The UMass Minutemen men's hockey team has just four winning seasons since the program returned to campus in the fall of 1993 after a 14-year hiatus. It's been to the NCAA tournament only one time, back in 2007 behind future Stanley Cup champion goalie Jonathan Quick.
But as the Minutemen prepare for the 2019 NCAA tournament, there is plenty of excitement in Amherst, Massachusetts. And it's all thanks to sophomore defenseman Cale Makar.
The 20-year-old Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist and ESPN's No. 1 NHL-affiliated prospect has been the driving force in the Minutemen's unprecedented success, which saw them finish the regular season ranked No. 2 in both major college hockey polls. The team has amassed a 28-8-0 record en route to its first Hockey East regular-season title and skated in the Hockey East semifinals for just the fourth time in school history.
Makar leads the team with 46 points, which ties him for fourth in the country. He has contributed on 33.1 percent of all of UMass' total goals scored this season and has been among college hockey's most dominant players on a nightly basis. The Minutemen are outscoring opponents 45-16 with Makar on the ice at even strength, the second-best even-strength goal differential for any player in the nation. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound blueliner possesses a graceful yet powerful skating stride and wizardry with the puck on his stick.
"This is a season you don't take for granted," third-year head coach Greg Carvel says of both his team's and star defenseman's success. "You try to cherish every minute."
When one thinks of UMass athletics, neither Makar nor the hockey team springs to mind. Instead, it's John Calipari and Marcus Camby of those early-1990s men's basketball teams and the dream run to the 1996 Final Four.
Mark Coogan remembers those years fondly. The former UMass student and founder of the Minutemen hockey blog Fear The Triangle recalls shivering in comically long lines for a coveted seat in the Mullins Center student section to watch men's hoops. He soon started wandering into the much shorter lines for the newly resurrected hockey team. He entered the building a hockey neophyte, left it a rabid fan. In the years since, those student lines didn't get much longer for hockey games -- until this season.
The Mullins Center sold out for the first time in 18 years in early December, and raucous crowds have regularly packed the barn throughout the season.
"The 8,400 fans we've had for a few games, those are the biggest crowds I've ever played in front of," says senior forward Jacob Pritchard, who noted his former school's rink held about 3,000.
"Having a season where they dominate from start to finish, winning Hockey East, where they're in the top two or top-ranked in the poll from November onward -- I don't know if I ever really saw that coming into play," says Coogan, now a business analyst based in Boston who still drives the two hours to Amherst for each home game. He admits there were times this season he worried the bottom would drop out like it had so often in the past. But with Makar leading the rush from the blue line, the Minutemen are only looking to add to that list of achievements.
"I've never seen anyone like him," Coogan says in awe. "We've had some pretty dynamic players before, but Makar does things that you don't see that often, even in an NHL game. The coast-to-coast things always blow your mind when you see them. The highlights that show him blocking a shot, then he hits a guy and goes coast to coast. I've never seen anything like it."
There was some doubt that the skilled offensive-minded defenseman who skates like the wind would even be here this season. Selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2017, the summer before his freshman campaign, Makar became the school's highest draft pick ever and the only player to go in the first round. The defenseman was actually taken one spot ahead of Elias Pettersson, who is likely to win the 2018-19 Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year.
It is fairly uncommon for such a high pick to head back to school the second year following his draft, but Makar knew he needed more time.
"I felt from the start, being able to play college for two years and develop would get myself ready to play pro," Makar says now. "There were a few things in my game that I needed to tweak up and that I could use a second year for. I think I made the right decision.
"One of my main goals coming back was to be consistent all over the ice and spread out the way I use my energy instead of just expending it on offense," the Calgary, Alberta, native continues. "I think I've brought consistency to my game on defense and been more reliable in the defensive zone. That's become a bigger part of my game and that's been one of my goals for sure."
The results speak for themselves.
"I've been a coach at this level for seven years now and he's far and away the best player I've seen on the ice at this level," Carvel says. "If you're around people who are performing at a high level, it inspires you to do the same. What Cale does on the ice during games and in practice, it inspires me to coach better. When you have a kid of that caliber, I feel a responsibility to be the best coach I can be."
