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Reflections on his first year pro with Winnipeg Jets 2017 3rd rounder Johnny Kovacevic and a look ahead

The big Dman looks back with us on his first year as a pro in Winnipeg.

The 2019-20 hockey season is not one folks are ever going to forget. Unfortunately the covid-19 pandemic saw to that. We are almost eight months to the day that the NHL and AHL hit the pause button on their respective seasons. Which is where I started the conversation with Winnipeg Jets 2017 3rd round draft pick Johnny Kovacevic who spent his first season as a pro with the Manitoba Moose.

Johnny Kovacevic breaking in on net scaled

Photo Credit: Colby Spence (Illegal Curve)

DM:  What was it like for you the after your March 8th game against Iowa as your team was scheduled to leave on a six-game road trip with the uncertainty that existed and which would ultimately be followed by the AHL hitting the pause button on the season on March 12th?

JK: We were just practicing and everything was normal and I think the day before we were supposed to leave for our road trip that’s when the NBA had those games cancelled ’cause I remember the players were on the court taking warmup about to play and then they cancelled their season the night before we were supposed to leave. So that was the night before we were supposed to leave for Milwaukee. So the NBA games were cancelled that night and the next morning the flight was at maybe 6 am so we had to be up at 4 am, so before we were setting our alarms for 4 am we were texting the group chat asking if we were sure we are going on this trip? So we get to the airport for like 4:30 am and we fly from Winnipeg to Minnesota then have an hour layover and in our hour layover more news is coming in and some teams in the NHL weren’t traveling. We waited an hour, then we flew from Minnesota to Milwaukee and then we got to the rink where we were supposed to go on for practice and it seemed just as we were supposed to get dressed for practice that’s when the official news from the league came in saying that the AHL season was going to be put on hold. So that’s when Pazzy (coach Pascal Vincent) told us the news in Milwaukee after we had just flown there. So we stayed in Milwaukee for maybe like four or five hours, then flew back to Minnesota, had another wait for an hour and flew back to Winnipeg. So I think altogether it was maybe a 21 hour travel day. It was pretty crazy.

DM: When the season ended how difficult was it to stay motivated with the uncertainty of when the next season would begin?

JK: I think it’s only natural to have like some spikes and dips in your motivation. There’s sometimes where I’m super motivated and eating healthy, doing everything right and it almost seems like you hit a wall if you’ve been doing that for two or three months in a row and then all of a sudden you feel like you’re never gonna play again. Finding motivation for me came from a few different ways. I like to think I’m a pretty self motivated person as it is but when you’re trying to stay motivated for 10 or 11 months it does get hard. So what I’ll, at the beginning, especially since we were in isolation it was tough but I’d work out with friends, either former teammates or like guys in the area. I know the first couple of months I do the same workouts from my college trainer and I do them over FaceTime with two buddies so you still kinda have that social component and are able to push each other in groups. So I did that for a while. I also made lists of things to do in a month. I guess every guy is different in how they stay motivated but for me it’s nice to have that structure, whether that comes in the form of a group work out or in the form of writing it down. The last three or four months I’ve had a good group that I work out and skate with in the Hamilton area and that’s really nice for me. I find any time, especially with Covid, you’re not doing social things so I find anytime when you have a social component mixed in with working hard it is always the best because then you guys can get the most out of each other and still have fun with it. When you have fun working hard then it’s easier to come back in. It’s almost like going to the gym is your motivation. When you don’t know when you’re going to play in your next game it would be easy to fall into the trap of losing motivation but if you’re looking forward to the practices and the workouts, it’s easy to keep your motivation.

DM: What sort of contact have you had from the Jets/Moose organizations during this long offseason?

JK: Dubi (Moose assitant coach Eric Dubois) has checked in a few times and Kyle, our strength coach, has checked in a few times. Mike Keane and Jimmy Roy do a good job working in tandem. I’ve been talking to Keaner probably every couple of weeks, maybe twice a month or so, just to catch up and to see what’s going on and talk about my practices and my workouts. We do fitness test every couple of weeks. It’s nice to talk to Keaner and Jimmy who keep me on track with my off-season development. It’s a little longer than you would hope for but it’s still nice to catch up with them.

Johnny Kovacevic celebrating goal scaled

Photo Credit: Colby Spence (Illegal Curve)

DM: When you look back at your first year as a pro what stands out the most from a learning perspective?

JK: One thing is how quickly things can change. We had that rotation and I was playing one every three games and at times it can be a grind as you’re waiting for your chance but things happen so quickly and it’s not like any other team because if something changes with the Jets well then something changes with the Moose or if something changes with the Moose then also something changes with the Moose. Obviously injuries are unfortunate but they are part of the game so if anyone gets injured anywhere in the organization something changes. Even if you feel like you’re not getting any opportunity you just need to stay prepared and focused on when you’re going to get your shot because it is only a matter of time with how quickly things change. That was pretty crazy to see especially coming from a college game where you only play 30 games, you only play a couple times a week, so there is a lot less change versus in the AHL I found that there was so much change, whether to the lineup or guys coming in and out or guys coming up from the East Coast or trades or whatever it may be. I feel like if you get caught up in it it could be draining or emotional if you get caught up in that but if you just focus on yourself and focused on being prepared for when your shot does come then that’s the best way to go about it from a mental perspective. That was a valuable thing to learn I think and hopefully I can keep that mindset going forward in my pro career.

