The winding road to PyeongChang for one Chicagoan


The winding road to PyeongChang for one Chicagoan

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 native of Naperville, Ill. - 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 to Chicago 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."

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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 seeing Chris Chelios in the Olympic Village cafeteria, yukking it up with Tony Granato (Team USA hockey coach) and John Shuster (U.S. curling skipper) on the bus, 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 back in Chicago 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, 32, has played or coached hockey all over the state of Illinois in his career. He attended Naperville Central High School and was selected in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL Draft - the same year the Washington Captials made Alex Ovechkin the first overall pick.

McIlvane wound up playing hockey at Ohio State instead of entering the professional ranks immediately and after college, had stops in Bloomington, Ill., and Peoria as a player. 

He retired from playing in 2011 after tearing both his ACLs and suffering several concussions throughout his career. He immediately took a job as coach of the Danville Dashers in the Federal Hockey League.

From there, McIlvane coached in Florida for a season before receiving a call from hockey coaching legend Don Jackson to join Jackson in Europe. 

McIlvane spent a year coaching for Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Hockey League before Jackson's entire coaching staff moved over to helm the Munich Red Bulls Ice Hockey Club in Germany.

He eventually hopes to return to the U.S. to coach and dreams of running a college program to develop young hockey players.

McIlvane has 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."

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

For Alex DeBrincat, it was probably nice to hear Chelsea Dagger again.

But how about three times?

The 20-year-old rookie snapped out of a 13-game scoring drought in a big way on Sunday night, recording his third hat trick of the season. DeBrincat did all he could to help give the Blackhawks two points, but they only came away with one in a 5-4 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.

DeBrincat is now the first rookie in franchise history with three hat tricks in the same season, passing Steve Larmer. His last two hat tricks came against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 27, 2017 and Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 25.

"It's pretty cool," DeBrincat said of his third hat trick, "but I wouldn't be able to do that without the guys we have in this locker room and the linemates I've had. Most credit to them."

Entering Sunday, his last goal was on Feb. 17 against the Washington Capitals.

"Obviously it's frustrating when you go through a slump that like that but what I've learned is to stay positive and there's other things you can help your team win with," DeBrincat said. "Just kind of focus on those things."

He netted goals No. 23, 24 and 25 on the season, tying Patrick Kane for the team lead. He is also tied for second among goals scored by a rookie this season.

DeBrincat opened the scoring with nice wrist shot on the power play to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead midway through the first. With less than a minute to go in the period, he tapped one home in front of the net to make it 2-0.

In the third period with the game tied at 3-3, DeBrincat put his team in front 4-3 with 3:13 left in regulation. 

“We were talking about [DeBrincat] today, it had been a while since he had scored," coach Joel Quenneville said. "But whether he scores or not, he does a lot of good things in the game, and he’s very aware of his positioning, and doing the right things, finding pucks, getting in shooting lanes, or denying passing lanes. So he’s effective in a lot of ways, but nice to see him score a nice power-play goal today.”

But Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo even things up again after a shot from the point found its way past J-F Berube with 1:22 left. Patrik Berglund would net the game-winner in overtime to hand the Blackhawks a loss.

"I feel like we’ve played well and we just came up a little bit short," DeBrincat said. "I feel like that’s been the theme of this whole season.”

The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line


The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line

Jonathan Toews' offense usually comes in spurts. We're seeing it again right now.

But it's no coincidence his numbers have spiked since Patrick Kane joined him on the top line.

After recording another two points in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Blackhawks captain has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his past eight games; he had 11 points in his previous 23 games total.

Toews also reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th straight season, joining Kane and Alex Ovechkin as the only three active players to accomplish that feat to open their NHL careers.

Kane has seen his offensive production pick up, too. He has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in his past 13 games after going five straight without one, which was his longest point drought of the season.

When the two of them are on the ice together at even strength, they control 57.9 percent of the shot attempts. It hasn't quite translated on the scoresheet (14 goals for and 17 goals against) maybe the way it should, but they are certainly spending far more time in the offensive zone than the defensive end and are generating a high volume of shots.

So yes, reuniting the dynamic duo has worked stats-wise.

But it comes at a cost:

— Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz haven't scored in six straight contests.

— Alex DeBrincat's season-long goal drought is up to 13 games.

— Artem Anisimov's last even-strength goal came nine games ago.

When you put Kane and Toews together, you risk losing some balance across the lineup and that's why Joel Quenneville has always been reluctant to go to that nuclear option. He prefers when opposing teams are forced to play 'Pick Your Poison.'

Ideally, you'd like to spread out the scoring, but one thing is for certain: The Blackhawks are better when Kane and Toews are each producing offensively, whether they're apart or together. 

When the wins start to dry up though — and they have — that's normally when it's time to try something different.

Perhaps more importantly, the last thing you want are those scoring droughts mentioned above to stretch even further and get inside the younger skaters' heads, then carrying it with them into the offseason.