As Matt McIlvane celebrated his second consecutive ICEHL championship with his Red Bull Salzburg team in April, he knew that the next step in his journey would be in San Diego as head coach of the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate. So did the rest of his team. Several players came up to him and said: “Just because you leave, we’ve got to make sure the Brotherhood stays.”
What exactly is the Brotherhood? It’s the culture that McIlvane wants to build in San Diego, where he becomes the third head coach in three seasons for the Gulls, who finished dead last in the league this past season. McIlvane places a large emphasis on bonds. He believes that bringing the team together as a unit not only on the ice but off the ice as well, helps drive success.
He points to something like development camp as a way to start forming bonds right away. With a hodgepodge of new faces playing together, gaining familiarity with one another is key.
“These are future teammates together,” said McIlvane. “Let’s utilize that, take advantage of that. Get them familiar with the way that we work off the ice, the way that our staff works together. But also, we want to equip them. We want to give them tools so then from now until main camp, they’ve got a few things that they can work on to improve, to fill in those gaps so that they can become better players come main camp.”
He credits his parents for helping him become the coach that he is today. His mother was a teacher for children with special needs and learning disabilities while his father was a businessman who “knows the gift of gab.”
“I like to think that somewhere in between the teaching and the patience, the people skills and the ability to know a deadline, somewhere in there is a coach,” said McIlvane. “And I like to think that they groomed me for this in some way.”
The road to coaching wasn’t so straightforward for the Naperville, Ill. native though. After a couple of successful seasons in the NAHL and USHL, McIlvane departed for college. He looked at several schools but ultimately decided on Ohio State.
McIlvane cited the campus, arena and coaching staff as reasons for why he chose The Ohio State University. “I think the first thing that I was able to take away from Ohio State was being able to have an expectation of the way things are going to go, what happens if it’s not met and being able to cope with not achieving something.”
Part of those four collegiate seasons were spent alongside former Anaheim Duck Nate Guenin, whom McIlvane credits as one of the players who sparked the idea of leadership for him. In McIlvane’s senior season, he took on the role as team captain.
“There’s a lot of learning going on when you’re 21, 22 years old,” he said. “You’re still learning how to lead yourself and I’m not sure how ready I really was to lead others at that time when I look back on it now. But, there are certainly lessons that you take away from it and the comfortability that you get from having an extra layer of responsibility. I’m extremely grateful for that.”
The 2006-07 season concluded with a small stint in Binghamton in the AHL for McIlvane, who had been drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 2004.
“The truth is, everything for me in those days, it felt like it was moving so fast. It felt like I was standing in the middle of a highway and it was just moving on either side of me. There was so much energy and excitement about it.”
With an eye toward getting into shape before AHL camps began, McIlvane headed to Germany prior to the 2007-08 season, where he trained with Eisbären Berlin.
One week turned into two and two turned into three. Eventually, Eisbären asked McIlvane to join the team and he accepted. But this wasn’t a completely out-of-the-blue opportunity either. There was a common link. A bond.
Don Jackson, Eisbären’s head coach, knew McIlvane from when the latter was 15 years old. His son was McIlvane’s age and Jackson lent a hand to their team for a couple of months while transitioning from the Chicago Blackhawks’ coaching staff to the Ottawa Senators in 2001.
“One of my former teammates and friend Curtis Brackenberry was the performance coach,” said Jackson via phone call. “I was let go in Chicago and had time on my hands. He asked me to help him out because he took over coaching Matt’s team, so that’s what I did for probably two to three months and that’s where I got to know Matt.”
The pair reconnected when McIlvane joined up with Eisbären, but the reunion was short-lived as McIlvane tore his ACL in November of that year and returned to the U.S. to rehab.
“After my first ACL surgery, I came back (to the United States). Couldn’t really find a job. A guy by the name of Jarrod Skalde took a chance on me and brought me into Bloomington (in the IHL). I had a place to play, which was great.”
That chance in Bloomington led to a call-up at the end of the season with the Peoria Rivermen and a contract for the following season. But another torn ACL in training camp effectively ended McIlvane’s playing career.
“From that point, I was really trying to hang on. But I went in and my knee wasn’t ready to play the next season and I also had concussions throughout my career. There was a point in time where I just knew that enough was enough and it was a really difficult time.”
Once McIlvane officially hung up his skates at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, he took up a job selling Yellow Pages—and absolutely hated it. Luckily for him, hockey came calling once again soon enough.
Thanks to his father’s talkative nature in the elevator, McIlvane was contacted by a member of the now-defunct Danville Dashers of the Federal Prospects Hockey League.
In Danville, McIlvane took on the responsibility of head coach as well as ticket sales, athletic trainer, equipment manager, strength and conditioning coach and so on. He essentially had to do everything besides paperwork, for which they had one female staff member to take care of that.