DM: You were paired with quite a few partners this season, playing most often with Logan Stanley but also frequently with Cam Schilling and Nelson Nogier. What benefit is there to learning to play with different D partners? What did you like about playing with Logan?

Kovacevic and Stanley scaled

Photo Credit: Colby Spence (Illegal Curve)

JK: There is a lot of value in playing with different guys. Not only is it useful for your game, to adapt your game but then you see what they do as a partner and there are little things that you can learn. For example Schills (Cam Schilling), who is a veteran guy, and it is something I want to improve, he was so good at communicating. He is just very clear with his communication on the ice and it helps you a ton as a partner. If you see a play and you’re not sure but you hear a guy calling it then you’re going to be 100% sure versus if someone doesn’t call it might just take that extra half second to make that play which turns a good plan into a bad play obviously with hockey because everything happens so fast. You pick things up. Nog (Nelson Noiger) is an excellent communicator. Stan (Logan Stanley) is too. They all are actually. Playing with Stan is great because we are both similar in a sense, where I feel like we are defensive, we are both big guys who can frustrate the opposing team down low or in our own zone but we still like to chip in offensively and we both just take up a lot of space back there. I enjoy those times especially if we’d be matched up against the other teams top lines for a long period of the game, I feel like we could frustrate the other team’s forwards. It’s almost a mental game at that point and if you win that your team is in a good spot.

DM: What have you learned under head coach Pascal Vincent and D coach Eric Dubois?

JK: The details of the game for sure. I hope that’s not a cliché answer. If you were in our video meetings…..

DM: I interrupt him to tell him that I’d be happy to be in the team meetings but I’m not sure the coaching staff would like it too much.

JK laughs and continues: It’s incredible how detail orientated they are and I honestly appreciate that, I feel like that is in line with my personality. I thought I was detail orientated and pick up these little things but going over video with them or like even when we’re working on skills it’s not like we’re working on stickhandling and skating we’ll work on on specific things like picking up a puck off a rim or like stick positioning and body positioning. They are both extremely detailed. It’d be hard to tell you and it would be too technical to tell you all the little details I learned from them. At the higher levels the difference between someone who is good and someone who is great is really small so I think those little details are what separates people. So I’m hoping to continue to pick up the little things from them.

DM: With a number of players playing pro over in Europe how much of an advantage is that compared to guys like yourself who have been off since March?

JK: I think for periods of time working on certain skills and practicing is beneficial and I think I’ve made strides this off-season from working on skills and in the gym, I feel probably as good as I ever have. But for an extended period of time I wouldn’t wanna do this. Hopefully the season can start very soon. You can only get so much better working on individual skills. Being part of a team environment and being in competitive game action, I actually miss it so much. I was watching some video from last season and I miss playing those games so much, so I do think it’s an advantage for those guys. At the same time I can’t focus too much on that because there’s not too much I can do. I can only control what I can control and I have to trust and have faith in what I’m doing this off-season and I feel really good. So I’m hoping I can show how good I feel soon but I guess we’ll have to wait and see on that.

DM: What would you say was something you learned about living in Manitoba during your first year here?

JK: It’s cliché I guess to say the people but I feel there has to be something said about about the people who endure a tough winter, it reflects a hard-working nature. I feel like there’s a little more character in the city, I don’t know exactly how to describe it. I feel like the people are very friendly in every event that we did like when we’d go to schools. I know the winters are long but it’s almost like there is a feel that the city is in it together, like you’re going to get through the winter together. It was a good feel for me, I’m not exactly sure how to put my finger on it, but I did enjoy it.

DM:  I noticed that back in November you posted a photo with your Civil Engineering degree from Merrimack College.  What did it mean for you to accomplish this?

JK: It meant a lot it meant a ton especially because I did three years of school before I signed. Civil engineering is a pretty tough degree while you’re doing it in school and it’s also tough to do remotely so when I signed I was gone for about a month and I was in five classes when I joined Manitoba on the ATO (in 2018-19). Last year I still had five or six classes to finish up. During the season I did one the first semester, two the second and then I did the rest throughout the summer and I wrote a licensing exam, passed that, so I am officially an engineer in training in the States. It meant a lot, especially with all the hurdles I had to go through of trying to balance my classes and hockey, not just the work but also the scheduling conflicts, I couldn’t take certain classes because at school they were at the same time as my practice time, so there were a lot of headaches. But to finally be done it feels it feels so worth it at this point but getting through it there were times I was like I didn’t think I’d be able to stick though this, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish. So to be able to finish meant a ton to me and I know it means even more to my parents.

DM: I noticed someone painted your image on Instagram. What is it like having “fans”? Seeing people wearing jerseys with your name on the back?

JK: It’s really cool. Kind of what every kid dreams of. Obviously it’s at a very small scale right now but I appreciate the pioneers of my fans. They are my first fans and hopefully I can continue to do well and hopefully grow that fan base. But it means a ton, it’s really special.