How Did Johnathan Kovacevic’s Family Story Help Him

Find out “How Did Johnathan Kovacevic’s Family Story Help Him“ Don’t sleep on Johnathan Kovacevic. Former Jets scout Dan Shrader texted this to me in 2019. I had just written a top prospects report and I’d glossed over Winnipeg’s third-round pick from 2017.

Kovacevic had been cut from two OHL camps and passed over in the NHL Draft twice before Winnipeg took him. He’d played for the unheralded Merrimack College of Hockey East before becoming a depth defenceman for the Manitoba Moose at the start of 2019-20.

“What’s so special about this kid?” I wondered.

Shrader told me about Kovacevic’s intelligence, both on and off the ice, and the way he’d been a rock for Merrimack’s struggling program. He called Kovacevic a classic late bloomer and said Manitoba’s coaching staff was enamoured with him. We had never spoken before but Shrader sang the praises of Kovacevic’s work ethic and attitude.

It was worth the phone call at least. Maybe Kovacevic had long-term NHL potential after all.

How Did Johnathan Kovacevic’s Family Story Help Him

That’s when Shrader shared the first few details of Kovacevic’s family story.

What Johnny went through — getting cut from junior hockey teams — had nothing on his parents’ journeys to Canada from the former Yugoslavia.

But the perspective they passed on has given him everything.


The road to Kovacevic’s first NHL game, which the 24-year-old played for the Jets on Thursday, begins outside of a remote village in Bosnia, where his mother Angie was born and grew up without electricity or running water.

Her family lived on a tiny subsistence farm, using a horse and cart for transportation, before immigrating to Canada when she was 8 years old. Angie’s parents gambled that her life, along with the lives of her two brothers, would be easier in Canada than it had been in Bosnia.

“When we came to Canada and I was in school studying pioneer life,” Angie says, “I thought: I lived it! I was there!”

How Did Johnathan Kovacevic’s Family Story Help Him
How Did Johnathan Kovacevic’s Family Story Help Him

Her family arrived in Hamilton without English or higher education; Angie became an IV nurse at a top Ontario hospital.

How Did Johnathan Kovacevic’s Family Story Help Him

Kovacevic’s story begins as well in Montenegro, where his father Novica (No-VEET-sa) grew up, and in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where he attended a leading technical university.

Novica built a life for himself as a software engineer in Sarajevo throughout the 1980s, travelling to places like England and Japan for work, before Yugoslavia’s ongoing separation descended toward multiple wars. Novica was fortunate; as the prospect of armed conflict developed in 1988 and 1989, he made an educated guess that it was time to start a new life. He departed for Canada in May 1991; war broke out weeks later in Slovenia before escalating horrifically in Croatia and Bosnia over the next several years.

“I had some really close friends who were stuck there,” Novica says. “They wanted to leave. They couldn’t.”

Novica’s experience in Sarajevo had shown him Muslims, Christians and all nationalities living and working side by side.

Without the Yugoslav Wars, he would have loved to keep working and travelling in what had been an idyllic setting throughout the 1980s.

Instead, he found himself in Hamilton in the summer of 1991 — safe, sound and about to fall in love.

“He came to find me!” smiles Angie.


Angie and Novica tell a story about Johnathan’s determination that starts with a broken-down school bus on a Massachusetts freeway.

Kovacevic and his Hill Academy teammates were on their way home from a hockey trip to the United States partway through the 2013-14 season when their bus broke down. The high school hockey players waited on the side of the road while their coaches made arrangements to have a second bus come and rescue them.

Some slept, some tried to sleep and some took advantage of the late hour to socialize — for teenagers, stolen time is freedom.

A little after 4 a.m., a second bus arrived. The Hill Academy players hauled their gear off the broken down bus and onto the new one and then started back on the road toward Canada. They crossed the border, drove into southern Ontario and returned to campus just in time for sunrise.

By now, most of the hockey players would have been asleep. They roused themselves and trudged home to get proper rest.

Kovacevic was one of two students who made it to class at 8 a.m.

It’s this kind of dedication that kept Kovacevic going when he was scratched from one of Ontario’s worst AAA minor-midget teams at 14 years old.

And again when Kovacevic was cut from that same team during his OHL draft year, forcing him to find a new AAA minor-midget team in Niagara. At this point, Kovacevic considered single-A hockey and even wondered if it was time to stop playing competitive hockey altogether.

He persevered, playing so well for the Niagara Falls Rivermen that he got drafted to the OHL — where he was cut by the Niagara Ice Dogs.

Twice.

“I went to (Ice Dogs) camp at 16 and I could tell that I wasn’t ready,” says Kovacevic. “When I was 16 I tried working so hard that, when I was 17, I could make the OHL. I went back to camp, still didn’t make it that year, and that’s when I went to the CCHL and played Junior A. When you’re 17, that’s your first NHL draft year and I couldn’t even play in the OHL, never mind being an NHL draft pick so it’s been a long journey.”

