HICKSVILLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – The Olympics started Thursday in South Korea.
For the first time in years, the National Hockey League is not allowing its players to compete in the Winter Games.
That decision led to a golden opportunity for a Long Island native and former New York Ranger who now hopes to not only honor his country but his family, as well.
As CBS2’s Andrea Grymes reported, getting hockey tips from a professional can be intimidating, but to learn about Matt Gilroy’s journey to the Olympics and the roads he took along the way they had to go back to where it all began.
“This is where hockey started,” Gilroy told Grymes. “Where 97 was born.”
He and his three brothers played at Cantiague Park in Hicksville, no far from the family home in North Bellmore. His little brother, Timmy, wore No. 97.
“He was a guy who didn’t understand no. He wasn’t the most talented, he always played up with us,” Gilroy said.
But their playing tragically stopped one summer day when Timmy was just eight years old. He suddenly passed away in a bicycle accident.
His heartbroken older brother immediately vowed to wear No. 97 wherever he played.
“I still remember I was sitting on my bed crying and telling my mom, ‘don’t worry, I’m going to take the number as far as Timmy would have taken it,’” said Gilroy.
His parents say it wasn’t easy.
“He was cut from junior teams and midget teams,” his father, Frank, said.
But he kept at it, wearing No. 97 ever since, including as a walk-on at Boston University, where he went on to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player.
He wore 97 with the Rangers and throughout his five years in the NHL.
After that, Gilroy headed overseas, taking 97 to the Kontinental Hockey League, where he became a two-time All Star.
His success there put him in prime position for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
The kid who once received a Team USA jersey for Christmas got the call this past December that he made the team.
“I was excited, nervous, scared, happy – just everything kind of hit me,” he said.
For his parents, it’s an enormous sense of pride. Especially when Frank thinks of his own father, a Marine who fought in Korea.
“He came home a paraplegic, and his grandson is now going back as an Olympian, which is pretty neat,” he said.
Not to mention, Matt’s vow to honor his brother continues.
“That’s a big promise for a 9-year-old. And now, 23 years later, they let him wear No. 97 at the Olympics,” his mother, Peggy, said. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Just to wear a USA jersey and represent your country is special, but first thing I always do in the locker room is always go look at my number on the back of my jersey,” said Matt. “To see that now on the USA jersey in the Olympic Games, will be definitely special for me, but I think even more special for my family.”
No doubt, it will be special for his brother looking down, who tried his best, never gave up, always had fun and who’s been with Gilroy the entire way.
Gilroy’s wife, parents and two of his sisters are making the trip to South Korea. Team USA’s first game is next Wednesday, Feb. 14 against Slovenia.