Alexander Ovechkin

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."

NHL players disappointed in decision to forego Olympics

NHL players disappointed in decision to forego Olympics

Jonathan Toews has been vocal about playing in the Olympics, what it means to wear that national sweater and compete for the gold medal he's already won twice.

So his disappointment at Monday's news, that the NHL will not go to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, was considerable.

"It just seems unfortunate that the players voice that it's something that they think is beneficial not only for them, but for the league and for our game as a whole, and it automatically turns into a negotiation. It just seems like it comes down to what can they get out of us when the next CBA negotiation rolls around. It's not about the long-term goals of our game and growing it and the bigger picture. [It's] not only for the players that are presently at the top of the game that want to play at the Olympics and represent their countries next year in South Korea, but it's obviously about the future, as well," Toews said on Tuesday. "Obviously I disagree with the short-sightedness of this whole thing, too. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that players can get that cooperation from the league. Tough bounce."

Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche were pretty unanimous in their thoughts on not attending the Olympics. It's a grand stage, the grandest of them all, and to have that opportunity denied is leaving a sour taste.

"I know Stanley Cup playoffs are competitive but when you get down to a single-elimination tournament, they don't get any more intense, any bigger games, especially if you're playing for a medal. That's disappointing," said Duncan Keith, who also won gold in 2010 and '14. "I understand the league's point of view, that they don't want to shut it down. It's just too bad there couldn't have been something that could've been worked out, because I think the fans like it and obviously the players like it."

[RELATED - Why the NHL won't send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics]

As Keith said, the league has its reasons for not wanting to participate. Going to the games creates about a three-week shutdown in the schedule. While still competing with the NBA in February, the NHL does have more of a stage (the NFL is nearly done and baseball yet to start).

Avalanche center Matt Duchene still thinks the Olympics loom larger.

"It's a chance for teams get exposure for people looking to watch sports. I understand that perk. But I know everyone in Canada gets more up to watch Team Canada than even their favorite Canadian team for one of an 82-game schedule," Duchene said. "I think it'd be big for the US, too. Look at what T.J. Oshie did [his repeat shootout in the 2014 Games in Sochi]. It put American hockey on the map even more. It's a great thing for hockey to be grown at that Olympic level."

Patrick Kane agreed.

"They just announced some games in China. You have the ability to take the best players to South Korea to grow the game even more," he said. "Everyone has a different opinion on it but as players we definitely feel the pride and the excitement of wearing your nation's colors. It's another opportunity to grow the game and maybe help future players get involved even more."

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin made it clear a while ago that, even if the NHL didn't go to South Korea, he would. He reiterated that to the media on Tuesday. Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog said he wouldn't rule it out – "if I was to be part of Team Sweden and a part of that, it'd something I'd have to think about and would have to see which decisions could be made."

Toews and Kane said they'd respect the league's decision and stay with the Blackhawks. Keith was a little more on the fence.

"It's a tough position as a player. You want to be respectful of the team and your owner who pays you the money, but also you want to be patriotic every chance you can and play for your country," Keith said. "It's a tough decision. I think that'll be based on the individual. And the team."

Is there still a chance this is revisited and the league does OK a trip to South Korea? The league deemed the matter, "officially closed" in its statement on Monday but players are hoping is is not the end of it.

"Hopefully not set in stone; hopefully something could be reached. I don't know if this is posturing or what but it's great to have NHL players over there playing for their countries," Duchene said. "It's disappointing to see the decision but hopefully it can be salvaged."

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Capitals tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Capitals tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Washington Capitals tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. A pair of winning streaks on the line.

In what could be an early preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, the Blackhawks and Capitals are putting their winning streaks on the line when they clash for the final time in the regular season. Both teams have had multiple winning streaks of at least four games this year, with the Blackhawks hitting winning streaks of 7, 5 and now 4 and counting. The Capitals, who have had winning streaks of 5, 6 and now 7 and counting, own a plus-16 goal differential over their last seven games. It should be an entertaining one at Verizon Center between the best in the West, and a Capitals team that could take over the No. 1 spot in the Eastern with a win and Columbus Blue Jackets loss.

2. Corey Crawford vs. Braden Holtby.

Two of the best goaltenders in the world will go head-to-head for the second time this season. Holtby, who stopped 32 of 34 shots (.941 save percentage) and earned the victory in the first meeting, is 20-8-4 with a 1.90 goals against average, .932 save percentage and is tied for the league lead with five shutouts in 33 games. Crawford, who turned aside 24 of 27 shots (.889 save percentage) in the loss on Nov. 11, owns a 16-8-3 record with a 2.35 goals against average, .925 save percentage and three shutouts in 27 games. Both of them are among the top-four in save percentage during even-strength play, with Crawford at .946 and Holtby at .944. Expect these two names to be in the Vezina Trophy conversation at season's end, an award that recognizes the league's top goaltender.

3. Artemi Panarin and Alex Ovechkin from the left circle.

Russian wingers Panarin and Ovechkin have made a living burying one-timers from the left faceoff circle, particularly on the power play. They're lethal from that spot, and are two of the most dangerous snipers in the game. If and when the Blackhawks and Capitals get a power-play opportunity, you know where to find those too. And yet, it's still so difficult for goaltenders to stop, even when you know it's coming.

4. Beware the Beagle.

In the first meeting in Chicago, Jay Beagle scored two goals in a 3-2 overtime win for the Capitals in only 9:59 of ice time, which was — and still is — the second-fewest minutes he's played in 41 games this season. He also has just six goals this year, so one-third of them came in that contest against the Blackhawks. While he's not known for being a scorer, Beagle is five points away from matching his career-high of 20 points, set in 2014-15. This is the deepest Capitals team they've had in years, and any of the four lines can contribute offensively, including Beagle.

5. Patrick Kane's climb in the scoring race.

Here comes the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner. Kane has eight points (one goal and seven assists) in his last four games, and has jumped to second in the NHL with 45 points. He trails Connor McDavid by five for the league lead. The last player to win back-to-back scoring titles was Jaromir Jagr, when he won four straight from 1998-2001. Kane is putting himself in great position to win it again.

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