Here Comes the Big Cubano
Al Montoya, the NHL’s first Cuban-American player, joins the Panthers
On July 1, the Panthers signed goaltender Al Montoya, who spent the last two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, to a two-year deal. Though it might have flown slightly under the radar in the midst of free agent frenzy, make no mistake about it: the acquisition of Montoya is a big deal for the Panthers, both on and off the ice.
A Steady Second Hand
While the title of #1 goalie in South Florida is firmly in the hands of three-time Vezina finalist and two-time Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo, Montoya provides not only a sound insurance policy but also possesses the ability to step in when needed to keep Luongo fresh. This will be extremely important given the Panthers’ 2014-15 schedule, which features 13 back-to-back games, including 9 grueling road back-to-backs. On those nights especially, having a capable backup like Montoya will prove to be invaluable.
Top Pedigree, Great Stats
While Montoya has been a backup throughout his NHL career, he is an accomplished player whose numbers strongly suggest that he is more than capable of stepping up when needed.
At the NHL level, Montoya boasts a career 37-26-7 record with a .910 save percentage earned over the course of four seasons spent with Arizona, the New York Islanders and Winnipeg. This past season, his second with the Jets, Montoya went 13-8-3 with a 2.30 GAA and a .920 save percentage, each mark being good enough for tops on the team.
Montoya’s relative success in the pro ranks is not a surprise given his amateur success.
He was the starting goalie for the gold medal winning 2004 USA World Junior Championship team. During that tournament, which took place in Finland, Montoya boasted a sterling .944 save percentage and was named to the all-tournament all-star team. Montoya would go on to represent his home country twice at the World Juniors and twice at the World Championships, most recently in 2011.
Partly on account of his strong performance on the international stage, Montoya was one of the top prospects in the 2004 draft class. He was selected in the first round, sixth overall, by the New York Rangers at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Montoya attended college at the University of Michigan, where he posted a record of 30-7-3 during his final season before turning pro.
Montoya’s grandparents and his parents were all born in Cuba. Landing in Miami in the early 1960’s, Montoya’s grandparents gave up a lot to bring their family to America.
“My grandfather decided it was the best decision,” Montoya said. “He thought it was better for his family to be here with nothing than there with everything.”
“He went from being a landowner and then going to selling strawberries on the side of the road in Miami just to make ends meet.”
Eventually Montoya’s family made their way to Chicago where Montoya grew up and where he still resides today with his family. Montoya first stepped on the ice at the age of three, following in the footsteps of his older brother. He calls the decision to be a goaltender a “no-brainer” as it was the position that provided the thrill of being the “last line of defense.”
Raised by his single-mother, Montoya cites his Cuban background as an instrumental part of his development.
“For us, the food we ate, everything we did, the music we listened to, the music my grandfather used to play, it is all a big part of who we are and who I am today,” Montoya said.
In 2009, as a member of the Coyotes (who had acquired him in a 2008 trade with the Rangers), Montoya became the first Cuban-American to play in an NHL game, suiting up in a contest in Colorado against the Avalanche.
Montoya is extremely proud of his heritage. Throughout his career, his goalie masks have included nods to his Cuban lineage. On the night of his first NHL game, the back of his mask featured a moon with a Cuban cigar in its mouth. Most recently, as a member of the Jets, the back of his mask featured a fighter jet smoking a cigar above his nickname, “Big Cubano,” and the initials of family members.
“To be on that ice every time, to know where my family came from and the struggles that they went through,” Montoya said. “It makes it that much more enjoyable.”
With plenty of family in the area, Montoya is already very familiar with South Florida. Growing up the netminder and his family would travel from Chicago to visit family in Miami whenever possible, sometimes as often as once a year. Now Montoya will have the eye of South Florida’s sizable Cuban-American population as he plies his trade with the Panthers. It is an opportunity he plans to make good use of.
“I hope I can broaden the game and show the game to the Cuban community.” Montoya said.
Just 29 years young, Montoya’s best days between the pipes could very well be ahead of him. If so, Panthers fans will have cause to celebrate the man with the cigar on his mask.