Matt McIlvane might be the only American in PyeongChang rooting against the U.S. men’s hockey team.
But at least he has a damn good reason.
McIlvane — a Chicago native — is an assistant coach on the German men’s hockey team, a position he’s held for all of two weeks.
Every single person who is currently experiencing the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang has had a whirlwind journey to get to this point. But McIlvane stands as one of the last people in the world to find out he’d be attending the Games.
McIlvane has spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach to Don Jackson for the Munich Red Bulls Ice Hockey Club in Germany. There was a last-second coaching change on Team Germany ahead of PyeongChang, leaving a vacancy that McIlvane ended up filling just a couple days before the team was supposed to leave for South Korea.
The German ice hockey league does what the NHL used to do — goes on break for most of February since many players in the league are partaking in the Winter Games. McIlvane was supposed to fly home with his wife, Megan, and their son for the month-long break, but instead had to stay in Germany as he awaited his Olympic fate.
“I found out that next day it was 100 percent, so I ended up going and meeting the team and went to training camp,” McIlvane said. “We’re literally talking last minute, which is kind of incredible. It’s totally surreal.”
Even before arriving in South Korea, McIlvane had his own Olympic moment, as Team Germany shared a (significantly delayed) flight to Seoul with Lindsey Vonn.
“I knew I had to get a picture with her or Megan would’ve been upset,” McIlvane said.
Now that he’s been in PyeongChang for over a week, McIlvane has had plenty of “Welcome to the Olympics” moments, like yukking it up with Tony Granato (Team USA hockey coach) and John Shuster (U.S. curling skipper), seeing Chris Chelios in the Olympic Village cafeteria and taking in the awe-inspiring Opening Ceremony.
“People have asked me recently: What’s my favorite part of what I’m doing so far?” McIlvane said. “This is gonna sound odd and too vague, but my favorite part is the magnitude of what’s going on here. What I’ve been really disciplined about is being able to take in moments and enjoy the things that are happening.
“The Opening Ceremony, you’re out there and you’re walking around and it was an emotional experience. But you have opportunities to have moments like that and the brain switches back to competitive mode and we go right back into preparation.”
Germany lost its first game in the preliminary round 5-2 to Finland Wednesday and plays again Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. ET against Sweden.
There is no matchup scheduled between Germany (Group C) and the U.S. (Group B) in PyeongChang. Both teams would have to advance beyond the preliminary round in order to face off.
But if McIlvane’s two worlds were to collide in South Korea, he sees no conflict in his heart of hearts.
“When I’m watching the Olympic Games right now, every time there’s an American doing anything, I’m cheering for them,” McIlvane said. “We went to the biathlon the other day and a German girl (Laura Dahlmeier) from Garmisch — which is like an hour from Munich (some of the guys knew her from the area) — ended up winning gold and I was there watching it and I felt some odd patriotism for that, too.
“I will forever be an American and I am very proud to be an American but at the same time, right now, if we end up playing the U.S., I’m with Germany and there will be no confliction as far as who I’m rooting for in that game, that’s for sure,” McIlvane said with a laugh.
Even his friends and family know where their loyalties lie.
“I think we’re all proud Americans, but I feel like right now, my family is rooting for Germany the next couple weeks,” he said.
“If you had asked me five years ago if I would’ve thought I’d be [coaching for the German team in the Olympics], I would’ve said, ‘no way.’ And all of the sudden, here we are — my son’s speaking a few German words, we’re calling Germany our home for most of the year.
“It’s tough to plan in the life of hockey, but we’re on a good path right now, for sure.”
McIlvane eventually hopes to return to coaching in the U.S., where he spent his whole playing career up until he hung up his skates in his mid-20s after tearing the ACL in each knee and suffering numerous concussions. He played four years at Ohio State, was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL Draft (the same year the Washington Capitals used the No. 1 overall pick on Alexander Ovechkin), and competed at a number of other professional levels before retiring.
McIlvane has been coaching the last seven years, with stops in Central Illinois and Florida and Salzburg, Austria, before hopping over to Germany.
He’s enjoyed instant success with the Red Bulls, who have won two titles in Germany. But a chance to particpate in the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he is well aware.
“We’ve won back-to-back championships in Munich, so those would be neck-and-neck for me,” McIlvane said. “There was so much work that went into those championships and then to get that validation of being champs at the end, that feels very, very special.
“This one kinda came up at the last minute and it’s an incredible experience. I would say they’re all tied for first. It’s as big of a situation as I’ve ever been in in sports, for sure.”
And what if Team Germany were to take home a medal?
“I can’t even imagine,” McIlvane said. “That would top everything.”