Looking back on those days, Kovacevic calls his struggles “a blessing in disguise.”

There was an advantage to his junior hockey tribulations that ran counter to being put on the fast track toward NHL success.

“I got to take more time with my development,” he says. “And I think Merrimack is the best thing that’s happened to me.”


Merrimack College is not a hockey powerhouse

This season, the Warriors are 7-8-3 and seventh out of 12 teams in NCAA’s Hockey East. They finished eighth in Kovacevic’s freshman season in 2016-17, ninth when he was a sophomore and 12th in his third and final season.

What the absence of dominance provided was an opportunity to play big, consistent minutes.

Kovacevic says he was given a long leash and felt as if Merrimack’s coaches put their trust in him. He says that Curtis Carr, Merrimack’s defence coach at the time, “just got me really well.”

Carr says he could immediately see Kovacevic’s potential, even well before he recruited him. The problem, in Carr’s words, is that Kovacevic didn’t seem to understand how good he could be.

Whereas most recruits he spoke to could describe their most ambitious hockey dreams in (sometimes excruciating) detail, Carr says Kovacevic always told him the same thing: “I’m just trying to be the best person and best player he can be.”

At the time, Carr wondered if this was a sign that Kovacevic didn’t know how far hockey could take him.

“Right away, I saw a big, tall, lanky kid who was really smart and moved the puck well,” Carr says. “When I got back to Merrimack, I watched some video of him from the Hill Academy and thought the same thing: he was really raw but he had a lot of potential. Then, that summer, I started talking to Johnny and I just really liked him as a kid. Any questions I had about his development curve went away because I started to learn what kind of person he was.”

What kind of person was he?

Carr describes Kovacevic as humble, hardworking and extraordinarily grateful for each opportunity he got.

“The other thing that really impressed me about him was that, in the recruiting process, when he left AAA hockey and started playing junior hockey, you’ve got to envision him the same size but probably 40 to 50 pounds lighter,” he says. “He was a pretty scrawny guy so he didn’t play a ton. He was a young guy and he was working his way into the lineup. He never complained about his situation or how he was getting treated. When I asked him how his ice time was or how he was playing, he’d say, ‘I’m learning and they’re starting to spot me in more and as I get more comfortable, I’ll show them what I can do.’ Like, he never complained. He always put it on himself to get better.”

Merrimack was the place Kovacevic did exactly that. In his first year with the Warriors, Kovacevic stepped onto a pairing with a veteran defenceman, played tough minutes and scored 19 points in 36 games. He grew — if only a little at first — into his then 6-foot-4 frame.

He also enrolled in Civil Engineering, thinking that he needed to prepare himself in case hockey didn’t work out.

“The NHL has been my dream since I was 4 years old but yeah, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t always think it was necessarily attainable,” Kovacevic says. “I was a little bit more, I thought, realistic … But at the same time, just the way I am, I’m not going to give 80 percent of myself to my dream. I just give 100 percent of myself and that’s what keeps me going. That’s what gives me joy and happiness — just committing fully to what I’m trying to do.”


Novica and Angie met in the summer of 1991, a few months after Novica’s arrival in Canada.

A mutual friend in Hamilton’s Serbian community originally tried to set them up at a group picnic. When a scheduling wrinkle stopped that from happening, their friend tried a different tack: they hosted Novica and Angie for dinner at their home.

The connection was immediate and commitment soon followed.

Novica explains it one way: “We were not 18 or 19 years old anymore.”

Angie chimes in with a joke: “The biological clock was ticking.”

To complicate matters, Novica had arrived in Canada in May 1991 on a six-month visa. The couple entertained plans for Novica to leave Canada and return but eventually discarded them. They were married by the end of the year.

“I was the original ‘90 Day Fiance,’” Angie laughs.

To listen to any couple that’s been married for 30 years laugh and flirt as the Kovacevics do is endearing. To hear them speak with pride about their oldest son Ryan, daughter Daniela and Johnathan is special. There is a sense of appreciation in all things.

“He’s worked so hard with his fitness on the ice, he gets the grades the way he’s supposed to,” Angie says before trailing off. “Examples just tell you this kid is committed. We don’t know what the limit is for him but we know that he’s pushing it.”


Carr credits Kovacevic’s parents for instilling in him the attitude that leads to his success.

“There’s zero entitlement to him,” Carr says. “And, if you ever got a chance to meet his parents, you’d know why Johnny is the way that he is. I’ve never seen them in a bad mood. I’ve never seen them without a smile on their face. They never worried about how much ice time he was getting. They never complained about how we used him or when we talked about what year he was coming. His parents never said a word — just ‘Thank you for the opportunity.’”

