Matt Gilroy

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Matt Gilroy eager to embrace Olympic opportunity for the U.S.

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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.”

[USA Hockey announces 2018 Olympic men’s roster]

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.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.