Frank and Peggy Gilroy, of North Bellmore, had just received their son Matt’s credentials for the 2018 Winter Olympics in the mail on Tuesday.
“You look at it and it’s pretty unbelievable,” Frank said.
“It says, ‘Athlete of USA,’” Peggy said. “How cool is that? You’re representing your country. You’re going to be wearing your country’s colors.”
Matt Gilroy will join the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in just two weeks.
In the meantime, the North Bellmore native will be spending some time at home, after four years abroad, most recently playing in the Kontinental Hockey League’s Jokerit team in Finland.
“I think he probably misses bagels, pizza and My Hero the most,” said Frank, referring to the North Merrick deli. “In fact, that’s probably where he is.”
Matt, who attended Boston University, where he helped lead the Terriers to a 2009 NCAA championship, has already had an impressive career at 33. After playing for the Rangers, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers, he found himself in a position where “there wasn’t a two-way contract for him” in the NHL, according to Frank, and in 2014, he signed with Atlant Moscow Oblast, in the KHL.
“In the hockey world, the next biggest league is the KHL,” Frank explained. “KHL is bigger ice, and it sounds funny when it comes out of your mouth, but it pays good money, so he went over.”
In his four years in the KHL, Matt wore No. 97 on his jersey, as he has insisted on since he started to play at the college level.
When he was 8, he played on a county youth team with his little brother, Timmy, with both boys always vying to wear Wayne Gretsky’s No. 99, Frank explained. “Gretsky’s number was always taken if you didn’t get it quick enough,” he said. “Timmy got 97, and Matt got 98.”
Then, in 1993, Timmy died after a bicycle accident. He was just 7, and the second son the Gilroys had lost at a young age (along with an infant named Brian). Matt made a promise then, Peggy said, that as a tribute, he would always take No. 97 with him wherever he went.
“He used to wear a patch on his arm if he couldn’t get the number,” Frank added.
Coaches allowed Matt to keep No. 97 when he played for Boston University, and photos of him playing for Moscow and Jokerit show him proudly sporting the number on his KHL jerseys.
When Gilroy joins Team USA in Pyeongchang on Feb. 14, he will wear No. 97 once again, in possibly the greatest tribute he could offer to his late brother.
Frank and Peggy will be there to cheer their son on, as will his sisters, Noreen, a law student, and Caitlin, a Mepham High School senior who will attend Molloy College next year to play lacrosse.
Although Peggy said she was “not looking forward to the long journey,” the couple could not be prouder of their son.
“You’re proud, you’re overwhelmed, you’re thankful,” said Frank.
“And there’s a little bit of shock in there,” Peggy interjected. “It’s a big wow.”
Frank — and by extension, the rest of the family — was “all about basketball” for years before young Matt decided he wanted to play hockey, he said. After that, and for years to come, they had three “hockey boys.”
“Once they all hit the ice, they never stopped,” Frank said.
“Hockey, I guess for us, now has been with us for the best of times and the worst of times,” Peggy said. “You find out that it’s a great community of people, from the athletes to the equipment managers to the parents . . . It’s been great.”
The American men’s hockey team will open preliminary round play against Slovenia on Feb. 14. The Olympic quarterfinals are set for Feb. 21, the semifinals, Feb. 23, the bronze medal game, Feb. 24, and the gold medal game, Feb. 25.
The opening ceremony will be held Feb. 9.