Naperville Central alum helps coach German men's team to Olympic hockey silver
As Matt McIlvane waited in Seoul for a plane to take him to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Munich, the 32-year-old Naperville Central alumnus reflected Sunday on the long and tortuous trajectory of his hockey career.
That path most recently led to Olympic silver as the assistant coach of the surprising German men's hockey squad, which lost the final to Olympic athletes from Russia.
"It was an absolutely incredible run with this group of people," he said. "I guess surreal is the best way to describe it."
He said getting as close as the team did to grabbing gold -- "55 seconds away" -- without attaining it "stings a little bit. But after that part calms down and you get back into the magnitude of what this group accomplished for German hockey, it's got to be something I'll never forget."
McIlvane was brought in at the last minute after a spot on the coaching staff opened up.
"I was well received by the staff right away," he said. "That part made the whole trip easier."
It helped that he was familiar with the players through the league in which he has been coaching for the last four seasons. McIlvane is the assistant to coach Don Jackson on the Munich Red Bulls hockey club.
His short experience with the Olympic squad, he said, showed him the true definition of what a team is.
"I just felt the ride that they went on was incredible and it was a lot of fun to be a part of," he said.
"All of that is a part of the journey to get where I am today. I was really lucky when I was younger to have a great opportunity to play something I love."
Hockey has always been his passion.
But while his love was intense, it was at times unrequited.
It began, his mother, Diana, said, when he was a boy playing with the Downers Grove Huskies.
Drafted by the NHL's Ottawa Senators, he took a full scholarship to play hockey at Ohio State University and later in the minor leagues, but two knee surgeries and several concussions spelled an end to his playing career.
"After his second surgery, he didn't feel that his knees would really carry him like he needed, so he decided to quit hockey," his mother said. "He was really devastated, because he had spent so much time and energy."
An attempt at a job in sales didn't fill the void in his life, but things began to turn around when he had a hockey opportunity, this time on the bench, in downstate Danville.
"When I was going through that part, I had this emptiness inside of me without hockey," he said. "I'm really thankful for the support that I had."
In particular, he is grateful for his wife, Megan, for pushing him back into hockey and "telling me that I was made for something big. She really pushed hard for that for me."
He also remembered a meeting with Pastor Bill Bryan at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville,
"I was airing my heart out to him with all the things I was feeling, and he really pushed me back in this direction, too," McIlvane said
An opportunity from owner Barry Soskin to coach the Danville Dashers provided him with a fresh start, rekindled his love for the game and began a love affair with coaching.
In Danville, McIlvane said, he was coach, GM and "wore every hat possible in that organization. It was me and then one other lady in the front office. I had a player assistant coach, but all the rest was my responsibility. There was no equipment manager. There was no athletic trainer. There was no ticket sales. There was no corporate sponsorships. That was all under my watch."
On Sunday, McIlvane said, "one of my best friends just sent me two pictures. He sent me the silver medal picture from the TV screen and then he sent me the team picture from the Danville Dashers. He said, 'You have come a pretty long way, haven't you?'"
McIlvane, whose U.S. home is in Plainfield, said he's impressed with the caliber of German hockey.
"Probably the biggest thing that this tournament did, when you look at it from the perspective of German hockey, I think that it shows everybody how good the league is and how good these players are," he said. "The other thing that it's going to do, I think, is grow hockey in Germany."
For McIlvane's parents, the ride has been just as exhilarating and as validating of their son's pursuit of hockey glory.
"Matthew had to leave professional hockey because of injuries. I think he was good enough to make it. But because of injuries, he had to leave," said his father, Mark, who watched the Olympics from Barcelona, where he is staying on business. "And I always tell him, you got 95 percent more out of hockey than anybody. You got college paid for. He got a lot of experiences that he never would have had a chance for if it wasn't for hockey. Hockey has taken him to a great level. He has really made the most out of all his opportunities."
As a parent, he remembers "all the 6 a.m. wake-up calls and the thousands and thousands and thousands of hockey games. It's a culmination of everything."
As for what's next for Matt McIlvane, he said, "I'm kind of stumped planning my coaching career. If you asked me five years ago if I would be coaching in Europe, I would have told you, 'No way.' And now I have already been here five years."
His dream is to coach collegiate hockey.
"To have my own program and have an opportunity to really make an impact on their lives, to me that is exciting and it is something that I feel like that I would really love to do," he said.
But he also said, "I'm in a wonderful spot in Munich. We won back-to-back championships." And the time is gearing up for a three-peat.