New Gulls coach McIlvane versed in developing, winning

Photo: Andy Hayt

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Change is all around the Anaheim Ducks, and that transition continues at the AHL level for the San Diego Gulls as well.

After the Ducks and Gulls finished last overall in their respective leagues last season, the shift started behind the bench. After five seasons leading the Colorado Eagles, Greg Cronin landed his first National Hockey League head-coaching job, taking over to guide the Ducks through their rebuilding process. And in San Diego, the highly regarded Matt McIlvane steps behind the bench to lead Anaheim’s top prospects.

McIlvane, 37, is San Diego’s fourth head coach in as many seasons, but change has defined his life. After all, this is someone whose first job after his playing career saw him selling business-to-business advertising for a phone book. Then came a coaching job in hockey, albeit one that combined even more sales work, followed by a decade in European coaching circles.

Now that path has taken him to the AHL.

McIlvane’s extensive overseas resume includes the last four seasons as head coach of EC Red Bull Salzburg, which won the Austrian league championship in 2022 and 2023. He also won three German league titles as an assistant with EHC Red Bull München, and served as an assistant coach with silver-winning Germany at the 2018 Olympics.

McIlvane has only a brief history with the AHL. He logged 15 games playing with Binghamton and Peoria before an injury ended his on-ice career and he turned to coaching at age 25.

“I like to joke that I did my career backwards,” McIlvane said. “Usually people groom in North America and when the runway runs out, you go over to Europe because it’s a unique place to live, raise your family. It’s normally the path that you go to Europe a little bit later in life.”

But before he went to Europe, he had to figure out first whether coaching even was for him. After all, he was only 25, and he had an Ohio State University education. He had options.

That first coaching stop came in Danbury, Conn., in the semi-pro Federal Hockey League in 2011-12, followed by a season with Orlando in the ECHL. He went to Salzburg in 2013 and decided that coaching was for him.

“That was when I really started to learn about coaching,” McIlvane explained. “I had a great mentor (in head coach Don Jackson) there that really helped to shape my beliefs and gave me the education that I needed to get started, and the space that I needed to learn and grow.”

McIlvane’s years working in European circles gave him a different hockey education from most.

“There are so many different styles of hockey,” McIlvane said, “and to be exposed to all those feels like you’ve got a little bit of a rich background. I think it was a huge blessing. It was a great place to learn and get as much knowledge as I could.”

The chance to develop talent in the Anaheim organization provided another incentive for McIlvane to come back to North America. He had gotten a taste of that in Salzburg, where he had to blend winning with development.

“When you coach for Red Bull, it’s win or bust,” McIlvane said. “That’s it. Second place is not a successful season. You develop one side of learning to coach big moments and being able to handle the pressure that goes along with that.

“Our job [in Salzburg] was to develop and to win, and so we learned really quickly that they weren’t going to happen without each other. If we weren’t going to develop our young players, we didn’t have a chance to win, and if we didn’t get them into a winning environment, they were going to slow down their development. And so the two things really balanced out extremely well.

“I think that’s probably some of the appeal of San Diego.”

While Red Bull had ample resources, McIlvane had to get by with far less at his first coaching stop. In Danbury, he sold tickets. And sponsorships. Helped with equipment. Whatever it took, whatever needed to be done, McIlvane jumped into the business. It meant setting up a mattress in his office.

“I didn’t get as much experience that year coaching,” McIlvane pointed out. “I got a lot of experience in looking at the organization from a holistic point of view. I also realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to do that for very long. I was really passionate about coaching.”

Even that job hawking ads for a phone book, long after that industry had been surpassed by the internet, taught him something.

“All I was trying to do was get enough courage to listen to the next person say no, but it was a very humbling experience,” McIlvane recalled. “Honestly, that sales part of it, sales training, that’s a lot about coaching. The style’s different, the presentation’s different, but that’s what we’re doing.

“We’re trying to get a group to buy a package that we’re selling.”