Blackhawks

The winding road to PyeongChang for one Chicagoan

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Getty

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."

Blackhawks record 500th consecutive sellout at United Center

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USA Today

Blackhawks record 500th consecutive sellout at United Center

The Blackhawks have had many ups over the last decade-plus, highlighted by three Stanley Cups. They've also had some downs recently, missing the playoffs for two seasons in a row after nine straight appearances.

But the fan support hasn't wavered.

On Monday against the Edmonton Oilers, the Blackhawks announced a crowd of 21,260, which became their 500th consecutive sellout at the United Center (436 regular season, 64 postseason). The NHL record is held by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are at 572 games and counting. 

The Blackhawks have led the league in attendance for 11 straight seasons, which started during the 2008-09 campaign.

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Blackhawks not going to 'freak out' about 0-2-1 start

Blackhawks not going to 'freak out' about 0-2-1 start

The Blackhawks wanted to get off to a strong start this season because they know how hard it is to climb out of a hole in the Central Division. Last season was proof of that.

Well, they've picked up only one out of a possible six points through three games and are one of three teams still searching for their first victory of the season. But they're not going into panic mode just yet.

"We know there's things we have to improve upon," Jonathan Toews said. "Jeremy [Colliton] always talks about doing the right thing and over time eventually you're going to get results. I don't know if we can say we're doing things the right things that we want to and we're playing complete games right now, so even having said that, midway through the San Jose game and even against Winnipeg we were in a position to take control of the game going into the third period and we let teams back in. So I think there's a lot of ways we can play better.

"But having said that we're in those games and giving ourselves a chance to win. Obviously that's not good enough, but we're not going to freak out and say, 'we've got to start winning games.' Of course that's the goal, we wanted to get two points the other night."

The quest to pick up their first two points of the season doesn't get any easier for the Blackhawks on Monday night. The Edmonton Oilers are coming to town with a 5-0-0 record, and they're clicking on all cylinders. They have the second-best power play unit (41.2 percent), second-best penalty kill percentage (94.1), the NHL's leading point-getter in Connor McDavid (12) and leading goal scorer in James Neal (seven).

The Blackhawks know at some point they have to start stringing together some wins, but they're not living and dying by the standings right now because everything looks out of proportion. They're focused on the process and putting together a full 60-minute effort.

"It's always magnified at the start of the year," Colliton said. "Your special teams, you got [teams] with 100 percent PK, you got [teams] with 40 percent power play, and all the little things they look way bigger than they are. Would be nice for us to get a win, get some positive feelings but any three-game window among the 82, it's not going to be looked upon as closely as this one.

"So again, we've just got to focus on playing hard, playing the game the right way, do the right thing time and time again and we'll get the results." 

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