0 outfit.
Why in the world did Makar take a chance at signing with a Division I program coming off a five-win season with no track record for success?
Makar knew he wouldn’t have to wait to play in college.
“I found it as a fun scenario,” he said. “You start out the first two games playing right around 20 minutes. ... Any time you’re playing around that many minutes in the college scenario is going to help you in the long run.”
Makar posted decent numbers as a freshman: five goals and 21 points in 34 games. He didn’t go one and done because he knew there were things he needed to improve on – including his defensive zone play.
Turned out to be a wise move.
“He needed to mature,” Carvel said. “Extremely self-aware young man. Last year we play Friday, Saturday. A lot of Saturday nights he turned to us, I can't go, I can't go. That's not a kid ready to go to the NHL. He's matured physically, the weight room. He's a super hockey strong kid. Again, he's only 20 years old. He's going to be a phenomenal player.
“The thing I love about his family is they looked at UMass as a complete development stage. This wasn't just a hockey development. They were excited. I think the family really liked the coaching staff, the administration. They really liked the energy that was around the program. They wanted him to learn life lessons, and he has.”
“College has been a life experience,” Makar said. “You get hockey and then you get the side of life as well. It really teaches you to be a great human being.”