Frozen Four: John Leonard, Cale Makar stay in touch with UMass hockey team

  • UMass forward, Mitchell Chaffee, attempts to steal the puck away from Minnesota-Duluth player, Nick Wolff, during the third period of the NCAA National Ice Hockey Championship, Sat., April 13, 2019 at the KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Arizona Coyotes right wing Christian Fischer, front, fights for control of the puck with Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar during the third period of an NHL hockey game on March 31, 2021, in Denver. AP FILE

  • San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) celebrates with teammate John Leonard (43) after scoring against the Minnesota Wild during the third period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., March 29, 2021. AP FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2021 7:35:05 PM
Modified: 4/8/2021 7:37:46 PM

PITTSBURGH – Mitchell Chaffee still refers to the UMass hockey team as “we.”

He left the Minutemen in March last year to sign a two-year entry-level deal with the Minnesota Wild after his junior season, but remains a part of the team’s culture. Chaffee and other members of UMass’ 2017 recruiting class that would have been seniors this season, like Cale Makar and John Leonard, still keep tabs on the team and coaching staff.

“It all started from the first day we all got on campus. A lot of our freshman class, we became so tight and close with each other that we all became best friends,” said Chaffee, currently with the AHL’s Iowa Wild. “It’s continued throughout the years, especially the culture that (UMass coach Greg) Carvel has built there. It’s allowed us to continue to grow. Everyone’s still kept in touch.”

Chaffee lived with current UMass seniors Matt Murray and Oliver Chau his freshman and sophomore year and had a house with Philip Lagunov and Jake Gaudet his senior year.

“It’s been fun to watch them grow and continue to develop,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee still hasn’t graduated from UMass yet and is taking online classes to finish his degree. He has 10 assists in 14 games with Iowa this season.

“Even though I’m not there, I feel I’m a part of the program,” he said. “I still talk to the coaches and helped build it. They do a great job keeping in touch.”

UMass junior defenseman Marc Del Gaizo said the Minutemen in the pros text them on a regular basis, especially during their Hockey East championship run and return to the Frozen Four.

“They’re really, really excited for us. They’re a huge part of this program. Even though they’re not here, they’re still a part of it,” he said. “We built a lot of connections to those guys and couldn’t be happier for where they’re all at now.”

Makar said he still makes time to watch the Minutemen as much as he can. He was “gutted” when he found out that four UMass players couldn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four due to COVID-19 protocols.

“If there’s a team that can overcome that, it’s definitely UMass,” said Makar, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year last season for the Colorado Avalanche. “They brought in a great culture. Everyone bought into it. I made so many great friendships over there. It’s awesome they’re still finding ways to succeed. I think it’s important for guys who aren’t in the program anymore to remain in it and around it even though you’re alumni now.”

Luckily, Thursday night’s semifinal against Minnesota Duluth – a rematch of the 2019 championship game that Makar, Leonard and Chaffee lost – fell on an off day for the Colorado Avalanche, San Jose Sharks and Iowa Wild. Leonard, an Amherst native in his rookie year with San Jose, said he and fellow Minuteman Mario Ferraro were probably going to watch the game together.

“I’m fired up for them. I’ve been talking to them all the time, watching as many games as I could,” Leonard said. “Hopefully they can finish the job.”

Leonard and Chaffee were members of last year’s team that finished the regular season as the No. 2 seed in Hockey East and ranked ninth in the final USCHO poll of the season before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the postseason. That team would have qualified for last year’s NCAA Tournament and had the potential to challenge for the Hockey East tournament title. This year’s team recognizes those teammates were robbed of the opportunity to accomplish what they have and are playing, in part, for those Minutemen that have moved on.

“They’re definitely part of this,” Del Gaizo said. “We’re trying to make them proud.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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