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Panthers' Montoya hopes to expose game to Cubans

Tuesday, 07.22.2014 / 9:24 AM NHL.com

Hockey has carried Al Montoya all over the world, but this summer it's brought him back to his roots.

Montoya signed a one-year contract July 1 with the Florida Panthers. He was born in Chicago, but his parents and grandparents were born in Cuba and immigrated to Miami in the 1960s.

"My grandfather decided it was the best decision," Montoya recently told the Panthers website. "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."

The family moved to Chicago, and it was there Montoya began skating at age 3. He grew into a talented goaltender, and the game took him to teams in Minnesota, Texas and Michigan during his high school years, including two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Next was three seasons at the University of Michigan, during which the New York Rangers made him the sixth pick of the 2004 NHL Draft. In 2005 he began an odyssey through the minor leagues that included stints with the Arizona Coyotes (five games in 2008-09) and New York Islanders (20 games in 2010-11).

He spent the entire 2011-12 season with the Islanders, his first solely in the NHL. The past two seasons he played for the Winnipeg Jets, and in 28 games last season had a career-best 13 wins to go with a 2.30 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts.

Now the first Cuban-American NHL player has taken his talents to South Florida. Montoya is proud of his Cuban heritage and always worked it into his equipment. His mask for his first NHL game featured a moon with a Cuban cigar in its mouth, and last season the back of his mask with the Jets featured a fighter jet smoking a cigar over his nickname, "Big Cubano."

"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.

Now he'll do his best to make hockey a part of that culture.

"I hope I can broaden the game and show the game to the Cuban community," Montoya said.

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