Stu Cowan: Canadiens' Johnathan Kovacevic epitomizes a winning culture

“When you play for something bigger than yourself that’s when I think you can really get better,” he says about dealing with being a healthy scratch.

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After the Canadiens called Jayden Struble up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Nov. 20, it was fellow defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic who took him under his wing and went out of his way to make sure the 22-year-old felt comfortable in the locker room.

Struble has looked very comfortable on the ice for an NHL rookie and hasn’t missed a game since getting called up. Meanwhile, Kovacevic was made a healthy scratch for the sixth time since Struble’s arrival for Wednesday night’s game against the Devils in New Jersey.

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Head coach Martin St. Louis has spoken often about the winning culture and brotherhood he wants to build in the locker-room and Kovacevic epitomizes that.

The 26-year-old remembers what it was like trying to break into the NHL when he spent three seasons with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, hoping to earn a spot with the Winnipeg Jets. He only played four games with the Jets before being claimed off waivers by the Canadiens before the start of last season. Kovacevic had played in the first 33 games this season before being made a healthy scratch for the first time.

Kovacevic will never forget how Nelson Nogier, one of his teammates with the Moose, made him feel welcome even though they were both right-handed shots competing against each other for a spot with the Jets.

“He was an amazing teammate, an amazing guy,” Kovacevic said about Nogier, who is now playing in the KHL. “I know my last year he started getting taken out of the lineup, but he was still a mentor to me and someone who was always on board. I’m really grateful for him.”

The player who helped Kovacevic most to feel comfortable when he joined the Canadiens was Arber Xhekaj, his fellow Hamilton native. Now, it’s Kovacevic trying to support Xhekaj after he was sent down to Laval on Dec. 4. Kovacevic went to Laval to watch Xhekaj play last Friday when the Rocket beat the Moose 5-2.

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“He’s playing well and I think he’s got a good mindset and attitude about it,” Kovacevic said. “I think he’ll be back up here in no time.”

Kovacevic had played in the previous two games before being scratched against the Devils with Justin Barron returning to the lineup. It’s not like Kovacevic has been playing poorly and St. Louis said he might continue rotating some defencemen in and out of the lineup. In 38 games this season, Kovacevic has 5-2-7 totals and a plus-6 differential.

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“I think any time you come out of the lineup it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s the uncertainty of not knowing when you’re going to play again. You have a lot of time to sit there and think. So I tried to make it positive, but it’s tough. You got to just keep pushing and keep sticking with it and not make it bigger than it is. Anyone can get scratched, anyone can get sat, and it’s just continue to do the right things over and over and hopefully, eventually, things will go your way.

“These guys are my teammates, not my competitors,” Kovacevic added about the competition for spots on the blue line. “I’m competing with myself … that’s the way I look at it. I know what standard, what level of play I want to aspire to and play to. Being the best player, best teammate I can be is helping these guys raise their game. Helping other people feel comfortable makes you feel better, too. It just makes you play for something bigger than yourself because I’m playing for us to get a win. You’re always cheering for your teammates and when you play for something bigger than yourself that’s when I think you can really get better, too, because you don’t have an ego about it. You’re not getting in your own way. You’re just doing whatever it takes to help the team win — and usually what it takes is playing your best.”

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That’s the definition of a winning culture and Kovacevic will continue to be the best teammate he can be, supporting the other defencemen he’s competing against for a job, including Struble.

“When you come up you see guys do it both ways,” Kovacevic said. “When you’re new to a team, you see some guys who maybe see you as competition and aren’t as warm and welcoming to you and then it’s harder for you when that happens. I know I’ve been in that situation a couple of times where you don’t feel so welcomed. I always told myself I’m going to establish myself and then for every guy who comes up I’m going to be someone who can help them.

“That’s what I want to continue to do,” he added. “I also want to continue to build my game and get better and whatever new or young guy comes in continue to welcome and help them, too. It helps make it more than hockey … I think life is bigger than just hockey.”

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