The promise was a simple one: Wherever his athletic career took him, Matt Gilroy would wear No. 97 to honor his brother Timmy. That’s what a 9-year-old Gilroy told his mother after Timmy, who was 8, died following a bicycle accident.
The No. 97 for Timmy and Gilroy’s No. 98 was the result of a compromise after both brothers wanted to wear Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 while playing youth hockey.
Since Timmy’s death in August 1993, that promise has seen No. 97 worn at Boston University, where Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award and captained the Terriers to a national championship in 2009. It was on his back during a 225-game NHL career that took him from New York to Ottawa to Florida. It’s been there since he signed to play in the KHL beginning with the 2014-15 season, and it will be there when he represents the United States at the Winter Olympics next month.
“It’s the first thing I do when I go into locker rooms,” Gilroy told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “I always look at the number and my name and it just reminds me of Timmy and how special he was. Now to see it on an Olympic jersey on the Olympic ice will be pretty crazy.”
PyeongChang won’t be the first time Gilroy, who plays in Finland with Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League, has represented the U.S. He played at the 2010 World Championship and the 2015 and 2017 Deutschland Cups. Now he’ll get to live out an Olympic dream that he didn’t think was possible until last spring.
“It’s still very exciting,” he said. “I really just can’t wait to get over there and start playing.”
In the two weeks since the U.S. Olympic roster was announced, Gilroy’s phone hasn’t been blowing up like you’d think with well-wishers. It’s been his family who have received most of the congratulations from people in and around their North Bellmore, N.Y. home. He has a theory why that’s been.
“People don’t realize that my phone works over here,” he joked.
Gilroy began talking to USA Hockey in May after the NHL announced it wouldn’t be sending its players to the Olympics for the first time since 1994. While he believes NHL players should be in PyeongChang, he’s embracing the chance to wear the red, white and blue.
“I think everyone who plays hockey, all the guys in the NHL, love where they come from and everyone wants to represent their country at the Olympics,” he said. “I think they should have been allowed to go. Unfortunately, they [aren’t], but fortunately for me I’ve got the opportunity.”
Gilroy will be joined by two Jokerit teammates — Ryan Zapolski and Brian O’Neill — as well as John McCarthy, who is currently playing for the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. The two have been best friends since rooming together during their freshman year at BU. Their final collegiate season was 2008-09 when they co-captained the team to a national title. Reunited on the U.S. roster will make the Olympic experience even more special for the two.
Right now, the U.S. team has moved from an email chain to a WhatsApp text message thread to keep in touch. Everyone on the roster has some connection to at least one other player, so it won’t be like 25 strangers coming together with a couple of days of practice before game their first game on Feb. 14 against Slovenia.
Ten months ago, none of the players on the U.S. squad were thinking about PyeongChang, but thanks to the NHL, the door swung open for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s also a chance for many of them, Gilroy included, to showcase their talents for an even bigger opportunity in the future — an NHL return.
“That’s always in the back of your head,” said Gilroy. “The NHL is the best league in the world. I would do anything to get back there. But then you have to embrace the opportunity of where I am now, the life experience I’ve been able to [have], experiencing playing hockey, playing a game that I’ve played since I was a young kid, which is pretty special.
“The biggest experience is definitely going to the Olympics. If we can put our stamp on the Games as a team and come away with a medal, that would be pretty special for all of us.”
The New York Islanders have one of the more dynamic offenses in the NHL this season. Many will point to the fact that they have super rookie Mathew Barzal and franchise center John Tavares as the reason for their offensive success, but they’ve also received solid contributions from guys like Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee.
Through 45 games, Lee has found the back of the net an impressive 25 times, which puts him on pace to score 46 goals. If he hits that number, that would be a career-high for him (his current high is 34).
Pro Hockey Talk was able to catch up with Lee prior to Monday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens (you can watch the highlights of that game by clicking the video at the top of the page).
Q. Doug Weight was saying that one of the reason’s that you’re producing so much is that you’ve been given a lot of opportunity. Is that what’s been the key for you or did you also add something else to your game?
“You have to earn the opportunity and then when you get it, you have to keep it. You’ve got to hold on to that. I think it’s a combination of both. Just putting in the time and effort to strive to be better every night and in the offseasons to get better. At the same time, when you do have those opportunities and you’re at the front of the net, earning your keep, then you’re going to have more chances to score for sure. It’s definitely a combination, I totally agree.”
