Ever since he was a 9-year-old hockey player in North Bellmore, Matt Gilroy has kept his word, and his number. He vowed always to wear No. 97, his late younger brother’s favorite, and has done so with numerous teams, through countless peaks and valleys. Now he will do it on one last summit.
Next month in PyeongChang, South Korea, Gilroy will wear a jersey that has “97” on the back and “USA” on the front. At 33, after an eventful and unpredictable route, he has made the Olympic team.
Gilroy learned about it during a phone call from USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson a few days before the official announcement on Jan. 1. Gilroy and his wife were touring Finland, where he plays for Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League. In a phone conversation from Helsinki, his team’s home city, this past week, the defenseman said, “We were basically at the North Pole.”
The message might as well have been delivered by elves and reindeer, given the way it brought him a rush of childlike exhilaration. A sports-loving kid, he became a huge fan of luge, slalom and various other exotic events every four years. He dreamed about being in the Olympics.
Childhood also meant one awful, enduring nightmare, from the day he was preparing to attend a birthday party and learned that his little brother and best buddy, Timmy, had been killed in a bicycling accident.
A lasting tribute leaped right into Matt’s mind. Recognizing that his brother chose 97 for his jersey in youth sports, the older brother promised to wear 97 wherever he could.
He did so at Boston University as he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best college player and helped his team win the NCAA championship. He wore it with the Rangers and three other NHL teams. He wears it now in the European pro league. He has been given permission to wear it for Team USA at the 2018 Winter Games.
“I made a promise when I was little that I would take that number to places that he would, unfortunately, not be able to go,” Gilroy said. “And I think the Olympics is a nice icing on the cake.”
At the same time, he knows that playing in the Olympics is more than a jersey. It is a lifetime achievement award — for everyone who has helped him in his lifetime.
His wife, Jenny Taft, a Fox Sports reporter based in Los Angeles, will make the trip to Korea. So will his parents, Frank and Peggy, and two of his seven siblings.
“We’re so happy for him because he’s so excited,” Peggy said. “What’s not to be excited about? You get to represent your country. You know, once an Olympian, always an Olympian.
“He was always a late bloomer but he always worked hard. Situations don’t always work out the way you think they’re going to turn out, but Matt is the kind of person who is always pushing forward. Sometimes that’s not easy, but we’re always proud of him for that.”
Before a tardy growth spurt, Gilroy was considered too small for a scholarship when he was a senior at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset. Nor was he picked in the NHL Draft. He just kept plugging along, regardless.
This time, circumstance was on his side. The NHL announced last year that, for the first time since 1994, it would not let its players take part in the Olympics. The logistics were too difficult and the potential for injury was too great, owners and executives said. So the Olympic squads are composed of whatever players are available.
“First of all, I think it’s a shame that the NHL players aren’t allowed to go,’’ Gilroy said. “All those guys want to represent their countries. I know the pride everyone has in where they come from, where they grew up. It’s a shame that they’re not going, but it’s an opportunity and I’ll take it.
“Going to B.U., we got to meet guys who were always around the rink: Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Jack O’Callahan. Everyone knows their story,” Gilroy said, referring to members of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team that stunned the Soviet Union before winning Olympic gold. “You see them and you always think of them as Olympians. Some of them played in the NHL, they all had great college careers, but it always refers back to the Olympics for those guys. To be part of that Olympic family is pretty cool.”
Opportunity knocked for Gilroy because he had put himself in position to answer. While he has not ruled out a return to The Show, he knows that he has been gone from the NHL for four years and that no one has summoned him back. Still, he has kept playing, kept working at it, kept sacrificing (a long, long way from his wife).
“At the end of the day, it’s still fun,’’ he said. “It’s still the same game you play when you’re a little kid, growing up on Long Island, going to The Rinx in Hauppauge or Iceland in New Hyde Park or Cantiague Park, where I started. Yeah, you get paid money for it now, but I’ve been all over the world now and I’m playing the same game as I did when I was 8 years old. That’s pretty cool.”
His dad, a St. John’s basketball Hall of Famer and Philadelphia 76ers draftee who commutes to Wall Street, said, “I think the first reason he’s doing it is because he doesn’t want to come back and ride the Long Island Rail Road like too many people have to do.”
After laughing, Frank added, “There are certain things that define you. Hockey defines Matt. It’s not that you can’t leave it. It’s that if you love it, why wouldn’t you do it?”
The defenseman’s dad knows the hold a sport can have on a person. Frank spends just about every night in a gym, running a youth basketball program. The whole family — Matt included — spends summers in Bellmore running the Timmy Gilroy Memorial Summer Basketball League.
All the Gilroys know that sports are a treasury of emotions and the Olympics are Fort Knox. The games in Korea will be awash in feelings: Memories of Peggy dressing Matt and Timmy for their first hockey game (and mistakenly putting the shin guards and protective cups on the outside of the uniforms), the knowledge that Frank’s father served in the Marines during the Korean Conflict, Matt being reunited on the ice with Boston University roommate John McCarthy.
And there will be that USA No. 97 jersey.
“I can’t even imagine,” Peggy said. “We’ll probably all start crying.”
THE MATT GILROY FILE
Defenseman, No. 97
Born: July 20, 1984, in North Bellmore (age 33)
Height: 6-2 Weight: 195
High school: St. Mary’s
College: Boston University; won 2009 Hobey Baker Award as NCAA top hockey player.
NHL teams (2009-14): Rangers, Lightning, Senators, Panthers
NHL totals: 225 games, 11 goals, 37 assists
Current team: Jokerit Helsinki, KHL