Kovacevic was cut from the OHL in his first year of NHL draft eligibility. Clearly he was a world away.

He also went undrafted the second time around.

His third year of NHL Draft eligibility was 2017 — his freshman season at Merrimack. That’s when Carr says Kovacevic’s dream started to look like a potential reality.

“His draft year, he played against Big Ten teams with recent draftees. And I thought that every game, Johnny was as good as — if not better than — a lot of those players.”

Kovacevic started to think the NHL was a possibility after a conversation with Jets scout Max Giese partway through 2016-17. When the Jets interviewed him with their full staff heading into the 2017 draft in Chicago, he really started to believe.

“I’m grateful that they saw something in me and took a chance on me. And now it’s up to me to try to prove them right.”

To get a deeper sense of Kovacevic as a person, consider this interview scenario he was presented by one NHL team:

It’s a teammate’s birthday. You’re at the bar. All of your teammates are there.

But it’s past curfew.

How do you handle the situation?

Pick one: Do you stay and drink or do you sneak out the back door?

“Johnny made his own answer: ‘I stay but I don’t drink,’” Carr says. “He asked me if I thought that was OK. He said, ‘I would never sneak out the back door on my teammates during a team event but I would want to make sure I’m ready to help the team the next day, so I wouldn’t be partying. I’d be there with the guys. I’d never bail on them.”

Kovacevic asked Carr if he thought that was a good answer.

“I said, ‘Johnny, if a team has an issue with you saying that, then it’s probably not a place you want to play.’ But that was his whole thing: ‘I would never sneak out on my teammates just to protect myself.’ And that’s just who he is as a person, you know?”

Carr has moved on from Merrimack and now coaches at Bowling Green in the NCAA’s CCHA division.

Recruiting good players and good people is as important to him as ever — and for his barometer of “good,” Carr turns to Kovacevic.

“There are kids you recruit who check off a lot of boxes of who they are as people, as students, in the community and as hockey players,” he says. “Johnny was an A-plus in all of those areas. When I think about recruiting high-level people and athletes to our program, he’s kind of the standard when I’m out watching players and dealing with their families. If a kid reminds me of Johnny, I’m going to recruit that kid. All the time.”


Kovacevic graduated from Merrimack Engineering in 2020, finishing the fourth year of his degree via remote learning. He says he’s always done “pretty well” at school. Merrimack’s website lists his GPA as 4.0

His dad and brother are also engineers while his sister is an occupational therapist currently working with youth in New Zealand.

His mom took advantage of her education in Hamilton and became an IV nurse, working primarily with cancer patients at a top cancer care hospital.

Angie planned to retire in January 2020 but returned to the hospital when COVID-19 put a strain on staffing resources.

“She could have said ‘I don’t want to do anything. I just want to stay home and be safe,’” says Novica. “But she chose to go and help. Her job is the tough job.”

One can only imagine what this kind of upbringing does to a person’s work ethic.

Johnny says it’s “100 percent” fair to connect the dots between his parents’ backstories and his own sense of gratitude.

“I don’t know how cliche it is but yeah, a couple of things. One is that they’ve instilled hard work in me and my siblings too — that whatever we do, we’re going to do it to the best of our abilities. At the same time, they’ve instilled an appreciation for the life that we have and not to take it for granted because, firsthand, they’ve seen a lot harder times,” he says.

A moment of reflection brings the insightful young Kovacevic toward even more gratitude.

“I think what’s cool is that neither of them had ever put on a pair of skates before. They didn’t necessarily know hockey but at the same time, I feel like they’ve given me absolutely everything I need in order to become successful at hockey. What they’ve taught me will help me in hockey and in life. So many things that they’ve taught me have helped me become a good hockey player which, I guess, you wouldn’t think to be true because neither of them have ever skated. I sometimes look at that and think about how cool that is.

“I just know I wouldn’t be as good of a player if I didn’t have them as role models as parents.”

FAQs

Kovacevic, a native of Niagara Falls, Ont., played a pair of junior seasons in the CCHL with the Ottawa Jr. Senators and the Hawkesbury Hawks and recorded 55 points (13G, 42A) and 47 PIMs in 103 games.
The surname is derived from Kovač, which means “[black]smith”, and is the equivalent of English Smithson. Kovačević is the second most frequent surname in Croatia. It is the equivalent of the Polish surname Kowalewicz which has the same meaning.
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Johnathan Kovacevic (born July 12, 1997) is a Canadian professional ice hockey defenceman who currently plays for the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League (NHL).
Johnathan Kovacevic
BornJuly 12, 1997 Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Height6 ft 4 in (193 cm)
Weight208 lb (94 kg; 14 st 12 lb)
PositionDefence

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