BUFFALO, N.Y. — Once Cale Makar committed to playing hockey at Massachusetts, nothing was going to change the defenceman’s mind.
Loyal to UMass
Makar stuck by his decision despite a coaching change, which led to him rejecting offers to play at higher-profile schools. He then turned down a chance to represent Canada at the Winter Olympics last year because Makar didn’t want to miss out on his freshman season. And not even the lure of making the jump to the NHL — Colorado drafted him with the No. 4 pick in 2016 — could sway him last summer.
Each time, Makar cited loyalty and commitment as the reasons he wouldn’t budge.
“It’s a very big concept for me,” Makar said Wednesday when asked what loyalty means. “Since my childhood, it’s been instilled in me from my parents. Regardless of whether it’s hockey or outside hockey, loyalty’s a big thing for me and something that I live by.”
Though he had no real expectation of a payoff beyond spending two years at UMass developing his game, the 20-year-old is still being rewarded.
The Hockey East player of the year is one of three finalists to win the Hobey Baker award, issued to college hockey’s top player. Just as important, Makar has played a key role in helping UMass (30-9) make the school’s first Frozen Four appearance.
Record-Breaking Season for Makar and UMass
The Minutemen will face Denver (24-11-5) in a semifinal Thursday.
“Obviously, I didn’t know what was going to transpire over the two years, but I really thought it was a possibility of being here,” Makar said. “Coming into this year, we knew we had a special group. I think it’s a credit to everybody.”
Defending champion Minnesota Duluth (27-11-2) faces Providence (24-11-6) in the other semifinal, with the championship set for Saturday.
The Bulldogs are making their third straight Frozen Four appearance and have a chance to become the first school to defend its title since Denver in 2004 and ’05. For Providence, it’s the Friars fifth time in the semifinals and first since winning their lone title in 2015.
Much of the focus remains on Makar, who has a shot at joining the Avalanche for their first-round playoff series against Calgary next week, and an UMass program that’s played in the shadows of its higher-profile Hockey East rivals.
The Minutemen are making only their second NCAA Tournament appearance, and their 30 wins eclipse the previous single-season school record of 21 in 2006-07.
With 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 39 games, Makar is the first defenceman to lead the conference in 20 years. At 6-foot and 190 pounds, he has a solid frame and a smooth-skating style, giving Makar the ability to excel at both ends of the ice.
A Late Bloomer from Alberta
From Calgary, Makar was considered somewhat of a late bloomer playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League when he committed to play at UMass. And he still remembers the numerous offers he began receiving from other schools when the Minutemen fired coach John Micheletto following the 2015-16 season before hiring Greg Carvel.
“At the end of the day, I knew they were going to get somebody good here,” Makar said. “I’m very fortunate that I waited it out because they brought in a great coach in Carvel. All the credit to him and his assistants.”
Carvel immediately reached out to Makar and his family, and was impressed by how they stuck to their commitment. One benefit was Carvel’s firsthand experience in developing NHL players by having worked as assistant coach in both Anaheim and Ottawa.
“The thing I love about his family is they looked at UMass as a complete development stage. This wasn’t just hockey development,” he said. “Cale needed to grow up physically and he needed to mature.”
What Carvel wasn’t prepared for was how much maturity Makar has displayed. The coach became emotional when discussing the bond he’s developed with the defenceman that goes beyond player and coach.
It pleases Carvel more in knowing how much Makar is being rewarded for the patience and loyalty he’s shown.
“I think it’s very refreshing in this day and age when just about everything is superficial. We live in a world where tweets and those things come and go like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “It just feels like there’s no depth to it. And that kid has so much depth.”
Carvel is all too familiar with players who have short-changed their careers by turning pro too soon.
“There’s so many examples of kids who are in a rush and they fizzle and they’re gone. And there’s few examples of the kids who stay a little longer,” Carvel said. “Hopefully, he sets an example for other kids. … You hope they think about Cale and think there’s no rush.”
NOTES: The sons of two former NHL coaches are competing in the tournament. Minnesota Duluth sophomore forward Justin Richards is the son of Todd Richards, currently an assistant with Tampa Bay and former Columbus Blue Jackets coach. Denver junior forward Tyson McLellan’s is the son of Todd McLellan, former Edmonton and San Jose coach. … Providence forward Kasper Björkqvist elicited a laugh when asked if the Friars’ feel more comfortable in high-scoring or defensive games. “It’s when we’re down 3-0,” Björkqvist said referring to Providence rallying from a 3-0 deficit to beat Minnesota State 6-3 in the first round. … Denver coach David Carle got a chuckle when asked if he wished Makar was already playing for the Avalanche. “I’m an Avs fan, so I think he would’ve helped them,” he said, smiling.
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press