olympics

The winding road to PyeongChang for one Chicagoan

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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."

[Complete Olympic hockey coverage at NBCOlympics.com]

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."