BRANDON — When Matt Gilroy puts on his jersey before tonight's preseason game with the Blues in Orlando, the Lightning defenseman said he will get "goose bumps."
Sharp emotions so close to the surface will do that, as will again pulling on a jersey with the No. 97, the number his brother Timmy always wore. When Timmy died in August 1993 at age 8, Matt, who was 9, vowed he always would wear 97, and he has done it with Boston University, the Rangers and now Tampa Bay.
"It's special to get your name on the back of a jersey, and I get to see that number, too," Gilroy said. "I get goose bumps before every game I see that number."
Gilroy's hockey exploits are enough for a story. A rink rat who grew up in North Bellmore, N.Y., as the second oldest in Peggy and Frank's family of 10 children, the defenseman walked on at BU and became a three-time All-American. As a senior he won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's top player.
Undrafted, he signed with the Rangers and had seven goals, 26 points and was plus-5 in 127 games in two seasons before inking a one-year, $1 million free-agent contract over the summer with the Lightning.
But it is how Gilroy, 27, has kept Timmy's memory alive that is most compelling.
Timmy and Matt always wore Nos. 97 and 98, respectively, a constant after someone on one of their first teams had Wayne Gretzky's 99. The night Timmy died — of a brain injury a few days after falling off his bicycle — Matt, crying, told his mom, Peggy, he would "bring (Timmy's) number and name wherever he would have gone."
"It was very emotional," Peggy recently recalled.
If No. 97 wasn't available, Matt wore 9 or 7, and Peggy said she would sew, sometimes inside the jersey, a 97 patch given to the family by the youth leagues in which the boys played.
But since getting to BU, Gilroy has worn 97, though coach Jack Parker, who never had allowed a number higher than 35, had to be convinced. "When I heard the rationale for it," Parker said, "I said 'okay.' "
"It not only keeps Timmy's memory alive," Peggy said, "it also brings that memory to our friends and relatives and the community where he grew up."
Gilroy still is growing as a player. He was scratched in 24 games in 2010-11, but he has good speed and can move the puck. Taming those offensive instincts and perhaps finding a little more defense is the key.
"There's a lot of room for growth there," GM Steve Yzerman said. "We just want him to come in and do what he does well … and we'll work with you on playing how we want you to play. He can really move up and down the ice. We expect him to be a good defender as well."
"It's challenging because it's so different from other teams," Gilroy said. "Hopefully, it won't be that hard a transition. I have to find my way and learn to pick my spots."
Gilroy, in his way, is taking Timmy with him, and Bryan, too, a younger brother who died at 7 days from, as Peggy described, aspirating after a bout of reflux. "It teaches you just how special life really is and what life really means," Gilroy said. "You can't take anything for granted."