Avalanche’s Cale Makar adjusting from big man on campus to NHL rookie

Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon joined Scott Oake to comment after holding on to defeat the San Jose Sharks in Game 2.

DENVER – A Hobey Baker Award, a national championship game, an NHL debut against his childhood team, his first NHL goal, his first playoff series win, a celebrity appearance at a Denver Nuggets game and a gig as a front-man for an oft-forgotten vegetable.

Of all the things Cale Makar has accomplished over the last two weeks, the 20-year-old Colorado Avalanche defenceman admits there’s one thing he’s let slip.

His studies.

“I have papers to do but I haven’t exactly done much since I’ve been here,” he laughed sheepishly when asked about the whirlwind couple of weeks that have punctuated his sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “My professors have been great. I’ve been in contact with them and they’ve been awesome in terms of when I can finish, even after the season. I’m not too worried.”

For now, his education continues as the newest member of an Avalanche squad that drew even with the San Jose Sharks Sunday with a 4-3 win.

Five games into an NHL career he kicked off a fortnight ago, when he became the first defenceman to make his debut in a post-season game in which he scored a goal, Makar is quickly rising up the ranks of his new class.

Entrusted with second-power-play duties from his first game on, the slick puck-mover grabbed the spotlight late in Sunday’s win when he was paired with defenceman Samuel Girard for a spirited game of keep-away that had the masses talking.

“Those guys are both born in ’98 and both 20 years old and they look like they’ve been playing together for 20 years,” chuckled Nathan MacKinnon of the duo that could be a fixture moving forward. “Late in the third, with six or seven minutes left and we were up by a couple goals, they weren’t nervous, they were dominating, which is nice to see. It’s pretty cool – they read off each other in such a short period of time. Couple quiet guys. When you put two bright hockey minds together they make amazing hockey plays.”

As the fourth pick overall in 2017 who is clearly destined for a long, lucrative NHL career, it would be understandable if the last thing he’d worry about are his college commitments.

Yet, the quiet, humble Calgary native insists it’s something he’ll address… eventually.

“Obviously I want to graduate, hopefully, at some point in my life and it will be a big thing for me to be able to get the credits from this past semester,” he smiled, responding, “yes and no,” when asked if he was truly working on anything to wrap up his semester while running with the NHL’s big boys.

“I let my advisors know what could happen after the season and they emailed saying congratulations and stuff, so it started the conversation that way.”

It’s not like anyone at UMass didn’t anticipate the big man on campus would likely leave town early to satisfy his NHL dreams.

The Sport Management major said he’s unsure whether he’ll focus on the marketing or finance side of his studies, but suffice it to say the lessons he’s getting as an Avalanche employee have gone so well he needn’t worry about either moving forward.

Still, driven athletes rarely abandon goals, no matter how much they may change

“I don’t now whether it’s me doing online courses or going back in the summer, but it’s very important for my parents and I think it’s important for myself as well (to graduate),” said Makar. “Maybe not this summer, just because I’ll take a bit of a break and hopefully we’re going deep enough here that I’m not going to be able to go back to school.”

Having spent the week after his team’s series win over Calgary relaxing and getting acquainted with his new city, Makar moved in with Matt Calvert and his young family as part of the NHL’s age-old pay-it-forward mentorship.

Fact is Makar is already a huge hit in town, prompting a movement in which fans are encouraged to bring kale to the rink in his honour.

“I thought it was pretty funny – I’ve never really seen that before,” said Makar of the leafy green fans started bringing to the rink in bunches the night of his debut. “Obviously now my name is associated with the vegetable. I didn’t really have much of it growing up. It’s pretty cool.”

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So is being highlighted on the Pepsi Center Jumptron during a recent Nuggets game… until his cameo came while wearing a straw cowboy hat his teammates have had a field day with.

“It’s just like, ‘why are you wearing this to a basketball game?’” joked Erik Johnson of the hat that came with a story.

“Oh boy – it was kind of funny,” said Makar, a shy sort. “There were about 10 of us who went to the game and we met Sam Girard there and him and his buddies were wearing cowboy hats. The Nuggets staff said we were going to be on the Jumbotron in the next few minutes. One of the guys put his cowboy hat on my head and I just decided to embrace it. It’s just kind of a funny story.

I think it worked out well that I’m a Calgary guy and I’m rocking a cowboy hat.”

He’s rocking the NHL right now, as Monday’s media availability saw him as one of the more popular subjects.

Girard said it’s obvious Makar will be a superstar in the league, which is why some have been comparing the gifted youngster to his series counterpart, Erik Karlsson, for years.

“Obviously I’m very honoured to even be compared to that guy, but at the end of the day I’m just trying to do what I feel is going to make me a good player and take things from other guys’ games,” said Makar of the two-time Norris Trophy winner, who has 560 more points than the three Makar has tallied. “I watched quite a bit of him growing up and the past few years. He’s obviously a role model of mine.”

Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog is amazed by Makar’s poise, given the circumstances.

“Usually guys come in at the deadline like (Derick Brassard) this year, and your team is ready for it and still has so much time left,” he said. “Now, in the middle of the first round of the playoffs is a different circumstance. He’s come in a real student of the game, worked hard and made plays. It would be daunting, in my opinion, to come in at 20 to come into a series, but he’s fit right in.”

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