Johnny Kovacevic admits it was a crushing blow.
He was 17 and after completing his second training camp with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League, he was cut.
The defenceman had been drafted by the IceDogs in 2013 and expectations were high.
“I just didn’t make it to be quite honest,” Kovacevic said. “When I was 17, I was still growing and I was a little bit overweight too, filling into my body. A couple months into my 17-year-old season, I was playing Tier II junior A.”
It’s a bit of an odd route to professional hockey, but Kovacevic is proof that getting there is more important than how you get there.
His play with the Ottawa Junior Senators and Hawkesbury Hawks of the Central Canada Hockey League drew the attention of the coaching staff at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and once he arrived in the NCAA, he surprised even himself with his quick development.
“I’d say I was a bit of a late bloomer but everyone has their own path,” Kovacevic said. “There’s not one way you have to make it.”
When he started at Merrimack, Kovacevic was hoping to play four years and prove himself enough to earn a free-agent contract with an NHL team.
It didn’t take anywhere near that long.
The 6-foot-4, 208-pound right-shooting defenceman was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round of the 2017 NHL draft after playing just one season of college hockey. He was 19 at the time and it was two years after he first became eligible for the draft.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been one to dwell on disappointments so sometimes it’s nice to look back and see how far I’ve come,” the 22-year-old from Grimsby, Ont., said.
“It was disappointing not making the OHL but my goal was just to develop. I don’t think I’d be here without going the college route. It has done so much for me.”
Kovacevic just completed his first full season with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. He played three seasons at Merrimack before that and entered Jets/Moose training camp last season at the very bottom of the depth chart.
Again, it didn’t take long for him to make a strong impression.
At the beginning of the season, he was part of a bottom pairing rotation and was sitting out every third game. By the end of the year, he was seeing plenty of top-pairing minutes.
He wound up scoring four goals and 12 points in 45 games.
“It’s nice when you get a chance to prove yourself and then, as things go on, you find your stride,” Kovacevic said. “I definitely feel good about the way my game trended.”
Though he didn’t grow up in a hockey family — his parents never even skated — Kovacevic was drawn to the game because he was a Canadian kid in a small town.
“All my friends played hockey, so it’s just something I really wanted to do,” he said. “I played road hockey every single day, I played in my basement and I fell in love with it then. And I really found a passion for the game when I started playing on a team.”
At first, all he wanted to do was play centre and score goals.
He was a huge Ottawa Senators fan and slick centre Jason Spezza was his idol.
“He was my guy,” Kovacevic said. “He was a centre and I was trying to be exactly like him.”
One day when he was 10 or 11 years old, he got a chance to meet Spezza at the opening of a new gym, and he still has the picture to this day.
“I was a huge fan so I showed up an hour early,” Kovacevic said. “There was only like five people that ended up showing up, so I got to meet him. It’s pretty crazy to think that he’s still in the league now.
“I still have that picture of me meeting him so that would be hilarious to get a chance to play against him. That would be a childhood dream come true.”
Spezza, 37, is playing this season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kovacevic long ago switched to defence and has managed to find some success despite being a big man in a game that is getting smaller and faster.
“It has definitely changed the way I train,” he said. “The game is getting so much faster, so much more skilled. As a big guy, naturally speed is the No. 1 thing you have to work on — agility, speed, keeping up with those little guys in the corner.
“For sure the game is trending toward a lot more small, smooth-skating defencemen, but I still have to use my strength as my strength. I am big and that can work against you if you’re lethargic and slow, but as long as you’re working to stay fast and keeping up with the game, you can use it to your advantage. If you’re in the corners, using your reach, you can be successful. I definitely don’t think it’s a dying position or anything. There’s definitely still a lot of room for bigger guys as long as they know how to use their body.”
The good news for Kovacevic and Jets fans is he has proven to be a battler and that will continue as he tries to make his way into the NHL team’s lineup.
“I can look back and draw confidence from the fact that it’s been a journey just to make it here,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I keep moving forward?”
THE FILE ON KOVACEVIC
AGE: 22 (July 12, 1997)
HOMETOWN: Grimsby, Ont.
HEIGHT: 6-foot-4, WEIGHT: 208 pounds,
POSITION: Right defence, SHOOTS: Right
DRAFTED: Third round, 74th overall by Jets in 2017
THE SKINNY: After three years at Merrimack College, Kovacevic signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Jets in 2019 … Scored four goals and had 12 points as a rookie with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL in 2019-20 … In his pro debut — a one-game tryout with the Moose late in the 2018-19 season, scored a goal and added an assist.