Growing together: Sophomore roommates making the jump from year one to year two
Taylor Makar, Lucas Mercuri and Ryan Lautenbach’s bond off the ice makes them better players
November 26, 2022
When walking through the hallways of North Apartments, the noises of Call of Duty and screaming are likely to be heard.
The voices of Taylor Makar, Lucas Mercuri and Ryan Lautenbach, echo through the four-bedroom apartment. Fellow athletes and students in the building hear the group of friends, their energy, the shared experiences, their bond. Beyond the artificial game sound effects and off the ice at the Mullins Center, they are the roommates that are inseparable since the day they all stepped foot on campus.
The roommates were all familiar with one another before heading into their freshman year, but Lautenbach and Mercuri knew each other well. Both saw time in the United States Hockey League with Mercuri playing for the Des Moines Buccaneers and Lautenbach for the Omaha Lancers.
While Lautenbach says that he and Mercuri went at it a little bit when the two teams played each other, Mercuri had another way of putting it.
“[Buccaneers] used to beat up on Omaha,” Mercuri said.
Going at it, or “beating up,” didn’t stop the duo from befriending one another off the ice. When the two met Makar the summer before their freshman year, the duo turned into a trio and immediately clicked from the start.
There’s always a sense of comfortability with one another. They confide in each other about issues going on in their lives and lean on each other when they need help. Constantly spending time together meant they saw all the ups and downs of their lives.
“We get each other and get vulnerable with each other,” Mercuri said. “All of our personal lives, we know anything about each other.”
Due to the closeness of Makar, Lautenbach and Mercuri, the team has taken notice and chirps about how if one of them enters a room, it’s a good bet the other two are right around the corner.
Sundays are days off from the ice but not from one another. Instead of being with other friends, they sit and watch football together. Same eating schedule, practice schedule and 90 percent of the time, life is spent together.
A mixture of rap and country queued up by Makar blasts through the speakers of Lautenbach’s car when the trio is heading out. Lautenbach became the leader of the group outings more by circumstance than anything else; Mercuri and Makar don’t have cars.
“It’s hilarious,” Makar jokes. “We kind of always piggyback off of [Lautenbach] and whatever he’s doing.”
Freshman Mikey Adamson joined in on the driving duties once he moved into the apartment over the summer. He and Lautenbach pile the group into their backseats on an almost daily basis.
“We’re like the dads of the house,” Adamson said.
When people typically think of a college dorm full of college hockey players, they imagine a mess. Not in the sophomore apartment.
“We’re actually really, really clean,” Mercuri said. “We have a NutriBullet air fryer. Our room is really dialed. We all make our beds. We are really clean. I’m lucky to have some clean roommates.”
Most of their kitchen supplies were bought at the start of the year, so, the new addition of Adamson pushed the sophomores to add to their apartment. The new kitchen supplies help them cook meals while also keeping meals simple. Breakfast is a lot of eggs, while lunch and dinner always include broccoli.
Makar, Lautenbach and Mercuri have all had fun as roommates and grown a bond from living together. The most important thing to them is that as they have gone into year two at UMass, the trio has become better hockey players.
Taylor Makar was always going to be treated a little bit different than the players he came in with. It’s hard to avoid that when you look up on game days and see your brother’s name hanging in the rafters and plastered on the walls. Makar just so happens to be related to one of the NHL’s top defensemen, Cale Makar. The Avalanche superstar is the reigning Norris and Comm Smythe trophy winner and a Stanley Cup champion. He also guided UMass to its first national championship appearance in 2019 and won the program’s first Hobey Baker award.
Despite this, Makar remains true to himself and tries not to let the name on the back of his jersey define him. Makar is a 6-foot-3, 190 pound forward, while Cale stands at 5-foot-11, 187 pounds as a defenseman.
“We’re two different players,” Makar said. “I love it. I love hearing about him. I love hearing about how successful he’s doing. He’s my brother at the end of the day and I’m just so happy for him.”
When Makar came into his freshman year, he had a lot of expectations set for him. His very first shift of college hockey received a standing ovation from a packed Mullins Center crowd, simply for being connected to one of Amherst’s beloved athletes.
Coming in as a freshman, though, it means inexperience and needing to grow as a player. The now sophomore struggled his first year, constantly being in-and-out of the lineup.
Makar’s first goal did not come until over the halfway mark of the regular season. The game was his 11th appearance wearing a UMass sweater, but the 25th game the Minutemen had played.
“It was a long time coming,” Makar said. “That was the first piece of seeing if I could do it.”
“It puts a chip on my shoulder.”
— Taylor Makar
Makar did not register a point in his next seven games, but his hunger to prove himself was evident. Makar had his attempts at proving himself before the Hockey East tournament, but he did not make an appearance in TD Garden or in the NCAA Tournament where the Minutemen’s season ended.
When the Minutemen won the Hockey East Championship, Makar was watching from a few floors above the ice. He did run down to ice level to hug his teammates and lift the trophy. Over anything, Makar knew he had contributed throughout the season to have helped UMass reach its goal of winning the HEA Championship.
He was happy for his teammates, but not being able to play in the high stakes game made him want to become an everyday contributor.
“It puts a chip on my shoulder,” Makar said. “Just being able to work hard off the ice at the same time and not being able to go on it. I think it’s a huge key and a goal of mine that I want to be a part of it this year. I want to help our team this year get to the Championship.”
Without seeing consistent playing time, Makar could not show his full potential.
“[Makar] is a guy that we didn’t get a lot out of last year and I take blame for that,” Head coach Greg Carvel said ahead of this season. “He’s a big kid and he skates really well. It felt like he fell through the cracks last year and I made it one of my goals to make him feel like an important part of the team.”
“Last year we would have liked more out of him, but we probably didn’t help him enough to find his way and we’re changing that this year,” Carvel said.
Some players take the offseason to relax and step away from hockey. Makar took the offseason to immerse himself more into hockey and his health.
His main focus was working on how to better himself on the ice. Makar worked on his puck protection and working on things down low. He also focused on conditioning and becoming a better skater.
On top of on the ice work, he wanted to gain weight to become an even bigger threat when he steps on the ice. With the season underway, Makar has not stopped working in the gym to become stronger.
The biggest difference in the offseason was Carvel becoming more involved in player’s conditioning.
“It’s massive,” Makar said of Carvel’s involvement. “We had a great conversation and we’re working a lot closer this year. It’s a really transparent relationship this year and I like talking to him and keeping that going forward.”
It also helped that Makar knew the culture of UMass hockey when going into his sophomore year. In the offseason as a freshman, he had knowledge about the Minutemen, but he did not know where he was going to fit into the lineup and how to play with a different team.
The physicality of UMass’ game was unfamiliar. Working on hitting guys to keep the puck away was something that he wanted to better himself at for the Minutemen.
June brought new fame to Makar’s life. Taylor, typically used to a small press room with student reporters, found himself horizontal to the NHL’s biggest star: his brother. Taylor and Cale sat side by side for the press conference following Cale’s Stanley Cup win. A sea of reporters wanting to know Taylor’s opinion was a new feeling for him.
A moment that made Taylor proud to watch as a brother, seeing Cale achieve his dreams, but it also motivating for him to work at the chance of being on that stage one day.
“It was so cool to see him,” Makar said. “I’m really proud of him. Just being able to watch it all and go through some of it with him, keep in close contact, it definitely motivates me even that little bit more to get to the next level.”
Lautenbach’s speed has been prevalent in his game since he stepped on the ice for his first shift of his freshman season. His speed, quickness with the puck was impressive as a rookie. Quick strides and always seeming to be the first one to touch the puck.
“I haven’t been the biggest guy ever,” Lautenbach said. “Too small, can’t skate, that’s not a good recipe so definitely been trying to be fast while I’ve been growing up and continue to work on it still.”
Lautenbach was always comfortable getting up in the play and calling his own number. He got pucks to the net but had one major problem: his shots always seemed to end up on the opposing goaltender’s chest.
Carvel made it clear that if Lautenbach could improve his shots, he could be one of UMass’ top forwards. So, when the offseason came around, Lautenbach went to work on improving his shot in both precision and power.
There have been quick and noticeable changes to the sophomore’s shot in his sophomore year. Lautenbach has added to the score sheet fast and it has been noticed by his teammates and coaches. He throws himself in front of the net and has put pressure on opposing goaltenders to make bigger and flashier saves.
Of the sophomore line, Lautenbach is the smallest compared to Makar and Mercuri. Both Makar and Mercuri stand at 6-foot-3 and weigh over 190 pounds. On the other hand, Lautenbach measures in at 5-foot-11 with his weight at 175 pounds.
In the Minutemen’s series against Merrimack, physicality was a key factor. When a Merrimack player crosschecked Mercuri on the back, causing him to fall to the ice, Lautenbach was quick to retaliate. As Mercuri fell, Lautenbach did the same thing back to the Merrimack player, which made for some angry Warriors players.
“Never want to see one of your teammates getting pushed,” Lautenbach said. “Had to get in there and help [Mercuri] a little bit and be his bodyguard.”
The help of the offseason has allowed Lautenbach to become one of UMass’ most consistent forwards.
“[Lautenbach] understood what makes him effective at this level,” Carvel said. “We worked a lot on his shot. I just think he’s a guy that has gained a lot of confidence over the course of a year. When you can go into a game and know you have quickness and tenacity those are two really effective assets to have, and he makes the most of them.”
Now a sophomore, Lautenbach learned the ins-and-outs of the Minutemen which has translated in his confidence and game. What to expect for UMass’ program in addition to knowledge of HEA teams. With HEA being one of the hardest conferences, it can be hard to adapt to the quick pace.
“When you come here you know what to expect,” Lautenbach said on his sophomore year. “You know what you’re going to get from Carvel, you know what you’re getting from the guys, and you know what you’re going to play against. I think that’s helped me.”
The combination of sports performance coach Brandon Wickett pushing hard and Carvel’s increased role in off-season workouts helped hold Lautenbach accountable and make strides as a player.
Lautenbach’s growth can also be contributed to spending time with Bobby Trivigno on the first line last season. There was no permanent role at that spot for either Lautenbach or Mercuri, but they stepped up for a few games when Carvel needed them, too, and it forced them to grow quickly. Trivigno helped facilitate that growth.
“I think you want to base yourself off of someone like [Trivigno],” Lautenbach said. “He’s a great mentor and great guy.”
With the loss of guys like Trivigno, Matt Kessel and Josh Lopina, Lautenbach recognizes having to pick up the slack of big losses.
Last year playing with the leadership and falling short in the NCAA tournament has also made players like Lautenbach hungry for a shot at his own National Championship. After seeing the celebration videos from the previous year’s national championship, the freshmen were hungry to feel the happiness of that moment first hand.
“Last year we played a good game and came up short,” Lautenbach said. “I thought we could have done better and gone a little bit further. It’s something we are working for now for the guys that aren’t wearing the jersey anymore.”
During the summer, Carvel called Mercuri to challenge him to become a large factor in his sophomore season.
The help of the call led Mercuri to go to work in the offseason.
Mercuri wanted to take the next step; he showed a lot of promise after year one, but wanted to be an impact player every night. To end his freshman season, Mercuri totaled 15 points off six goals and nine assists. His season came to an unexpected end after injuring his shoulder in the Hockey East Championship.
“Last year, it didn’t end the way I wanted it to,” Mercuri said. “It was even more painful for me because I couldn’t play the last game because of my shoulder. For sure motivated to get back.”
His focus was on becoming a bigger presence on the ice, while also maintaining a consistent routine. During his time off, he gained 10 pounds of muscle, working on the ice six days a week, while also lifting weights. He didn’t let that impact his speed, either, actually getting faster on the ice to pair with his stronger frame.
“Just knowing what the standard is here after a year and having that experience for sure helps,” Mercuri said of that off-season. “I think a diet and training a lot more and getting my lower body stronger was a little bit of a different thing.”
With the help of Carvel’s motivation, both Makar and Mercuri have become scary threats whenever they have a shift. Typically the biggest guys on the line, they know part of their role is to defend the puck.
“We’ve been pretty much a duo since the beginning.”
— Lucas Mercuri
“I try to do the dirty work below the net,” Mercuri said. “I try to get to the net and allow [Lautenbach and Makar] to wheel around and try to find them when I can.”
Mercuri and Lautenbach have very different playing styles on the ice, but their chemistry together is unmatched. They know what the other is going to do before it happens, and they play off each other’s strengths.
“I have a lot of respect for [Lautenbach],” Mercuri said. “He plays with a lot of tenacity and works really hard. We’ve been pretty much a duo since the beginning.”
Both went through taking on bigger roles in the lineup by being put on the top line with Trivigno. When injuries plagued the team last year, Lautenbach and Mercuri were the ones to take Lopina and Garrett Wait’s spots on the top line.
The time with Trivigno allowed Mercuri to grow as a player and get pointers on how to be a leader both on and off the ice. Guided by Trivigno’s example, Mercuri wanted to step in to more of a leadership position of his own.
A big emphasis for him has been helping the class below him get acclimated with UMass and the culture. From small things like giving them a good restaurant recommendation to helping them out on the ice. Mercuri has wanted to build a relationship with all the freshmen.
The connection to his new freshmen roommate allowed Mercuri to be a leader over the summer before stepping on campus for his sophomore year. Adamson and Mercuri had phone conversations over the summer, but had a funny first introduction to each other in person.
“When I met him, I was like ‘Wow, this kid is 6’4. Never expected this, while I’m the smallest guy in the room’,” Adamson said.
As Mercuri grows and develops his own leadership style, he tries to take a little bit of everything from some of his own mentors over the last two years.
“I’m just trying to be a leader like Colin Felix, Matt Kessel and Anthony Del Gaizo,” Mercuri said. “All those guys did a great job helping us become young leaders here. Hopefully in the future too, just continue to become a leader all around.”
The success of the three sophomores cannot just be contributed to the work they have done in the offseason. The closer they got off the ice, the more their bond grew on it. The comfort they built with each other makes it easier for them to have tough conversations when they are not seeing production on the ice.
“Whenever things go wrong it’s nice to have a place where it doesn’t matter what we say,” Lautenbach said. “We hold each other accountable every single day so I think that helps us a lot.”
The trio knows how to have a good time on the ice, but they also know when to be serious. They lock in when the coaches are running drills in practice, soaking in all the information they can. The jokes come later.
The roommates stay on the ice long after Carvel leaves it, working on their game and goofing off just like they do back at the apartment. The popcorn game is usually the highlight of post-practice skating, but one Tuesday evening when Lautenbach and Mercuri saw Eric Faith being interviewed outside the glass, they couldn’t resist a light-hearted prank.
Just as Faith started talking into the microphone, the sophomores skated up to the glass, pounded on it and made faces at both the captain and the camera pointed at him.
Carvel wanted to see the three guys on the sophomore line succeed when going into the season. In order to see the best result, Carvel put the roommates on the line together for the first 10 games in hopes of seeing more production.
“We had a meeting with [Carvel] and talked about an identity that we need to have on the ice,” Mercuri said.
The group also talked apart from their meeting with Carvel to talk about what they want to be as a line. With all of their confidences up from talks with Carvel and improving themselves, they all knew they could be more successful.
“We feel more comfortable,” Lautenbach said. “It’s nice that this year we’re on a line together. We can work together, we trust each other. I think [Carvel] is starting to trust in us so it feels good.”
As the season goes on, Carvel is known to shake up lines and do what is best for UMass. Due to the team as a whole not having success on the ice, the sophomore line was broken up. The sophomores now add experience throughout the lineup.
Regardless of whether they’re playing together or separately, the experience they built together at the beginning of the season gave all three more confidence and elevated their games. Lautenbach, Makar and Mercuri are better now because of each other.
“It’s easy to play together when you’re playing with your best friends,” Mercuri said.
Kayla Gregoire can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Kaygregoire.