The Tampa Bay Lightning caught his eye.
“It’s pretty obvious from the ownership, the GMs, to coaches and the guys in the room, this organization is coming,” Gilroy said. “It’s great to be part of.”
Gilroy, 27, who signed a one-year contract as a free agent, said he liked the atmosphere as soon as he arrived for training camp. He felt at home instantly.
That is important to Gilroy, who grew up as the second oldest of Frank and Peggy Gilroy’s 10 children in North Bellmore, N.Y. on Long Island.
“It was awesome,” Gilroy said. “Dinner was always an event, with buckets of food. My parents are amazing people with what they’ve been able to do, raising us and keeping us so close. What’s happened to our family makes you grow up quick and you know what life is all about.”
Frank was a standout athlete, good enough to be named to the St. John’s basketball Hall of Fame and get drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. He now works on Wall Street.
Peggy stayed at home with the kids.
“She probably has the hardest job in the world,” Matt said, “and she’s really good at it.”
When he was little, Gilroy said his uncle used to help him sneak into the Nassau Coliseum, where he worked. The Islanders’ home was just three miles away from the house. He was a rink rat, not a gym rat.
His older brother played basketball in college at St. Anselm’s, but Matt was a hockey player.
“Because I was 6-foot-1 and [my father] was 6-7,” Gilroy said, with a smile. “It’s a little different. I just took a liking to hockey. My father never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to. My younger brother [Kevin] plays hockey at Boston University, my sister plays lacrosse at BU and my next sister is going to play Division I soccer somewhere. Sports is in the family.”
Matt played youth hockey with his brother Timmy, who was 13 months younger. They were as close as their numbers. Matt wore 98 and Timmy 97.
But one day changed Matt’s life forever. Timmy, who was 8, died of injuries sustained after a bicycle accident. Matt vowed to wear Timmy’s 97 whenever it was possible from that day forward.
“It’s just nice to see that number every day when I come in,” Matt said. “It’s just a little reminder.”
The Gilroys also lost another son, Brian, just a few days after he was born.
Nothing has been given to Gilroy. He played in the Eastern Junior Hockey League for the Walpole Stars in Massachusetts until going to BU as a 21-year old.
The only position open for Gilroy was as a walk-on defenseman for the Terriers. He had always played forward. But he soldiered on.
“I thought I would switch back to forward once we got done with the first year,” Gilroy said. “But it just went on from there.”
Gilroy played 36 games his freshman season and became a second-team All American as a sophomore. He was a first-team All American as a junior and senior, winning the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey his final season.
One day after receiving the Hobey Baker, Gilroy assisted on the tying goal with 17 seconds left in regulation and then celebrated with his teammates after a 4-3 overtime victory over Miami of Ohio to win the NCAA title. He is the fifth player to win both the Hobey Baker and the NCAA title in the same season.
Gilroy got about 23 offers to sign with an NHL team after his junior season, but he waited one more year before inking a two-year deal with the New York Rangers.
In two seasons with the Rangers, Gilroy had seven goals and 19 assists in 127 games. He had three goals in the 2010 World Championships, playing for Team USA, and scored a goal in the first round of the NHL playoffs last season.
“It was a learning experience and hopefully I will grow from it,” Gilroy said. “It was a dream come true, getting to play in the NHL in my backyard and in an arena where my dad played.”
The Lightning watched Gilroy last season and thought he would be a good fit.
“We like his skating and he has the ability to get the puck up the ice,” Lightning Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman said. “He’s still relatively inexperienced at the NHL level. There’s a lot of potential for growth as a player.
“We just want him to come in and do what he does well, do his thing and we’ll work with him on playing the way we want him to play. I think all players enjoy the challenge of trying to improve. I think Matt will be the same way.”
Lightning coach Guy Boucher said Gilroy will figure it out. The most difficult adjustment for a young pro defenseman with offensive ability like Gilroy is learning when to be aggressive and when to stay back.
“They think they have to shine every shift,” Boucher said. “If there’s nothing happening, they overdo it and they push. That’s what makes them not look good. He’s going to learn to have a better ratio on when to go and when not to go, and how to manage that.”
Gilroy likes the aggressive, skating system, but it is a little different than he is used to. He is in the classroom now, trying to get comfortable on the ice.
“I just have to take my opportunity and play,” Gilroy said. “I don’t want to force things, just let it come naturally.”