When Carvel took the UMass coaching job in 2016, he had just wrapped up his fifth season as head coach at his alma mater, St. Lawrence University, with no plans to go anywhere. But within a week of UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford calling, Carvel accepted the job.
"I really took a leap of faith," Carvel recalls. "I had some people say you could never win there. I had a vision and a plan, the same thing I took to St. Lawrence. Same equation here, but with more resources to be able to do it. I trusted in myself and what I thought about how you build a culture. Then I also inherited Cale Makar. That's a once-in-a-career type of player."
Makar was indeed recruited by former UMass coach John Micheletto, giving his verbal commitment just prior to his first full season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He was talented but hadn't yet popped as a future elite talent.
During the 2015-16 season, Makar helped the Brooks Bandits capture the AJHL title, was named Canadian Junior Hockey League Rookie of the Year and even had time to help Canada West win the World Junior A Challenge tournament. Suddenly no one was sleeping on Makar, and he followed it up with an even better 2016-17 season.
There was a lot of speculation around the hockey world that Makar would rescind his commitment to UMass, especially following the coaching change, since it wasn't known as a hotbed for pro talent. He could go to the Western Hockey League or maybe flip commitments to a more reputable program. But that never entered Makar's mind. He stuck to his word and enrolled as planned that fall.
Makar rewarded the school with a strong freshman season, earning a spot on Hockey East's all-rookie team after posting 21 points in 34 games. While the Minutemen finished with yet another losing record at 17-20-2, it was clear they were starting to turn the corner.
In a bit of a call to arms and perhaps signaling a new era of UMass hockey, Carvel started using the hashtag #NewMass in tweets heralding his young players. If nothing else, it reminded his players that they were part of something bigger and could do something special if they stuck together. Makar took it to heart, returning for a second season.
"I think it was a shock [to others] that he came back," Carvel says. "I wasn't shocked. He is very aware, and it's a huge quality to have [in player development]. He knew he wasn't ready."
With Makar in tow and a quality recruiting class that included USHL Defenseman of the Year Marc Del Gaizo and skilled graduate transfer Pritchard, #NewMass wasn't just a clever hashtag. It was a warning to the rest of Hockey East -- and the country -- not to take the Minutemen lightly.
"There was a feeling that we had something special going on from Day 1," sophomore goalie Matt Murray says of the 2018-19 season. "Coach Carvel had written on the board that this is a special group and we're going to do great things. We've set high standards for everyone in the room and everyone is doing their part, and it's shown with the success that we've had thus far."
Behind Makar, Murray has been a solid backstop, with a .919 save percentage in 27 starts. Pritchard, who transferred from St. Lawrence in part to reunite with Carvel for his senior season, is the team's second-leading scorer, with 45 points. Del Gaizo has been a two-way standout while playing alongside Makar. Sophomores Mitchell Chafee, John Leonard and Mario Ferraro have also played significant roles. The Minutemen rank fourth in the nation with 139 goals scored and have the second-best power play in the NCAA, with a success rate of 29.1 percent.
And it of course starts with Makar, who has a legitimate shot to be the first UMass player to claim the Hobey Baker. The school's communications and marketing departments are trying to help the cause with a #HobeyNeedsMoreCale campaign.
"I just try not to worry about any of that stuff, I just try and lay in the weeds a little bit," Makar says. "It's not something I focus on."
Ferraro, a second-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks, says he tries to learn from Makar as much as he can. "Just being a friend of his and seeing him off the ice and seeing how he handles himself and all of the attention that he does get is something really special," Ferraro says. "It's awesome to see how modest he is and how well he carries himself at the rink. He's a leader."
"It's fun to watch him play. It's a treat and I get to do it every day," Carvel says of Makar, who will likely head to the Avs next season, or perhaps sooner if they make this year's NHL playoffs. "The way he skates and handles the puck, it's so elite. He's going to be a dynamic player at the next level because of his skating and compete. He's sneaky physical, he's competitive and wants to be a good defensive player.
"There aren't many kids like him. I've coached superstars. A lot of them want it to be easy. He doesn't."