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NAHL alum Montoya Expands Hockey’s Reach in Hispanic Community

September 11, 2020

Al Montoya played the 2000-01 season in the NAHL as a 15-year-old. After 10 seasons in the NHL, he is now looking to expand his reach and love for the game to the Hispanic community.

By Heather Rule, usahockey.com

NAHL alum Al Montoya, the first Cuban American to play in the NHL, says he was also the first native Spanish speaker in the 100-year history of the league.

Montoya finds both facts amazing, but also believes members of the Hispanic community would fall in love with the game as he did while growing up in Chicago. That is as long as they’re given the opportunity to try the sport.

“I realized the weight of what being the first Cuban American was the day I got drafted,” Montoya said. “You’re not representing yourself anymore. You’re representing the community. And I embraced it.”

He spent 15 years in professional hockey as a goaltender, but it’s also his family history that results in Montoya speaking with such pride.

Montoya’s mother was born and raised in Cuba. His grandparents fled Cuba and from the Castro regime in 1963 for the United States. They went from being landowners in Cuba to Montoya’s grandfather “selling strawberries on the side of the road and working at McDonald’s,” Montoya shared.

It’s the work ethic from his grandparents, and his mother working as a doctor, that has rubbed off on Montoya, now 35 years old. He recalls his grandfather telling him how grateful he was for the United States, the place that gave him his freedom.

“One of the prouder moments of my life is standing on that blue line or that red line, looking up at our flag and knowing the sacrifices that they made to give me that opportunity of freedom,” Montoya said. “They passed it down to me. I can’t say enough about it.”

Raised by his single mother and his grandparents along with three brothers, Montoya followed his older brother in playing hockey. Montoya started out as a skater, taking up hockey at 3 years old. He began hockey as a forward, but the next year, his team didn’t have a goalie. He remembers playing in a house league before that, where the goaltender bag cycled between teammates, allowing everyone a shot to try the position. 

That second year of mites, “I took that bag, and I never gave it back,” Montoya said.

Montoya made in NAHL debut with the Texas Tornado when he was just 15-years-old during the 2000-01 season when he helped backstop Texas to their first Robertson Cup Championship.  Following his season with Texas in the NAHL, he went onto play for the US National Development Program and the University of Michigan.

In 2004, he was part of the U.S. National Junior Team that went undefeated (6-0-0) to win the first-ever International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship gold medal for the United States. Montoya was named Best Goaltender and named to the All-Star Team.

He called that 2004 team, which included Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, “one of the best teams ever produced by USA Hockey.”

“This is our chance to make this statement and be the first team to ever win, the first U.S. team to win a gold medal,” Montoya said. “Once that American flag is going up, and you know you won it, and you’re surrounded by your brothers, your family, your teammates. It’s really a moment I’ll never forget.”

He played for the University of Michigan when he was 17 years old and went 86-29-8 there across three seasons. The New York Rangers drafted him sixth overall in 2004. That’s when he realized the platform he had as the first Cuban American NHL player. He also played in Puerto Rico, gave interviews in Spanish (his first language growing up) and even had a sandwich named after him at the Carnegie Deli.

He made his NHL debut April 1, 2009 with the Phoenix Coyotes, coached at the time by Wayne Gretzky. Montoya earned a 23-save shutout in a 3-0 victory over Colorado at the Pepsi Center. He couldn’t have scripted it any better.

“Getting that chance to live that ultimate dream that first game is a moment that will always be close to my heart,” Montoya said.

He ended up playing 168 games in the NHL (67-49-24 with a 2.65 GAA and .908 save percentage) across nine seasons with Phoenix, the New York Islanders, Winnipeg, Florida, Montreal and Edmonton through the 2017-18 season. 

His grandparents died in 2008 and didn’t get a chance to see him play in the NHL, but they watched him at the University of Michigan and saw him get drafted.

Read the rest of the feature here

 
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