By Mike Gurnis
Through 37 years of coaching high school hockey in New Jersey, John Kovacs thought that he had seen it all.
But moments after walking into the locker room following his 400th career win on Wednesday night, the Mendham coach wasn’t sure what to expect when he noticed a strange silence.
Sure enough, Kovacs was the recipient of a Gatorade bath- something generally reserved for football coaches after a big win. Being doused after a game was a new experience for the long-time coach.
“I walked in, and you think you’ve seen and you know everything as a coach,” Kovacs said. “I’m walking in the locker room after a nice win, and it was eerily quiet. And then I turned a corner, and I knew it. They were dumping me with water and gatorade, and they were so excited. To see their excitement on their faces almost brought me to tears with how excited they were for me.”
Kovacs went into the 2022-23 season needing three wins to reach the 400-win milestone, and his team’s 5-1 win over Watchung Hills on Monday brought him to 399. On Wednesday, behind a pair of goals from Blake Stevens and a goal and two assists from Mac Goggin, Mendham took down Madison, 5-2, to give the only head coach Mendham has known the milestone win.
He became just the seventh coach in New Jersey high school hockey history to win 400 career games.
“First and foremost, it always has been and always will be about the players on the team,” Kovacs said. “That win was big for us to keep our streak going. We’ve got another game tonight. But yeah, I’m not going to lie, when the buzzer went off it was a pretty cool feeling, absolutely.”
Kovacs’ coaching career began at Morris Knolls 37 years ago, and still remembers his first game as a coach as a 22-year old. He led the program for nine years, earning Star-Ledger Coach of the Year honors in 1990.
While he never had any intent to leave Morris Knolls, the opportunity to start his own program was something that piqued his interest. When Mendham came calling with the opportunity to do just that in 1995, it happened to come at the same time that a new rule was being implemented at Morris Knolls which would’ve significantly impacted his travel from home to the rink.
“I always thought it’d be cool to start a brand new program,” Kovacs said. “I was on the fence, and this is funny: I’m not a teacher, I don’t live in the town, but I did go to Morris Knolls, and they were putting a mandate in that coaches had to ride the bus back-and-forth. I live in New Providence, I was going to have to go from New Providence, to Denville, to Mennen, and then from Mennen, to Denville, back to New Providence. I was like, I have a young family, I can’t do this. It’s funny what weighs your decision.”
That decision led Kovacs to Mendham, where he has spent the last 27 seasons and has led the Minutemen through several different administrations at the school. Under his watch, Mendham has won five Halvorsen Cup titles (most recently last season) and one Haas Cup title.
In total, his record now stands at 400-338-60 over 37 years of coaching.
He attributes that long track record of success to his players, as well as his assistant coach Rob Dachisen.
“I can’t go through an interview and not mention Rob Dachisen, affectionately known as Dach,” Kovacs said. “He’s been my assistant for I think 29 of the 37 years we’ve coached together. We’re like an old, married couple. We know what’s going to come out of each other’s mouths before we say it. He’s always run my defense for me. He’s more like a co-coach than an assistant coach. Every team that I’ve had, as much as my players have looked up to me, they’ve looked up to Dach. It’s something special when you’re a coach and you know you have that type of support on the other end of the bench.”
Kovacs added, “It just comes to passion of coaching. I love it. It’s like anything…If the fire stops burning, and it becomes work, then you don’t do it anymore. I love it, I love working with the student-athletes. I’ve had a lot of great players on the ice who have gone on to great careers. I’ve had even moreso, great people.”
That passion for coaching has brought him into rarified air, being one of just seven coaches to win 400 career games. He joins active coaches such as Randolph’s Rich McLaughlin, Delbarton’s Bruce Shatel, and Ridge’s Tim Mullin- along with Brick’s Bob Auriemma, Chatham’s Harvey Cohen, and Seton Hall Prep’s John Warchol.
“Knowing them all, it’s humbling,” Kovacs said .”It’s definitely humbling when you hit a milestone like that and you look at the others that are there. You take a step back and you go, wow. It’s a very humbling experience knowing all of the accolades and milestones that that group had achieved already, and to be with that group is definitely something special.”
In addition to the players and coaching staff, Kovacs also credits the parents and administration at Mendham.
Kovacs said, “The support we get from the parents and the administration…it’s a team effort. It’s what we preach, it’s how we coach. Nobody achieves a goal like this without having a great team with them.”
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