“I hope I never see you again.” » These words can hurt when spoken by your loved one, a loved one or your favorite celebrity that you are tracking, hiding in the bushes.

But when Mike Keane said those words to Johnathan Kovacevic, it was different. It happened in October 2022, the Habs had just claimed Kovacevic on waivers.

“He contacted me immediately. His message was: “I’m telling you this in a very positive way, but I hope I never see you again.” He wished me good luck and he wanted me to take advantage of this opportunity, Kovacevic told La Presse. Sometimes players are claimed on waivers, but are sent back to the American League. Keaner works in the AHL, that’s why he told me he didn’t want to see me again. »

This Monday, Kovacevic will return to Winnipeg for the second time since the Canadian got him “for free”. The team lacked resources on the right flank of the defense; the idea of ​​repatriating Cale Fleury had been mentioned, but Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton ultimately opted for Kovacevic.

The great Hamiltonian arrived in Montreal with only four games of NHL experience, despite being 25 years old. In Winnipeg, he was stuck behind veterans (Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk, Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon), while giant Logan Stanley, the Jets’ first-round pick in 2016, was preferred to him.

What about Mike Keane in all this? The former Canadiens captain, native of Winnipeg, has been working on player development with the Jets for 10 years.

In this role, he was called upon to mentor Kovacevic, a third-round pick of the Jets in 2017. Keane had visited him a few times at Merrimack College, where the guard had played from 2016 to 2019. But it was mainly during the following three seasons, when Kovacevic wore the colors of the Manitoba Moose, in the AHL, that they rubbed shoulders more regularly.

During his first appearance in front of the cameras in Montreal, Kovacevic described Keane as a “mentor”.

“He’s the type of guy who would come up to me after practice to offer me dinner,” Kovacevic said Wednesday. We were talking about hockey, he asked me how things were going. »

We understand that Keane’s role was similar to that of Francis Bouillon and Rob Ramage with the Habs. “He’s not on the coaching or management side. He is his own voice and is not afraid to tell you the truth. If I told him I felt like I was screwed, he would say, “Yes, you are screwed. Now what are you going to do? There is only one way to answer. What is your foundation? What are the three or four things you do best? You have to run them every night, and then you’ll add things.” »

“He also told me: “I don’t agree with your coach, but he’s the coach.” Keaner was there to show us the path to the NHL. He’s played 1,500 games [pro] and he still runs 5 miles a day. He’s hardworking and a good guy. »

We know the rest. Injuries opened the door for him. Last year, he played 77 games in Montreal, a team high on the blue line. This season, he and Mike Matheson are the only two defensemen to have played in all 30 games for the Habs.

“He’s a fantastic young man, a sponge who is eager to learn, who wants to improve,” said Mike Keane, met last month during the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the 1993 Stanley Cup. “He is very intelligent, he knows his identity, but is never satisfied with where he is. »

Employed in the second duo at the start of the season, Kovacevic was then entitled to a few matches within the first tandem, with Matheson. For three weeks, he has played a more discreet role, partnering rookie Jayden Struble in the third pairing.

He has five points, including four goals, but offense is not exactly his specialty. We had a glimpse of it last year when Martin St-Louis named him in the shootout in Buffalo. Mike Keane teases him again. “Tell him about his feint,” he told us, miming quotation marks with his fingers.

Kovacevic remembers it very well. “The goalie was Eric Comrie, who had been my teammate in Manitoba. Maybe he stopped me because he knew my feint. But Keaner loves this feint, he finds it hilarious! »

“I’m happy he’s making his dream come true,” adds Keane. I would have preferred that he did it in Winnipeg, but all we want is for our young people to reach the NHL. »

Kovacevic, for his part, only remembers the good things about his years in Manitoba, even if he had to come out to reach the next level.

“I had a lot of help, from Keaner, Dubie [Éric Dubois], Pascal Vincent, Mo [Paul Maurice], Mark Morrison. People ask me if I’m bitter towards the Jets when we play them. I have no bitterness, because I would not be here without them. »