So, the story goes that Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche almost didn't pick Cale Makar in 2017.
The knock against him was simple: he spent his draft season playing against Jr. A kids in the AJHL instead of the major junior like most of his peers. He was dead set on playing college hockey, and that meant playing Jr. A hockey to fill the time with the Brooks Bandits.
But members of the scouting team fought hard to get Makar. They knew he was special, regardless of who he was playing against. The Bandits had a once-in-a-lifetime prospect patrolling the blueline, and everyone who watched him live knew he was capable of greatness.
Five years later, he's a Norris Trophy winner. And, more importantly, he's two wins away from a Stanley Cup just three years into his career.
The quick rise of Cale Makar has been astounding, quickly becoming one of the game's most dominant defenders. He had 28 goals and 86 points in the regular season and another further 26 points in 16 playoff games as Makar continues to prove he's an elite talent at a time where high-quality offensive defensemen are developing at a rapid rate. Makar is the favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy, and only continues to get better as the playoffs continue.
But Makar's path was unconventional. Before ever committing to UMass, Makar spent two years with the dominant Brooks Bandits program, considered to be one of the best Jr. A teams in Canada. There, he won the AJHL championship as a rookie in 2016, was the CJHL's top rookie, the RBC Cup MVP, top defenseman and scorer and was on the all-star team with Canada's World Junior A Challenge team after winning gold. The following year? Another championship, another trip to the RBC Cup where he won top defenseman and MVP, was the CJHL player of the year and once against made the WJAC all-star team.
Following along? Because, clearly, greatness was emanating at a pace nobody could keep up with.
Makar eventually made it to UMass, where he once again won an incredible number of achievements, including winning the prestigious Hobey Baker award in 2019 as the NCAA's top player, and was on the World Junior Championship all-star team in 2018 despite spending the first half of the tournament as Canada's seventh defender. Everywhere he played, he stood out.
The rest is history, and you know all that. But Makar credits a lot of his core development to his time with Brooks, where he was given the keys to learn and thrive under a great coaching staff. He could have gone to the WHL against stronger, better competition, but the Bandits allowed him to figure things out and get the opportunities that might not have existed had he been stuck deeper in the lineup from the get-go. The Bandits have one of the most respected franchises in the Jr. A space, winning the past two Canadian Jr. A titles.
The CJHL has been a big stepping stone for many high-end talents, including Claude Giroux, Brent Burns, Brian Elliott, Mat Barzal, Mike Smith, Wayne Simmonds, Cam Talbot and MacKenzie Weegar, among many others. Alex Newhook, Brandon Hagel and Andrew Cogliano are among the other CJHL alum battling for the Stanley Cup right now. Even Steve Yzerman played a year of Jr. A with the Napean Raiders before putting a beating on the OHL.
The CJHL is made up of member leagues around the country, with the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Central Canada Hockey League and Ontario Jr. Hockey League being among the best.
The CJHL has been a big stepping stone for many high-end talents, including Claude Giroux, Brent Burns, Brian Elliott, Mat Barzal, Mike Smith, Wayne Simmonds, Cam Talbot and MacKenzie Weegar, among many others. Alex Newhook, Brandon Hagel and Andrew Cogliano are among the other CJHL alum battling for the Stanley Cup right now. Even Steve Yzerman played a year of Jr. A with the Nepean Raiders before putting a beating on the OHL.
There are many reasons why a player may go the Jr. A route -- schooling, opportunities, uncertain future plans, etc. Some might be late-bloomers that need some extra time to find their game, like Edmonton's Zach Hyman. In Makar's case, he was set on the college route, and playing in the highly competitive AJHL was the best way of keeping him in a competitive battlefield before unleashing hell on the rest of the college hockey landscape.
Clearly, it worked out.
It's definitely rare to get a payer of Makar's caliber in the draft. Newhook was an incredible talent with the Victoria Grizzlies before his draft year, but it's typical to see just a handful of players selected every year. To be clear, while the competition is strong, it's still not major junior strong. But there are many quality coaches, players and management types that get their start in Jr. A and turn it into something meaningful every year because it truly is a valid pathway to a pro career.
Not everyone will be Cale Makar, but Cale Makar is proof that Jr. A hockey is a viable pathway to greatness.