By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
North Bellmore native Matt Gilroy has long represented his hometown and Long Island hockey with distinction at every step of his career. Captaining the St. Mary’s Gaels of Manhasset and earning two state championships was a sign of great things to come.
Gilroy impressed famed coach Jack Parker as a walk-on at the University of Boston and graduated as captain, leading the Terriers to a 2009 national championship while taking home the Hobey Baker Award as top collegiate player.
Upon graduation, Gilroy signed with the Rangers as an undrafted free agent and represented the United States at the 2010 IIHF World Championships in Germany. After spending five seasons in the NHL with four different teams, the 33-year-old defenseman continues to play at a high level in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
Gilroy signed with the KHL’s lone Finnish club, Jokerit Helsinki, this offseason and will accomplish his Olympic dream this month after the NHL declined to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. Though he has pulled on the USA jersey before, the opportunity to represent his country at the Olympics will be a special honor.
“It’s definitely going to be crazy, for sure,” Gilroy recently told WFAN.com. “For an athlete, I don’t think there’s a higher honor than playing for your country in the Olympic games. That’s going to be a great experience. A special thing for me when I walk into a locker room is to see No. 97 on the back of a jersey and see where I’ve been able to take that number and honor my brother. It’s always a special thing. Now, to see it in the Olympics is going to be very special for me and my family.”
Gilroy has worn No. 97 at every level of his hockey journey in memory of his brother Timmy, who died in a bicycle accident at age 8. Separated by 13 months, Timmy and Matt played together on youth hockey teams wearing the Nos. 97 and 98, respectively, in homage to Wayne Gretzky’s iconic No. 99. Matt has carried his brother’s number on his back at the youth, high school and collegiate levels, at various NHL arenas and across the ocean for Russian and Finnish KHL clubs.
Donning Timmy’s No. 97 on the Olympic stage will take on a special meaning.
“The way my folks told me and my brothers and sisters to look at it — and the way I’ve always looked at it – is Timmy was here to teach us,” Gilroy said. “It was special that he was here. You take your time with Timmy and what you’ve learned from each other and always cherish that. You miss him every day. I lost two brothers, Bryan and Timmy. I think about them every day, every game and every shift. They’re definitely my angels in the sky. Wherever I am, they’re always with me.”
Gilroy remembers the disappointment of his previous experience representing the United States. At the 2010 Worlds, the United States finished 13th of 16 participating teams. Though he finished the tournament with four points in six games, the sting of the early exit in 2010 serves as a motivator.
“We definitely didn’t have a good showing there,” Gilroy said. “Whenever you put your country’s colors on, you don’t want to disappoint people like that. It’s a way bigger stage now at the Olympic games, and I think a lot of people who normally don’t watch hockey will be watching. Hopefully, people get to see our stories individually and then they get to see a special story with this team.”
The 2018 Olympics will give the United States the chance to flex its talent depth as coach Tony Granato will bring a roster to South Korea made up of ex-NHLers, Americans who carved out careers in Europe and several college prospects.
“I think it’s a great showing of USA Hockey by how many good hockey players there are,” Gilroy said. “Unfortunately, everyone wants to play in the NHL, but guys had to go over to Europe to continue their career, and guys who never got a chance in America had to go to Europe and play. I think a lot of people in the U.S. don’t realize how good the hockey is all over the world. It’s going to be pretty cool to see people get to know different guys from our team, all their stories and how they got to the Olympic games.”
Gilroy looks back fondly on his three years as a member of the Rangers.
“Coming from New York, getting to play at Madison Square Garden and calling that home for three years was definitely one of the highlights of my NHL time,” Gilroy said. “The other organizations were great, and I had great experiences. I met great people and got to play in great cities. But just being a New Yorker and being able to wear the Rangers’ jersey for three years was something that was very special.”
His journey has taken him from the bright lights of The Garden to a hockey odyssey across the world. Next stop is the Pyeongchang Olympic village.
“Hockey has allowed me to experience different cultures and people,” Gilroy said. “Getting that experience in the KHL, I’ve been able to play games in China, Croatia, Latvia, Kazakhstan and places that you never would even think of. I didn’t see myself ever going to South Korea.
“I’m eager to see a different world and experience what the culture is like,” he added. “You’re with athletes from all over the world. I’m going to have great stories one day for my grandchildren when I sit around and tell them when I was young and did all these things. These are experiences that most people never get to experience. Then again, I get to do it playing the game that I’ve played since 8 years old.”
Gilroy and the United States men’s hockey team will open preliminary round play against Slovenia on Feb. 14 at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time.
Please follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey