Jesse Makaj had to earn his way with the Kootenay ICE in the 2018-19 WHL season. The six-foot-three, 209 pound goalie started out getting the odd start behind Duncan McGovern, who was a year older than him.
However, in late October he stopped 41-of-42 against the Swift Current Broncos and notched his first WHL win. He started to get more starts after that and slowly NHL scouts started to notice the East Vancouver, B.C. native.
As mid-season rolled around, Makaj was one of the busiest goalies in the league. He ended up facing the 15th most shots among all WHL goalies, despite playing in far fewer total games than the other goalies.
Being busy as the season drew to a close for the then-Kootenay and now Winnipeg ICE was something Makaj enjoyed.
“I think it’s good. I’m happy I’m getting a a lot of opportunities. I think it’s great for young goalies like myself to see as much action as I can,” Makaj said.
“Every game I try to give my team a chance to win. I feel like I’ve been doing that pretty well this season. Our team is pretty young but in the next few seasons we will have a really solid team. I think getting a lot of starts at this age will help me develop.”
Makaj posted a 4.41 GAA and 0.878 save percentage and a 5-22-0-1 record with the ICE in 2018-19. Despite the numbers, scouts took notice. He was placed 21st among North American draft eligible goalies by NHL Central Scouting in January, his first time on the list. He ended up 27th in the final rankings.
His goaltending coach, Nathan Lieuwen knows what it is like to be drafted late in the NHL Draft. Back in 2011, the 1991-born ICE goalie was taken in the sixth round by the Buffalo Sabres.
Lieuwen had a lot of praise for the 2001-born goalie.
“Jesse has worked extremely hard in practice all season long. He has a willingness to learn and improve that has helped him progress into a solid goaltender in this league.” Lieuwen said.
Makaj returned the favor and credited his goalie coach with helping him find his groove.
“The one thing i really like about Nathan he doesn’t really try change your game. He may make a few small changes here and there though,” Makaj continued. “He has some NHL experience and had a great WHL career. He has helped me with my game a lot this season. We do a lot of video review. I like to see what I did wrong and what I did right and what I could do different next time. He is a guy you can talk to about other things too and build strong relationship with.”
Lieuwen has noticed the hard work that the second round, 2016 WHL Bantam Draft pick by the ICE put in and believes it showed up late in the season when Makaj was at his busiest.
“Jesse has gone through a steep learning curve by getting so many starts in the last two months. I think the biggest skill he has learned is how to be mentally sharp for every game and for each situation he is put in,” Lieuwen relayed.
Makaj got one start prior to this season and the unexpected call up is a fond memory for the goalie who is expected to be the number one goalie when the ICE start their first season in Winnipeg.
“Third last game of the year. The head scout for the Kootenay ICE – asked if I wanted to make my debut and I was like ‘hell yeah I do.’ They had me come out to Cranbrook practice and do a day trip out to Calgary. My Mom came out to watch me and a few friends. Me as a kid watched the Giants as a kid and I would always look up to WHL players and I’m playing in this league now. It was awesome. It was a close game too, we lost 3-2 in the shootout so I think that went well. That was good for this season because that gave me some experience and I was also called up for a month and practiced and traveled to see how things would go this season.”
Makaj knew the ICE were interested in him and while he did not get picked in the first round, he went with the very first pick in the second round to the ICE. He was the third-highest drafted goalie behind Taylor Gauthier and Trent Miner.
“If I didn’t get picked in the first round, I thought that the Kootenay ICE would take me in the second round – which they did. They called me two weeks before the draft and talked to me and talked to my dad. They were really looking to draft a goalie and were really excited when they heard that I was excited to join their team if they drafted me.”
Makaj was actually the third of three straight goalies to go in the 2016 draft. Red Deer took Byron Fancy and Saskatoon chose Nolan Maier.
Now, along with those other 2001-born goalies, Makaj awaits the NHL Draft and will see if he gets to hear his name called like Lieuwen, his goalie coach did back in 2011.