The goaltenders shared one stick for practice and had to skate down the ice to hand it to each other during drills. McIlvane had to share a changing room with the goalies as well.
“I would say every game in Danville I felt like I was in over my head and it had a little bit to do with coaching, but a lot to do with everything else.”
McIlvane was also responsible for getting their bus from 1972 up and running every week so that the Dashers could travel to their road games.
“Every day, I was in over my head,” he said. “But I learned the value of work and how much volume I could handle. I also learned to get a great appreciation for an organization like (the Gulls) and just have some idea of what everybody does every day.”
The Dashers didn’t win very much that season, predictably. They finished with a record of 6-34-3 and McIlvane decided to head for greener pastures. He latched on with Drake Berehowsky and the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL as an assistant coach.
“Drake was an assistant coach with the Peoria Rivermen when I was there,” said McIlvane. “So we had a little bit of a relationship established. I think I at least made a good enough impression for him to get an interview.
He knew I was coaching and I think he knew we could have a great relationship and trust together, and that was the big opportunity that I needed to be able to get from Danville to link it to Red Bull because without being in the East Coast League, I don’t think that Don Jackson could have brought me to (Europe).”
Following the 2012-13 season with Orlando, McIlvane was set to join the Chicago Steel coaching staff back in his home state of Illinois. But, it was during this time that Don Jackson came calling again. Another opportunity in Europe, this time as a coach instead of a player.
“Don and I had had a couple of conversations together since I was in Berlin, but I can say that the call definitely felt out of the blue. He caught me off guard. He said, ‘I’ve got an opening here in Salzburg.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s exciting. What’s the position?’ I didn’t know if it was a coach or an equipment manager or a team manager. Whatever it was going to be, I was going to be excited about it. It was definitely out of the blue.”
“He called me on the phone and he was very interested in our forechecking,” said Jackson. “That’s kind of been the theme for (Berlin) for a little bit. He was so interested that he called me again and again so I said, ‘Matt, why don’t you just come over here and you can coach with me?’”
“It was a hard thing because I was finally at home,” said McIlvane. “My girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, we had been apart for quite a while. I went to her and I said, ‘Don Jackson has invited me to come overseas.’ She was the first person that said, ‘You have to go.’ The thought for me was purely about education. I was a young coach, had a lot to learn and I knew the kind of impact that Don could make on me and he exceeded it.”
Thus began a decade of coaching in Europe for McIlvane, as he and Jackson first coached together in Salzburg, Austria for one season before moving on to Red Bull Munich in the DEL. McIlvane started off with taking care of Salzburg’s young, developing players and his responsibilities increased with every passing season.
“As the years progressed, he slowly started to give me the power play and then he’d hand me the penalty kill. It was doing a lot more in five-on-five meetings and then it was doing more reviews,” said McIlvane. “I felt like by the end, he was getting me ready to be able to be a head coach and then be able to dip my toes into a lot of different areas of coaching and feel like there’s a certain level of aptitude to perform a task.”
It was in Salzburg that McIlvane met goaltending coach Patrick Dallaire, where the pair became very close both on and off the ice. Not only did the two work together in Salzburg and Munich, but they also coached together with Team Germany at the 2018 Olympic Games. McIlvane was a late addition to the coaching staff after one of their assistant coaches had to bow out.
“Well, that was great to have him because he was in charge of the PK with Team Germany,” said Dallaire in a phone call. “And then we had our goalie from Red Bull Munich––Danny aus den Birken––who was the starting goalie. It was very nice to have the same system right from the start and be able to perform because there’s not much time to try and guess stuff on the international stage.
That was a great experience with Matt because obviously, both of us, that was our first time at the Olympics. That was a dream come true for both of us and then having the chance to share that with him, that was great.”
McIlvane recalled a moment during the Olympics when Germany conceded three power play goals in their very first game against Finland. He felt so awful about what happened but worked with the players to make sure they knew what went wrong and how they could prevent it from happening again.
“I think when adversity happens, the easiest thing is to go back to values and who you are. For me, the ability to be able to collaborate with players has always been something that I go to. In that moment when we struggled, I was able to sit down with individuals and sit down with the group and work together to kind of solve the issues that were coming up. And the issues that came up were that we probably got a little nervous and we went back to our club team habits instead of what we were going to do together as a new team.
Everybody’s systems can be a little different, which is a dynamic part of our coaching-in-action team. I don’t know that we let up another goal on the penalty kill until the medal round or at least until we started to break down into the next round. I credit a lot of the guys and the way that they were able to take pride in what we were doing—take ownership of it—because I think that’s the power of collaboration is that it gives ownership to the group and then they can run with it.”
“I felt he got everybody on the same page in a very short time frame,” said Marcel Goc in a phone call. Goc captained Team Germany at the 2018 Olympics and faced McIlvane’s teams many times during his playing career in the DEL.
“Yeah, the first game didn’t go as planned, but it wasn’t like we lost trust. Mistakes happen. The game overall, it was our worst game in that tournament. I don’t think it was the strategy we tried to use on the PK. It was just mistakes that happened and the puck went in the net. We didn’t play a good game.
I remember we had some talks about the PK and what works, and what guys are comfortable with and used to. He kind of put it together piece by piece and I think we all knew when we went out on the ice what we wanted to accomplish. Everyone felt comfortable playing the way he asked us to and wanted us to and that’s one of the reasons why everything worked and everything came together.”
Team Germany claimed silver that year, falling to Olympic Athletes from Russia 4-3 in overtime. McIlvane called it “the best team I’d ever been on.” He marveled at the bonds that the players on that team had and carried that back with him to Munich, making connections amongst the team a staple of his coaching philosophy.
Connecting with the individual is something that McIlvane learned from one of his mentors, Curtis Brackenbury. The same Curtis Brackenbury who was friends and former teammates with Don Jackson, McIlvane’s other mentor. Brackenbury spent several seasons with the Quebec Nordiques in the WHA and NHL and first met McIlvane when he was 14 years old.
“He helped me as a player,” said McIlvane. “He’s also mentored me now as a coach. Curtis’ specialty is in the individual.”
“That part he was really good at, bringing the players all together,” said Dallaire of McIlvane. “For me, that was one of his strengths that I feel like as a young coach right off the bat, he understood the chemistry of the team. Obviously, he was himself a leader at the NCAA level—he was captain there in Ohio—you can tell it’s part of him. He’s a true leader but the way to teach that, for him to pass the torch, his knowledge, his leadership from a player to a coach and from the coach to the player, that was pretty to watch.”
McIlvane spent one final season with Munich after returning from the Winter Olympics. The team was gunning for their fourth consecutive DEL Championship but fell short, losing in the final to Goc’s Adler Mannheim.
When the opportunity came from Red Bull Salzburg to become a head coach, McIlvane felt he was ready. “That’s how I felt,” he said. “I was ready to coach a hockey team. I wasn’t necessarily ready to be responsible for a staff but I’d never done that before. That was a wrinkle. But coaching the hockey team and making decisions, Don certainly equipped me for that.”
Ready he was. His initial season as Salzburg’s head coach was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the team finished top of the league with 83 points due in large part to sparkling play from their goaltender JP Lamoureux who was named the EBEL MVP.
“The year I came into Salzburg, it was the same year that Matt came into Salzburg,” said Lamoureux via phone call. “He was finishing up his tenure with Munich under Don Jackson. My future, I was coming off my third season in Vienna. Vienna was kind of going to make a decision whether they were going to bring me back or not. I think Matt was looking to solidify the goaltending position and we kind of had our agents reach out to him. And since I wasn’t signed with Vienna, for me, it was a no-brainer to go to Salzburg.”
A lot of Lamoureux’s play came down to the way McIlvane ran their systems, he said. The ultra aggressiveness of the system, when executed properly, would support players who are bearing down on the puck. It was almost like they were smothering you.
“Having witnessed it, practiced it, being in the club and then now on the other side, it’s a difficult system to play against. You have to play very fast.”-JP Lamoureux on Matt McIlvane’s system
Another player who knew what it was like to play in McIlvane’s system is Chad Kolarik, who played one season for Salzburg in 2019-20. “I think tactically, it’s ‘in your face’ style,” said Kolarik via phone call. “Very aggressive, very fast. A forecheck-heavy team. Everyone will be involved, D will be very active, very offensive. I think he’s a new-school coach in terms of offensive style as well and that’ll show.”
Kolarik also played on the power play for Salzburg and enjoyed the fact that McIlvane and his coaching staff allowed their players to be creative instead of just restricting them to the system at hand. Lamoureux said as much as well.
“I felt like he knew everything about the game,” said Goc of McIlvane. “The way he explained things, it made sense. It was like being in the NHL again talking to him. To me, it’s not really a surprise that he got the chance to coach in North America now, especially after what he did with Salzburg the last couple of years. It’s something he’s been ready for for sure.”
The road to the Gulls, much like his road to coaching itself, wasn’t straightforward either. McIlvane was put in touch with Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek by Curtis Brackenbury back when Verbeek was still working under Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay as an assistant general manager.
“(Verbeek) was curious about some development, what we were doing with Red Bull and wanted to hear about it a little bit,” said McIlvane. “We had over the course of the next year just called each other up, had a couple of conversations. Sometimes it’s about development, sometimes it’s about what’s going on in life.
And then the frequency of our calls picked up when he laid out the vision to be able to come in and support an organization like Anaheim at the American league level. Be able to impact the future here, be able to work with such high-quality kids and people. To me, it felt like an easy decision at that point.”
McIlvane has history with Ducks head coach Greg Cronin as well. The Islanders and Red Bull had previously had a relationship that involved Salzburg sending some of their players to Islanders development camp and the Islanders sending one of their coaches over to Salzburg to view their training camp.
“He was actually on the ice when I started doing skate camps with our guys,” said McIlvane. “It was our last one, it was pretty similar to a development camp. Then he’d partake in main camp with our team, he even spoke to our team on some cultural items that he believes in and I have a document on my computer called ‘Greg Cronin.’ I wrote down all of the stuff that he told me years ago. Kept in touch with him a little bit over the years. It’s fun because we start talking about hockey and so much of what I believe comes from him. He had made a big impact on me for sure.”
With the AHL regular season on the horizon, McIlvane has been busy getting his team in gear over the last month or so with rookie camp and then training camp and preseason last week. There are plenty of new faces as the Gulls undergo a change not only behind the bench but on the ice as well. Only eight players on the roster spent the majority of the season in San Diego.
One of those new faces is Sasha Pastujov, who joins the team after putting up 98 points in 60 games in the OHL last season. “He’s a good motivator,” said Pastujov. “He’s a good coach and I’ve already picked up some valuable things from him along the way here.”
One way that McIlvane tries to motivate his teams is by incorporating a theme into the season. For one of his seasons with Salzburg, the team went on a rock climbing exercise. “It’s just kind of a beginner’s to master’s level of rock climbing sort of area and it was hard,” said Lamoureux.
“Trying to go straight up while you’re attached to cables, but we’re 100-200 meters off the cliff face and the whole team is going up these things. It took probably 45 minutes to an hour for the team to kind of get through everything.”
After it was over, McIlvane asked the team what they took away from the exercise and one of the players said, “I couldn’t think about anything. It was just ‘ring by ring, step by step.” ‘Ring by ring’ became their theme for that season, the first of two consecutive ICEHL championships.
Last season’s theme incorporated a seat belt and “buckling up” when the going gets tough. Going through “turbulence” or adversity and being able to get through that.
“We’ll let some of that happen organically if it does,” said McIlvane. “But we certainly have a theme moving forward about what we’re trying to chase down our opponents.”
Lamoureux said that McIlvane does a really nice job of finding moments in team building things where one aspect or a theme can become something that his group of players can lean on. “It can be a powerful connector for guys when teams go through adversity through the year.”
“First and foremost, we want to be hard to play against,” said McIlvane. “We want to be a very competitive hockey team. We should be extremely organized. We’re going to do that by starting with the bonds.
“Going back to the Team Germany experience and how powerful those can be. It definitely was something that was built into our culture in Salzburg and that was what carried our team there. We’ll bring that in right away here. We’ll make sure that the guys have a very clear plan of expectations. We’ll make sure that that gets upheld every day and we’re going to create it together so that the players can drive it just as much as we do. I think it should be a lot of fun to come to the rink every day, but it’s a lot of fun as we’re working towards a common goal.”
In speaking with some of McIlvane’s peers and colleagues, one commonality throughout McIlvane’s coaching career that his peers and players alike harped on was how he was able to connect so well with people. Not just the players, but his coaching staff and everyone in between.
Helmut Schlögl, Salzburg’s sports manager, was very impressed with how much McIlvane cared about making sure the “environment” of the team was good and making sure that everyone felt they were in a good position.
“He’s very human,” said Schlögl in a phone call. “I think that’s a big asset for him, that the players can always talk to him. He always has an open ear for them, an open door.”
“He’s new school and I mean that in a sense that he’s more than a hockey coach,” said Kolarik. “He’s a friend, he’s a great human being. He cares deeply about you, your family and your well-being and I think that’s no. 1 for him.”
“He’s a teacher,” said Jackson. “He brings a lot of life and enthusiasm. He’s insanely compassionate with the players. I would say there’s not a player that doesn’t like him. Most of them love him for sure.”
“One of the things that I enjoyed about playing for him was that he really cares about you being the best version of yourself and finding whatever those attributes might be,” said Lamoureux. “I’m happy to talk about Matt, he’s going to be a superstar in the coaching world. He’s just such a high-quality person and (has) a great family.
I really like the way he thinks. He’s very open-minded. He does his homework, he reads a lot. He’s not afraid to experiment with ideas and I think what you guys will find is he’s kind of the new-age coach where he understands X’s and O’s, but he balances it with being a good communicator and teacher.”
“We talk so much about having the right people in terms of the assistant coaches, players, equipment managers,” continued Schlögl. “You start with the people. You always have to have the right people for the journey. We talked about it so much. Leading for example, especially, is important for us. Maybe that’s why you get a lot of feedback in that regard from people that you are talking to.”