A version of the following story appeared in the 2019-20 fourth edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. All proceeds from game-magazine sales at Ball Arena support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
Cale Makar's college jersey was still warm when he suited up for his NHL debut on April 15, 2019 for the Colorado Avalanche. At the time, the team was locked into a 1-1 series tie with the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs. Everything was happening so fast for Makar.
The No. 4 overall pick of Colorado from the 2017 draft signed his first NHL contract the day before, which also came the morning after competing in the national championship game with the University of Massachusetts. And the day prior to skating in that NCAA title game, Makar accepted the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation's top player. He recorded 49 points (16 goals, 33 assists) in 41 games during his sophomore season at UMass, but he was now thrown into the middle of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the most intense time of year, and only had the day's morning skate to get acclimated to his new teammates.
The lack of preparation didn't seem to matter. He scored on his first shot on goal in the first period to extend the Avs' lead in their eventual 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames in Game 3 and then skated in all nine postseason games thereafter. Totaling six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 contests, Makar entered last offseason with valuable experience under his belt and a clear idea of the pro level. The bar for his official rookie year in 2019-20 was set high, and for good reason.
Makar started the season on a five-game point streak (six assists) and continued his strong play throughout the year to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year.
The Calgary, Alberta, native finished second among all rookies with 50 points (12 goals, 38 assists) in 57 games played and led all first-year players with a 0.88 points-per-game average, the third highest single-season total by a rookie defenseman in league history. He led all Avalanche blueliners in scoring and set new franchise records for goals, assists and points by a rookie defenseman in a campaign.
Makar spoke with ColoradoAvalanche.com during the 2019-20 campaign about his NHL journey.
How were you adjusting to the longer season compared to the shorter one in college?
"Even in only a few months, there are like 30 games in that time period, that's a full college season. So you just have to prepare yourself mentally for that. Good thing we had a little bit of a break in January (bye and All-Star Game), but obviously it's a different schedule. You play more games, it's more physical, but you just have to prepare for it."
Was the transition from NCAA to pro more physically or mentally tough?
"The more physical the game gets and the more physical of a toll it takes on your body, the more mental it gets. You're just going to need to grind it out and use all the mental power that you have to stay with it. But it's a long season, so it's nice to also have some off days to refocus every once in a while."
Reflecting on April 2019 what were those four days like where you won the Hobey Baker Award, played for a national title and joined the Avalanche for the playoffs?
"It was a blur. It was an awesome experience, just finishing with the UMass team. Obviously a tough way to lose in the championship game, tough way to finish the year for that, but a quick mental turnaround in terms of coming to a team with a lot of hope and going far in the playoffs. I just wanted to come in and do whatever I could to help, whether it was being out there practicing with the guys or helping them out in the games and I was fortunate enough to do that. It was a great group of guys, and yeah, it was definitely a crazy time."
Did having that playoff experience play a part in your strong start to the 2019-20 season?
"For sure. Coming into the year, I was just a lot more comfortable. It's always nice to know the guys, and just being able to come in and not have everything be new and to know what the pro lifestyle is--as far as showing up to the rink and stuff like that. It was definitely nice to understand the schedule on a daily basis rather than coming in this year not knowing anything."
How do you want to keep improving?
"Coming back from an injury earlier in the year, I just wanted to get back to playing consistent and being reliable all over the ice. I wanted to get back up to the minutes I felt confident playing. At the end of the day, you have to roll with it. But I think for me it's just about trying to remain consistent."
How have your parents helped you get to where you are at this stage of your career?
"I don't even know where to start with that question. So many ways. Every kid is the same. They wake up early in the morning, they drove me to the rink growing up. I mean without my parents I wouldn't be where I am today. That's just the short answer."
How do you handle any outside noise about expectations and other media chatter?
"I just don't listen. I don't really read or watch anything. I kind of just keep it out of my brain. That stuff is obviously an outside factor that doesn't need to weigh on anyone's shoulders. I know a lot of guys like to look at that stuff, but I'm just the kind of guy who sticks to it and doesn't listen to the media."
ColoradoAvalanche.com edited the interview for clarity.