Matt McIlvane Excited For New Challenge With San DiegoMay 11, 2023
By AJ Manderichio/SanDiegoGulls.com
It didn’t take Matt McIlvane long to see the best his new city has to offer.
With blue skies overhead and the sun shining down on the water, the new head coach of the San Diego Gulls took his place on the stage, ready for his official introduction to the team and the Anaheim Ducks organization. To his left sat Ducks General Manager Pat Verbeek, and in front of him, a sea of media members and fans ready to hear the new bench boss lay out his vision for the American Hockey League club.
"I'm just extremely humbled to be the fifth Head Coach of the San Diego Gulls," McIlvane said. "I'm truly grateful to Pat and to the management team for their trust in me to take on the responsibility of this magnitude. It's known throughout hockey that the Samueli family runs a first-class organization top to bottom and for me it's an honor to be a part of this organization.
"The San Diego Gulls, as we all know, they're a top franchise in the American Hockey League, and I can't wait for the first day on the bench where I get to listen to the best fans in the league roar for our team. I believe my strength as a coach is in my ability to create a vision and then move the group towards that goal. This starts by building connections and then those connections will build into a collaborative effort so that we're going to work on this thing together. It won't be a dictatorship, it will be a community that we work together to accomplish our goals."
Throughout the press conference, McIlvane laid out his vision of a team united under a common goal and focused on returning the organization to its winning ways. The new coach knows how to win, lightheartedly referred to as the "International Man of Winning" during yesterday’s event. McIlvane joins the Gulls following back-to-back championship seasons with EC Red Bull Salzburg of the ICE Hockey League (International Central European Hockey League), the top-tier league in Austria, featuring additional teams from Hungary, Italy, and Slovenia, from 2019-23.
McIlvane led Salzburg to back-to-back league championship in 2021-22 and 2022-23, and he also won an ICE Hockey League title as assistant coach with Salzburg in 2013-14. He was the youngest head coach in Salzburg’s history when he was hired at age 33, leading the club to a 94-42-22-19 record in his four seasons (.650%) and a 31-8 mark in the postseason (.795%).
"I think that for the players, having a steady, confident voice every single day with enthusiasm and a vision is important for these players," Verbeek said. "And I think with the winning pedigree that Matt has achieved is equally important because at the end of the day, what's important for me is players can't question his know-how, his success. And so, for me, it's instant credibility and so that's important moving forward."
Prior to his role with Salzburg, McIlvane spent five seasons with EHC Red Bull München in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) from 2014-18, serving as associate coach in 2018-19 and assistant coach the prior four seasons. McIlvane helped München to three straight championships in 2016, 2017 and 2018, tied for the longest championship streak in DEL history.
The championship culture and winning mentality is a mindset McIlvane is already establishing.
"One of our core values this season will revolve around being connected," he explained. "We'll work to build uncommon bonds within our locker room because very simply, if we don't get the locker room right, the big moments on the ice won't happen when you need them to. Hockey is the ultimate team sport, and we are incredibly reliant on one another to have success. You can ask any championship team in any sport about their team, and they'll tell you that it wasn't a team, it was a family. And building those bonds in that brotherhood is what we're going to set out to do here in San Diego."
McIlvane enters his new role at an exciting time for the organization. The Ducks are expected to see the first wave of a deep prospect class join the professional ranks in the 2023-24 season. Exceptional defensemen like Ollen Zellweger, Pavol Mintyukov and Tyson Hinds racked up significant accolades with their junior teams throughout the season. Recently, Anaheim became the first organization in National Hockey League history to have a prospect named Defenseman of the Year in each of the three Canadian Hockey Leagues (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) in the same season.
Up front, prospects like Nathan Gaucher and Sasha Pastujov could bring added offensive skill into the mix. The Ducks also own the second overall selection in the upcoming NHL Draft, an opportunity add yet another high-end talent to a class brimming with exceptional players.
"There's not too many different styles that are winning hockey, and I think at the root of everything is relentless competitiveness," McIlvane said when asked about the playing style he looks to bring to San Diego. "And I think you guys are going to be able to see that from our team every night. We'll be following right behind our captain who's going to do an excellent job for us, as he already does. We're going to see a team that plays suffocating team defense. It's really, really hard to create chances against us. And we've got a lot of young prospects with great offensive upside. They're going to have to learn about playing defense in pro hockey and we're going to help them with those lessons.
"And then really, you need to be dynamic offensively. There's so many gifted players in our organization. We'll look to surround our youth with great leadership, but the blend between being relentlessly competitive, suffocating defensively, and dynamic offensively, without getting into too much detail, that's what we're going to shoot at."
Originally brought into the coaching fold by his mentor, Don Jackson, McIlvane brings ample amateur and professional playing experience into his role. An eighth round draft pick by the Ottawa Senators (251st overall) of the 2004 NHL Draft, the Naperville, Ill. native played four seasons as a professional from 2008-12, with his career cut short due to injury. He also spent four years with Ohio State University (Big Ten), collecting 15-37=52 points in 156 games from 2004-08, serving as captain his senior season in 2007-08.
That experience – and his impressive coaching resume – helped shape his unique approach to the challenges of the AHL.
"I think that's a weapon," McIlvane said of his playing career. "I think that the idea of... It's a buzzword right now, but it's real, empathy is a real thing. And being able to connect on a deep level with people, being able to say that, ‘I've been in your shoes, I've gone through those struggles, I remember it.’ And I think that we go through it the same in the coaching ranks. You try to improve. You get better, you get kicked, you get up. And I think that those experiences in the background, I hope we can share some of those lessons with the guys for sure."
The coach is well aware of America’s Finest Fans – the moniker placed on San Diego’s supporters – and praised the group for its passion.
"So, I started watching some Gulls hockey throughout the course of the season," McIlvane said. "Obviously, Pat and I have had conversations together and it works out really well in timing that if I wake up early in Europe, I can catch the third period here. And so, I would turn on the games and that would be how I'd start my day. I watched a lot of third periods and one of the things that you see all the time is how excited the fans are to be at the arena. I know that there's a rich history of great fan support, I believe we've led the American Hockey League at a couple different times and we're normally in the top of our division. That's a really fun environment for these players to play in."
Add it all together, and McIlvane couldn’t contain his excitement for the new opportunity.
"I can't wait to begin all the work necessary to lead these young men in our organization and reestablish the winning culture that is the San Diego Gulls," he said. "I am certain we will give our fans at the Pechanga Arena a very exciting team to cheer for. I thank you guys all for attending today and I thank you all for a very warm welcome to America's finest city."