Cale Makar focused on the present for UMass hockey

NHL may be in Cale Makar’s future, but he wants to help make UMass good now

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar was drafted fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche. COURTESY COLORADO AVALANCHE

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar, center, has been trying to emulate Bruins legend Bobby Orr for most of his hockey career, including during this fourth-grade class project. COURTESY GARY MAKAR

  • Boston Bruins hockey great Bobby Orr, right, signs a jersey for Joey Ogonowsky, 13, left, following an unveiling ceremony for a statue of Orr in front of the TD Garden in 2010. Orr has been a role model for UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar. AP

  • Freshman Cale Makar sits at the press conference following UMass’ exhibition game against Queens, Saturday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar skates in an exhibition game against Queens, Saturday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar skates in an exhibition game against Queens, Saturday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar skates in an exhibition game against Queens, Saturday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar, shown here against Queens at the Mullins Center on Saturday, is being counted on to make considerable contributions this season. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

Thursday, October 05, 2017

BOSTON — Standing in TD Garden’s Legends club at last week’s Hockey East media day, UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar was still feeling a little awe.

Before the event started, he and fellow freshman Mario Ferraro took a mini-tour of the Boston Bruins home arena. As they stepped into the arena bowl at one end, Makar looked up and there above him was Bobby Orr’s retired No. 4 banner. Not far from his table at media day was a mural of the Hall of Fame defenseman. The Garden has statues of him inside and outside of the building.

“Growing up I looked at Bobby Orr as a role model. Just to see his retired number up there, that’s pretty cool,” he said smiling almost sheepishly. “I’m pretty star struck to say the least.”

Anyone connected to hockey has reverence for the Bruin legend, but Orr scored his last goal on Oct. 28, 1978, 20 years and two days before Makar was even born. Despite living over 2,000 miles away, Gary Makar, Cale’s dad, was a fan and encouraged his son to model himself after Orr.

As a grade-schooler, Cale Makar watched VHS highlight tapes of Orr’s trademark end-to-end rushes. In fourth grade, Makar’s class was assigned a project to write a report about someone and deliver an oral presentation dressed as that person.

He got one friend to flank him dressed as an agent and another as legendary coach Don Cherry, while Makar donned a white Bruins Bobby Orr sweater.

Even today on the Makar family DVR, underneath episodes of “The Walking Dead” and “Hawaii Five-0,” is a Bob Costas interview with Orr from four years ago that nobody can bring themselves to delete.

Orr’s career was shortened by knee injuries, but at his peak, he was inarguably the best puck-moving offensive defenseman the sport has ever seen and maybe its best player.

Comparing anyone to Orr is an enormous overreach, especially an 18 year old. But Makar, who was taken fourth overall in the NHL draft by Colorado, is one of the countless nifty-skating, clever-passing blue-liners whose lineage all traces back to Orr.

But Makar has pattered more than his game after Orr. The Hall of Famer has long been known for his humility, class and being a great teammate. Gary Makar would often make that point to his son, but it really reached Cale when he read the autobiography “Orr: My Story” as a 15 year old.

“Growing up I took a lot from his personal aspects of the game,” Cale Makar said. “My dad would always talk about how he treated people off the ice. That’s what I wanted to emulate. Guys like him and (Calgary Flame) Jarome Iginla were very humble off the ice and always cared about the fans. That was a huge thing for me.”

Gary Makar was proud that the message had sunk in.

“Bobby Orr is a legend and you can’t find a classier guy who gives back to the game,” he said. “If you’re going to emulate someone, the world doesn’t need any more arrogant hockey players. This guy is a model of someone who is always appreciative and respectful to people and the whole bit.”

Being a good teammate is an asset in any program. But Makar’s place in the locker room could be critical at UMass.

He’s part of a 13-man freshman class that has a chance to drastically change the program. How harmoniously that group and the returning players mix could define the season in many ways.

Because of his talent and the responsibility placed on him, Makar is the face of that freshman class. How he’s received will go a long way.

“I just want to be one of the guys and a teammate. I think that’s the way they view me,” he said. “I don’t consider myself cocky by any standard. I consider myself a humble guy. That’s that path I want to take throughout my career.”

Living up to his reputation would help too. Makar will be asked to contribute in all facets. There was a reason Colorado took him as early as it did as his play has drawn comparisons to Ottawa All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson. Makar had 75 points on 24 goals and 51 assists to lead the Brooks Bandits to the Alberta Junior Hockey League title in 2016-17. He was the league’s top scoring defensemen, 23 points ahead of the next closest blue-liner.

In Saturday’s 1-0 exhibition win over Queens, he skated on the top defensive pairing with sophomore Jake McLaughlin. There weren’t many penalties in that game, but beginning with Friday’s opener at Arizona State, he’s expected to quarterback the team’s top power-play unit and see regular time killing penalties.

While his game is mature, he doesn’t turn 19 until later this month and it looks like shaving is at most an occasional necessity. Still, UMass coach Greg Carvel said his teammates have respected him from the beginning.

“He doesn’t want acknowledgement. But at the same time he’s acting as a leader. The way he practices and carries himself, he’s been an outstanding teammate,” Carvel said. “The leadership on this team is wide open and he’s going about it the way he should. The way he plays and handles situations on the ice speaks volumes. He’s extremely confident in his abilities and that carries over in the way he carries himself around his teammates.”

Junior forward Austin Plevy said Makar has been an immediate fit.

“With a draft pick like that, there’s a lot of spotlight. That’s to be expected,” Plevy said. “He’s been awesome, one of the guys. He’s a good player and a nice addition for sure.”

How long he’ll be in college remains to be seen. NHL teams hold a player’s draft rights throughout his college career, but recent high picks in Hockey East haven’t stayed long. BU’s Jack Eichel and Charlie McAvoy, BC’s Noah Hanafin as well as UMass’ Brandon Montour all turned pro after one season.

Carvel knows Makar will never take part in a senior day celebration.

“He’s not going to be a four-year player here. We talked about what we need to do for him to help him develop. When he’s ready to move on, he’ll move on,” Carvel said. “He’s in no rush. He wants to be really, really good for UMass. His head and his mind are exactly where they should be.”

Makar was just eager to start his college career.

“It’s going to be a different challenge for me for sure. Obviously the pace is going to be faster against a lot bigger bodies,” he said. “I don’t really know what to expect until the first game comes around. But I couldn’t be more excited.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage