Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro are gone.
That single fact will follow the Massachusetts hockey team wherever they go this season. Makar has taken his offensive prowess and power play quarterbacking abilities to the Colorado Avalanche; Ferraro’s with the San Jose Sharks. Both were driving forces behind UMass being in the National Championship game in April.
So, what now? How does UMass move on from two giant catalysts of the program’s rapid ascension through the ranks of college hockey hitting the road?
The Minutemen will witness their defensive core once again led by two sophomores, although these guys come with a little bit less hype. Marc Del Gaizo, who played on Makar’s left last season, was taken 109th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft; Ty Farmer, who played on Ferraro’s right, has yet to be drafted.
Despite the lack of gaudiness that surrounds them already, the potential for what they do in Amherst is extremely high. Del Gaizo is coming off a freshman campaign that saw him score 13 goals and rack up 29 points – good for fourth among all defensemen in Hockey East. Farmer’s first season at UMass wasn’t too shabby either, with five goals and 18 points.
Both exceeded expectations. Both fulfilled roles that UMass needed them to complete to get to a national championship game.
But now things are different. After a year “under” Makar and Ferraro, Del Gaizo and Farmer are now out on their own as they look to lead the defensive core of an entire team back to the promised land to win just one more game.
Del Gaizo and Farmer no longer have the safety blankets that are their partners; not even one year after being complete rookies, they’re thrust into leadership roles.
It’s a job both have been preparing for a long time.
The Origins of Leadership
The majority of Ty Farmer’s time in the United States Hockey League wasn’t great.
After two and a half unsuccessful seasons with the Youngstown Phantoms, a rough half-season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks and a de-commitment from Michigan State, Farmer was down in the dumps. He was only a teenager, and he’d been traded two times in the USHL. His stock couldn’t have been lower.
The Fargo Force picked him up before the start of the 2017-18 season and with it being his fourth season, time was running out to save Farmer’s career. The decision to go to the USHL at a young age seemed to be aging badly.
“Ty deserves a lot of credit for working through and persevering,” said then-Force head coach Cary Eades. “Being traded twice is a time when a young man could completely give up on himself. But he took each move with stride and he wanted to prove people wrong and he’s been doing so ever since.”
Farmer didn’t just take the move to Fargo in stride – he thrived. His nine goals and 39 points led the Force to a Clark Cup championship. That same season saw Farmer commit to UMass.
Alongside Eades, then-assistant coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux was also a big mentor in turning Farmer’s career around. Farmer dedicated himself to improving many facets of his game on the ice like making simpler plays and being a better player in his own zone.
But being in the USHL for four years earned him some clout for leadership in the dressing room.
“He’d been around, and he’d played a lot of hockey,” Lamoureux said. “He was already looked upon as a guy that had better experience. He had initial status because of the games that he played.”
Farmer’s play on the ice led him to be a go-to player in big situations, which earned him even more respect among his teammates.
“If we needed a goal, Ty was a player we had on the ice,” Lamoureux said. “If we needed to protect a lead late in the third period, Ty was a player we had on the ice. Just by leading by example, going out and executing in those moments, he was a leader.”
The Force coaching staff also granted Farmer another learning experience that would prove to be helpful at UMass. Eades and Lamoureux paired Farmer with John Schuldt – a big, defensive defenseman who now plays at the University of Nebraska Omaha. It was an extremely good fit and one that helped Farmer during his first season at UMass.
“He didn’t quite move like me, but he took care of the d-zone,” Farmer said of Schuldt. “He helped me out in certain ways. I learned a lot from him.”
Marc Del Gaizo’s time in the USHL wasn’t nearly as rough. He spent two seasons with the Muskegon Lumberjacks and though he had some common first-year issues, his second year saw him thrive as one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, as he scored 12 goals and 38 points in 59 games.
In one of his first games with the Lumberjacks, he got in a fight and got the best of his opponent. That was enough to earn him some clout around the locker room and around the league.
“I think that gave him some confidence,” his head coach John LaFontaine said of the fight. “I don’t think anyone ever challenged him after that.”
LaFontaine spoke glowingly of coaching the Del Gaizo brothers. While Anthony Del Gaizo led vocally, Marc found other ways to lead, which appealed to the coach. Every skill shown by Marc revolved around one thing.
“Marc was the ultimate team player,” LaFontaine said. “He cared about his teammates. Marc wasn’t very vocal. Marc was one of those leaders with his actions. Anthony was the leader, right? We know how strong of a personality Anthony is and Anthony’s such a strong leader. Marc didn’t lead vocally. Marc just led with his actions. He supported his brother and everybody on the team.
“But Marc would quietly help the younger kids out. And he would fill that role that he would see a kid who had his confidence down and Marc would be trying to help him.”
That specific skill is one that will come in handy when Del Gaizo is paired with a brand-new defensive partner. If that d-partner is young and having a rough stretch, Del Gaizo will be comfortable enough with helping that player out one-on-one.
“I think what we have in common is we try to do the right things at all times,” said his brother, Anthony. “We both behind closed doors are always going to do the right thing. We both lead more by example. I just think I’m a little more comfortable speaking out loud and yes, he’s better with the one-on-one interactions, I’d say.”
The comfort with quietly pulling someone aside is something Marc takes very seriously.
“I’m very open with everyone,” Marc said. “I’d say to myself I get along with everyone pretty much, and I think a lot of the guys on the team trust me right now, and it’s something I can bring to the table for sure. Anyone can come up to me with whatever, and I’m pretty comfortable taking anyone under my wing.”
Learning from the best
Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro played together during their freshman seasons.
But with both as top dogs on defense and an impressive incoming class of defensemen, Greg Carvel and the UMass coaching staff knew they had to split Makar and Ferraro to pair with one of the incoming rookies on defense – Marc Del Gaizo, Ty Farmer, Colin Felix and Kolby Vegara all could’ve fit the bill.
UMass landed on Del Gaizo with Makar and Farmer with Ferraro. Felix played mostly with Jake McLaughlin on the third pairing.
So that’s what it would be — Del Gaizo with the best defensemen in college hockey and Farmer with one of the best.
The impact was palpable.
Del Gaizo’s point production was sky-high next to Makar’s stunning 49 points. The two played with a chemistry unmatched in the country. Both were offensive and when one rushed the puck, the other knew to stay back – a perfect match.
But to Del Gaizo, the most important thing he learned from Makar came off the ice.
“The biggest thing I learned from [Makar] was how he handled himself off the ice,” Del Gaizo said. “What everyone else doesn’t see. It’s only what the guys see and what I took away from him was how much of a pro he acts outside of the rink.
“Being here, getting to the rink early, getting into a routine, getting into a process, staying out of sticky situations and having a pro mentality is what was the biggest thing I took away from him.”
The chemistry was clear early on last season when Makar and Del Gaizo took the ice together. Along with knowing to stay back when the other brought the puck up ice, the two knew where each other were on the ice at all times.
“The first couple weeks things just started clicking and it’s pretty evident how good of a player he is, and I thought the first couple weeks were clicking and the first weekend we had a good weekend,” Del Gaizo said of his rapport with Makar. “We just kind of ran with it for the rest of the year.”
Ben Barr, UMass’ associate head coach, thinks that while Del Gaizo learned a lot from playing with the Avalanche’s current defensive prodigy, Makar also took a lot from playing with No. 2.
“I would also argue that Cale benefited from Marc,” Barr said. “I think that’s something that not a lot of people think about, but that’s a really tough position to put a freshman in — to pair him with the best player in the country right from the start. It takes a special player to be able to handle that and thrive in that.
“I think if you asked Cale that question, he would say he benefitted from playing with Marc last year too because Marc’s a phenomenally smart and skilled player.
The success continued onto the second pairing last season. Playing with Ferraro opened Farmer’s eyes to a vital part of his game that wasn’t in check at the time.
“I’d say I really didn’t have as much as a routine,” said Farmer. “I learned a lot from Mario in the way he acted and treated his body after practice. When injuries came about, the way he handled it. There’s a lot of things that go with getting to that next level.”
Similar to Del Gaizo, Farmer enjoyed a large increase in production, earning the third-most points (18) on the Minutemen’s back-end and playing crucial minutes late in games with Ferraro by his side.
“Mario was the ultimate as far as preparation away from the ice,” Barr said. “I think Ty learned a ton from that. He’s come back stronger, and bigger and faster than he was last year. Outside of the on-ice stuff, Mario was the ultimate hard-worker, the ultimate teammates. So, I think Ty learned a lot from Mario in that regard.”
One thing Del Gaizo mentioned was the chemistry clicking perfectly between him and Makar. When asked about his chemistry with Ferraro, Farmer lit up and explained when exactly he felt that seamless connection.
“It kind of kicked off before the year I thought,” said Farmer. “It took me a second to react on how he played out there. It was within a game or two that I knew how he played. He’s a smart player, he knew how to react to my movements. It was good. It worked out pretty well last year.”
Farmer says that being next to Ferraro brought him lots of confidence – confidence that will directly apply to this season.
The mentoring that Makar and Ferraro did on Del Gaizo and Farmer was vital to last season’s success and every beyond season’s success.
But an aspect that can’t be overlooked is the importance of the experience Del Gaizo and Farmer gained in just their freshmen seasons alone – 41 games pushing for a Hockey East title and a Frozen Four run that went all the way until the final game.
“It’s odd to think of sophomores as leaders,” said Barr. “But when you think about the experience they had last year, playing with the players they played with and going all the way to the National Championship game, that’s an experience that juniors and seniors at certain places might never have.”
