Stu Cowan: Canadiens' Johnathan Kovacevic's love of hockey runs deep

Defenceman says his father, who pushed him more in soccer than hockey, helped him build work ethic that also led to a degree in engineering.

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Johnathan Kovacevic’s father never pushed him in hockey.

Soccer was a different story.

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“My dad moved (to Canada) when he was about 30,” the Canadiens defenceman said during a one-on-one chat after practice last week in Brossard. “The country he’s from, Montenegro, doesn’t even have a hockey rink. So he didn’t know anything about hockey.”

But Novica Kovacevic had a passion for soccer and he passed that on to his two sons, Johnathan and older brother Ryan.

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“I was probably better at soccer,” Kovacevic said. “My dad pushed me hard in soccer. He really wanted me to play soccer. I think that’s why I loved hockey so much because he didn’t push me as much. It was kind of like my free time. He’d want me to practise (soccer) and do a lot of extra reps and work. He’d never do that with hockey. I think what that did is it instilled a work ethic in me and then I kind of took that and my love for hockey and combined those two together.”

Kovacevic said his parents have never put on a pair of skates in their lives. His mother, Angie, was born in a remote Bosnian village that didn’t have electricity or running water. Angie and her family immigrated to Canada when she was 8 and landed in Hamilton, Ont., where she became a nurse and would meet her future husband. The couple has three children, including daughter Daniela.

Kovacevic, who was a centre back in soccer, played that sport at a high level until he was 16 and was selected by the Niagara Ice Dogs in the 12th round (226th overall) of the 2013 OHL Priority Selection draft. After getting cut by the Ice Dogs for two straight years at training camp, Kovacevic decided to take the U.S. college route and went to Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

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“When I went into college, I was definitely more prepared to have a job afterwards,” he said. “But playing pro hockey was a goal I still wanted to work towards and I love hockey. It wasn’t like I have to be in the NHL or it’s a bust. That wasn’t my thing. My parents were saying you have to be realistic and you need a job after college, so that’s why I did engineering. But I wrote out goals for myself going into college.”

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One of those goals was to sign a contract with a pro hockey team as a free agent after finishing university. Kovacevic got a pleasant surprise after posting 3-16-19 totals in 36 games during his first season at Merrimack when the Winnipeg Jets selected him in the third round (74th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Kovacevic decided to leave Merrimack after three years to pursue his hockey career, but he still wanted to complete his degree in civil engineering with six classes missing. He was able to finish those classes online while playing for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and graduated in the summer of 2020 with the rest of his class.

“There’s a relief you feel after graduating,” he said. “Engineering’s not an easy degree. I worked so hard for this and I felt I had to see it through. It was a really big thing for me to graduate.”

If hockey hadn’t worked out for him, Kovacevic says he would have become an engineer, but not behind a desk.

“My goal was to not work in an office setting,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to do that. So I’d probably be working on a construction site somewhere.”

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Kovacevic’s father and brother are both engineers, but he doesn’t want to become an engineer after his hockey-playing days are over. Instead, he says he’d like to stay in hockey either as a coach, in player development or at the management level. The intelligent, thoughtful and affable Kovacevic would be a good fit in any of those positions.

Canadiens GM Kent Hughes made a smart decision when he claimed Kovacevic off waivers from Winnipeg four days before the start of last season after he had only played four games with the Jets. Kovacevic has become a very steady and reliable defenceman with the Canadiens, posting 3-12-15 totals and a plus-3 differential in 77 games last season and 4-1-5 totals and a plus-5 in 30 games this season before facing the Jets Monday night in Winnipeg.

“I still love hockey,” the 26-year-old Kovacevic said. “I love everything about hockey. Being on the ice and playing, I just love the game. I just wanted to be as good as I could be, but realistically I thought after college I was going to work a regular job.

“I’d really like to keep doing something in hockey,” he added about his post-playing career. “I feel like you can have a specialized mind if you can be in top-level hockey for so many years. It would be cool to give back to the game that has given me so much. It would be nice to help the next generation if possible.”

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