Aurora's Kovach savors life of an athletic trainer

by MIKE LESKO | REPORTER Published:

Aurora -- Current City Councilman Denny Kovach wanted to pinch himself to make sure it wasn't a dream.

At age 22, he had become the athletic trainer for the Cleveland Barons hockey team of the American Hockey League in 1969. Although it was a minor league squad, the club had a glorious history, capturing nine league titles, the most recent in 1964.

His first thought was about how he attended Barons games at the old Cleveland Arena with his father, Julius, as a kid.

"To be their trainer, that was just outstanding," Kovach said.

Kovach was hired because he had gotten a job with Cleveland Sporting Goods, which was located in the Arena. He got to know Jack Gordon, the Barons coach and general manager, who knew Kovach was studying to become an athletic trainer.

"I was in the right place at the right time," said Kovach, who had just graduated from Marietta College.

His dream job lasted for one year. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He spent much of that time at Fort Sam Houston in Texas working with soldiers who became amputees.

"It was a tough experience, but a good experience," he said.

Now, Kovach is still an athletic trainer -- for Canfield High School near Youngstown, about a 40-mile drive from Aurora. He also was a trainer for Aurora High School, in addition to being a current City Council member, plus various other jobs. He would be the first to say it's been a unique ride.

Becoming a trainer

Kovach became interested in athletic training after the trainer at John Adams High School, where Kovach was a football team manager, took him under his wing.

"Being a trainer and taking care of athletes really appealed to me," he said.

While Kovach was still in the service, the Barons moved to Jacksonville, Fla., and Gordon was hired as coach of the Minnesota North Stars of the National Hockey League.

"There was no place in Minnesota for me," said Kovach, who headed to New Haven, Conn., for the startup of a new minor league hockey team -- the New Haven Knighthawks, a farm club of the North Stars. Kovach was the first person to skate on the ice in the Knighthawks' new arena.

His stay with the Knighthawks lasted only five months. The North Stars' trainer died of a heart attack, and Kovach took over that position, remaining for 10 years.

"We had a trainer -- me -- and an equipment manager who was also a trainer," he said. "So we had just two guys who did everything. It wasn't specialized like it is today."

In the early 1990s, the North Stars moved to Texas to become the Dallas Stars.

"When the rumors started that they would move, it was time for me to find a job with less travel," said Kovach. He found one with Nautilus sports medicine equipment, where he was director of Midwest sales, first in Chicago and then in Ohio, selling specialized equipment to hospitals.

Later, he was hired by Portage Physical Therapy, which provides trainers to schools, and he wound up working for Aurora High School for about three years as trainer and girls' athletic director.

In 2007, the Youngstown SteelHounds, a minor league hockey team, were looking for a trainer with pro experience, and Kovach got the job.

"It was hard leaving Aurora, but it was hockey, and I love hockey," he said.

AFTER HIS final football game with the Greenmen, Kovach received a game ball before leaving to go to the SteelHounds.

About a year later, the SteelHounds folded, and Kovach got a job working for St. Elizabeth Hospital's sports medicine department, and they sent him to Canfield, where he has been the trainer for six years.

"We treat, evaluate and look after athletic injuries, so I try to keep the players healthy through conditioning," he said. "I enjoy being with the kids. They keep you young. It's a lot of fun. Even in the pros, I've had a good relationship with the players."

Kovach was the Canfield trainer when his son Bo played at Aurora during two games between the two schools. Each team won a game. "It was a different experience," Kovach said.

St. Elizabeth's dropped its trainer program after about five years, so Kovach became employed in 2012 at Youngstown Orthopeadic Associates.

Kovach and Linda have lived in Aurora for 18 years. They have two children -- Chrysa and Bo. Both were in the Vanderbilt University marching band -- Chrysa as field commander and Bo as a trumpet player -- although Bo attends Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Kovach and his wife marched on the Vanderbilt football field in Nashville during parents' night. "How many people can say that?" he said.

His life's journey has meant a lot of Friday nights spent on football sidelines. "I'm fortunate my wife is so understanding," he said. "She is a great supporter. That's why we have great kids."

He added with a laugh, "It seems like I've been a trainer for 1,000 years."

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187

Facebook: facebook.com/mike.lesko.378

Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC

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