Q. Did you do anything different in your offseason training?
“The last few years I’ve done a lot of studying of my game, like in regards to video and stuff during the offseason. That’s just honing in on little areas that you can develop in and making plays and holding on to the puck. I think that’s helped my game a lot. I’ve been working with a skating coach and a skills coach in the summer. I think that’s really given me a lot of confidence. And then I see it in the regular season. You can kind of pick apart what you’ve worked on and you can find those areas that you can continue to challenge yourself and become better in.”
Q. I know playing with John Tavares must be fun, but what’s the most challenging part of playing with him?
“I think we all, as a line, expect a lot from our position as the top line. Johnny is obviously a top player in the league and the space that he creates and the plays that he makes are awesome and ridiculous. I think for us, we just expect a lot from each other, so overcoming tough games here and there and just sticking with it and accepting the challenge that we’re going to have top matchups every night. But we want to be the guys on the line that the team turns to.”
Q. You guys have heard all the rumblings about Tavares and how he can become a free agent this summer, but what does he mean to this franchise?
“Johnny has the best character and work ethic. He’s the leader of this team and he’s been the head of this franchise since as long as he’s been here. He’s not just a great hockey player, he’s a great person, and guys care about him and he cares about us. So, he means a tremendous amount. He’s taken his time and thankfully it hasn’t been a distraction at all. I think both sides have handled it well. For us, as a team, it hasn’t been an issue at all. We just hope it goes the right way for us.”
Q. You guys haven’t felt the added attention surrounding his contract and all that?
“Not yet, no. We’ll see how that turns. But no, not at all. I think both sides see both sides of each other. They kind of see where he stands and where they stand. A lot of things need to happen-or I don’t know if they need to happen- but things like the arena situation and stuff like that I’m sure are in his head. I haven’t really pried him on it at all, it’s his thing to deal with. We support him either way. He’s been our captain since I’ve been here.”
Q. So you haven’t picked up a few more tabs along the way (laughs)?
“Maybe I should start (laughs). After the next few months, I think he should be picking up the tabs.”
Q. What did it mean for you guys to get the wheels in motion when it comes to a new arena?
“It’s awesome for the organization, I think it’s great for the fans. Barclays has been our home, but obviously it’s not the ideal situation. Right now it is our home and we take pride in it. Yea, travel on game day is a little bit different, but we’re used to it by now there’s no more of that excuse or anything like that. But the Belmont Arena is going to be incredible for the organization. It’s going to be our true home and something that’s going to be built especially for us, and for the fans and the experience of having a hockey game. I think that’s when home ice advantage will really start to kick in and pick up where it left off in the Coliseum days.”
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at email@example.com.
• Up top, check out the highlights from the Islanders’ big overtime win over the Canadiens.
• TSN’s Frank Seravalli breaks down each Eastern Conference team’s needs. Some need help for their playoff push, while others need to maximize their lottery odds. (TSN.ca)
• The Chicago Blackhawks are dealing with an identity crisis and they need to straighten it out right away. (Blackhawk Up)
• Here are four positives from the first half of the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Editor in Leaf)
• Former Blues owner Mike Shanahan passed away at the age of 78. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
• The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had a lot of things go their way this season, but Casey Mittelstadt’s performance at the World Junior Championship was positive enough. (Associated Press)
• Claude Julien will head to Boston for the first time since being fired last February. It should be an interesting. “I’m looking forward to it, but I’ll also be happy when it’s over.” (NHL.com)
• The Predators’ schedule sets up pretty well between now and the end of the regular season. (Predlines)
Players of the Night:
Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche: Bernier made quite the save on Ryan Kesler, using his paddle to stop a backhand shot after sprawling across his crease in an attempt of desperation. He also stopped 33 pucks and won his sixth straight game in the process.
Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Jones made 29 out of 30 saves in the second and third periods in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. His 35-save effort was a nice rebound after allowing three goals on six shots and getting yanked on Saturday.
John Tavares, New York Islanders: Tavares scored a shorty in regulation on an unassisted breakaway and then the game-winner in overtime to lead the Isles past the Habs in Montreal.
Highlights of the Night:
Tyler Seguin provided some matinee magic with this overtime winner in Boston. What a goal:
Bernier made this incredible paddle save on a poor Ryan Kesler:
- PHT’s NHL Power Rankings are in.
- Phillip Danault is dealing with concussion symptoms after being hit in the head by a shot on Saturday.
- Jason Spezza was named a healthy scratch for Dallas’ game on Monday.
- Fantasy Adds and Drops
- Penn State is growing into “Hockey Valley.”
Stars 3, Bruins 2 (OT)
Avalanche 3, Ducks 1
Sharks 4, Kings 1
Islanders 5, Canadiens 4 (OT)