When Cale Makar scored in Game 3 of the Colorado Avalanche's first-round series against the Calgary Flames, it was the kind of moment a television network would script if it could. The shot came in Makar's NHL debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs—a first for a defenseman—against the very team he grew up loving. It was a game-winner, but it was arguably even more notable—a sign of how good he is and how fast he's grown up.
"You gotta be mature when you're in these situations," Makar says. "It's changing levels and everything, but at the end of the day, you gotta have fun with it."
Just three days earlier, he had accepted the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to college hockey's best player. The following night, Makar had played for UMass in the NCAA championship game. His team lost to Minnesota Duluth, but the fact that the Minutemen were there in the first place was a miracle.
The program had been historically lousy. It had reached the NCAA tournament just once in its history (2006-07) and from 2013-14 to 2016-17 had a combined record of 13-64-9 in conference play.
Makar changed all that when he joined the team after being selected fourth overall in the 2017 NHL draft.
"I thought he deserved to be No. 1, and I didn't even know who his competition was," says Greg Carvel, who coached Makar at UMass.
To Carvel, Makar's goal was dramatic but not surprising.
"The fact that he scored didn't shock me at all," Carvel says. "There's really nothing he'll do that will shock me."
When Carvel took the job at UMass in 2016, the name Cale Makar didn't mean anything to him, but athletics director Ryan Bamford had been following the recruit closely. "The first thing out of his mouth was, 'You need to call Cale Makar,'" Carvel says.
Carvel went to see Makar play early that season and knew immediately he was a star.
"I watched him spin around for warm-ups, and before warm-ups was over I called my assistant coaches and I said, 'We have Erik Karlsson coming to our team this year,'" Carvel says. "At that time, he wasn't highly regarded. As the season went on, he went from a C to a B to an A to a first-round to a top-10. When we got to the draft, I would not have been surprised if he went No. 1 overall. When they do the look-back at drafts, I won't be surprised if Cale leads the way out of that."
From the outside, UMass was no place for a player of Makar's ability. He could have probably played at any school he wanted. But he and his parents liked UMass.
"He's a very different kid," Carvel says. "He didn't rush to the NHL. Everybody's rushing to get there. He's one of the very few kids that because of the guidance of his parents—they were going to do it right. They turned down the Canadian Olympic team because they didn't think it was the right time or place. They didn't sign with Colorado after one year because Cale knew he still had to get better. And I think he did it the right way: when he was ready to play in the NHL and be very effective. And there's not many kids that have the patience or maturity to do that."
When Makar committed to UMass, he was 5'8". But Makar's dad and the rest of his relatives are big, and Carvel figured Cale would keep growing. Sure enough, he did all through high school, reaching 5'11" and 187 pounds.
"I think he's still growing," Carvel says.
When he arrived at UMass, Makar changed the culture of the program, though it didn't immediately translate to the win column. (UMass had a losing record, 17-20-2, Makar's freshman year.) As a freshman he was named co-Rookie of the Year by the New England Hockey Writers Association, and the Avalanche made a pass at calling him up. He declined, and then as a sophomore led the Minutemen to their best season ever.
"I think Cale stayed loyal to UMass because it's the type of person he is," Carvel says.
Nobody would have questioned Makar had he accepted the call-up. He was a blue-chip recruit who had an awesome freshman year and had already been drafted.
"But I think they were comfortable and confident that I had coached in the NHL and the development was going to be in good hands," Carvel says.
Makar was clearly good enough for the NHL, but he wasn't in a hurry.
"You have to be emotionally mature to tell your NHL team: 'I'm your first-round pick, but I'm not going to sign with you; I need another year,'" Carvel said. "Everything in his life has been about process, a growth mindset."
Makar looks young because he is. (He was born in 1998.) He is extremely good, and he knows it. He gives off an air of bored confidence, like a veteran quarterback or an airline pilot. Physically, he is just as impressive.
"His skating is so elite, and he combines it with a physical edge that most offensive-minded defensemen I don't think have at the level he does," Carvel says.
In UMass' first exhibition game, against a U Sports team, Makar had the puck when an opposing player lined him up, ready to connect on a big hit. "Cale did one of these counter-hits where he jumped his shoulder, and the kid went flying," Carvel recalls. Another time, Makar was on a breakaway, with an opponent hot in pursuit. "In the middle of the breakaway, Cale stopped and hit the kid with his shoulder in the chest and kept going on the breakaway," Carvel says. "He's very sneaky, very effective physically."
Carvel felt lucky to have him.
"He brought credibility to our program, the fact that we had a first-round pick willing to go to a last-place team," Carvel said. "We marketed the hell out of him. ... He turned this program around. He did a ton, and he did it with class, and he did it completely humble."
It's not difficult to imagine Makar going down as the best player in UMass history. Those who know him aren't surprised he is already having an impact at the next level.
"I guess we're all...I don't know if 'shocked' is the right word...that he performed like he did in that game and as he has," Carvel said. "He's just popping off the screen just like he did every game at the college level."
He is not so much an overnight success as one years in the making. His ascent may look sudden to others, but to Makar it was a long time coming, even if it was all part of the plan. He wasn't nervous in his debut.
"Not really," Makar says. "I'm a guy who likes to put pressure on himself."