In an early-season meeting with Farmer and Del Gaizo, Carvel brought up the two most important developmental aspects of their freshmen season – who they played with and the experience they gained along the way.
“I had discussions with both [Farmer and Del Gaizo]recently saying it was pretty nice to have [Makar and Ferraro]lead you guys and now you guys have to do the same,” the head coach said. “And playing in the national championship game as a freshman – that’s a really good experience. Forty-one games under the belt – that’s a lot of hockey.”
To say that’s a lot of hockey is an understatement.
“It definitely made me more comfortable in literally every bit of the game, in every area of the game,” Farmer said. “We went all the way to the finals. You get to experience all of it, you’ve seen every bit that you could possibly see. Yeah, it didn’t work out, which isn’t exactly what we wanted but last year I got to see everything and I’m grateful for that. It’s only going to help me along the way.”
Makar. Ferraro. Top-four minutes. A program-record 31 wins. A national title game appearance.
They’re ready to lead.
Senior-ranking as sophomores
The Minutemen don’t quite know what they’re going to do for defensive pairings yet. They have highly-touted recruit Zac Jones entering the confines of Mullins Arena alongside Matthew Kessel and Gianfranco Cassaro.
Sophomores Colin Felix and Kolby Vegara look to make the push for top-four minutes. Carvel appeared to tout senior Jake McLaughlin at the end of last season.
What happens next is completely up in the air.
“We’re not really sure how we’re going to pair the guys yet together,” Barr said. “You’d think we’d know by now, but we don’t.”
A big thing that the pairings hinge on is when Marc Del Gaizo, who’s already been ruled out for the opener, will be good to get back in game action after surgery this offseason.
“I think the first couple of games we’re going to be mixing and matching a little bit,” Barr said. “We have confidence in all those guys which is really nice.”
Del Gaizo sat out the preseason intrasquad scrimmage, forcing the Minutemen to go with seven defensemen. With the teams split up, McLaughlin was paired up with Farmer, Jones with Felix, Cassaro with Kessel, and Vegara cycling in. It’s a solid indication of what the pairings will be on opening night.
The best guess is that the lone senior will start the season with Farmer and if No. 2 is still sidelined, Felix will play with Jones.
“We have a pretty good idea on the pairings, but [the scrimmage] was going to be a good night to see what that chemistry was for guys more than execution,” Carvel said after the mock game. “For the pairs, just to see if the chemistry was right, cause we’re very young and we’re going to have three freshmen defense and two sophomores and a senior.
“That’s what most likely we’re going to go with.”
Even though Farmer won’t have Ferraro to lean on when times get tough, Cary Eades believes he’s got the skills and leadership capabilities to be that for his new defensive partner.
“I’m sure he’s going to take it in stride, with a little bit more of a mentor role this year,” Eades said. “Again, he’s got a great personality, humble kid. Likes to have fun at the rink and I think that personality is contagious and rubs off on his defensive partner or his teammates. He plays the game with a lot of exuberance.”
Pierre-Paul Lamoureux expects Farmer to “thrive” with whomever stakes their talents to his left side. Like Del Gaizo, Lamoureux expects Farmer to take that partner right under his wing.
“Ty’s going to be communicating with his partner a lot,” he said. “Whoever he’s playing with, he’ll be talking to on a regular basis which is huge. You’d be surprised, but a lot of guys we have to talk to about communicating with each other and Ty just has that outgoing personality. He’s always talking to his teammates and especially his defensemen and d-partner.”
Along with the communication skill, Lamoureux pointed out that Farmer would challenge guys on the bench to do better and get them rallied together during big moments – something that will come in handy during this upcoming season.
John LaFontaine believes that no matter who gets put with Del Gaizo, he’ll excel in his new role as top dog on the back-end.
“It doesn’t matter who you put him with – he’s going to communicate with that person and do everything he can to click, gel and put together” his former coach said. “He’s the type of kid that ‘coach, it doesn’t matter who you put me with, we’re going to figure it out and make it work and do the best we can.’ He’s just got the right attitude and the right focus to excel no matter who’s with him.
“He’s going to try to build them up and make them better. He’s good at making those around him better.”
Carvel has already said that he “fully expects” Del Gaizo and Farmer to take on leadership roles on the back-end. The expectation is that based on what the Minutemen’s bench boss has said regarding Jones, he’ll get a spot with either Del Gaizo or Farmer. The fourth spot is unknown at this point.
So, Carvel – in your long, illustrious coaching career, have you ever had a situation where kids go from rookies to veterans so quickly?
“I don’t know if I’ve ever come into a situation where we’ve had to start from zero and not have upperclassmen really,” he said. “This junior class has been our upperclassmen since their freshmen year so it’s a unique situation. But no, I’ve never had that where younger guys have to take even younger guys under their wing.”
Here goes nothing.
Evan can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @emarinofsky.