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Montoya stays true to his roots

The Canadiens netminder's grandparents and mother made the trek from Cuba to the US in 1963

by Joanie Godin. Translated by Shauna Denis. @canadiensmtl /

MONTREAL - When Manuel Silva left everything behind in Cuba and boarded a boat bound for the United States, he never could have imagined that one day his grandson would be suiting up for the Montreal Canadiens. 

Al Montoya - whose full first name is Alvaro - has a family history that isn't typical in an NHL dressing room.

Two years after the Bay of Pigs Invasion - a 1961 US-sponsored operation attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro's government - Manuel Silva had two choices: stay in Cuba and take part in the revolution, or leave his homeland, his life as a lawyer, and his ranch in search of a better life.

"He was a man of many talents. But he sacrificed everything for his family. That's how he found himself selling strawberries on the side of the road in Miami," explained the Canadiens' netminder.

Montoya's mother, Irene, was just 10 years old at the time. For her, Montoya explained, the adventure by boat was something she still recalls as "the coolest day of her life."

"She wasn't really aware of what was going on politically. My grandfather made life a lot easier for them," stressed Montoya, who shares his cardiac surgeon father's last name despite the latter having not been a big part of his son's life. 

Manuel Silva, who dropped one of his given names after arriving on American soil, saw his gamble pay off. His wife, Berta, and he found work in Chicago, where they set up a life and raised their children.

"All my mother, her brother, and her sister had to worry about was focusing on school. My grandparents took care of the rest. They all worked incredibly hard and my mother became a doctor, her sister became a dentist, and their brother became an architect," boasted Montoya.

The importance of education is a value Irene Silva passed on to her four boys.

"Hockey can bring you places, but school is what can bring you the farthest. That's why for me, a big part of the reason I was playing hockey and focusing on hockey was to help me get an education," explained the 31-year-old goaltender, who attended the University of Michigan.

Montoya's brother, David, four years his elder, played university football at the United States Naval Academy and now runs his own business in Chicago. Their twin brothers, Carlos, who owns a gym, and Marcos, a dentist, have also had success in their lives. Many of their cousins have followed in Irene's footsteps and become doctors.

Montoya still considers his mother to be a real-life "Superwoman" and he and his brothers make sure to give back whenever they get a chance.

"She had help, of course, but she basically raised us by herself. We watched her wake up at 6:00 a.m. every day to go work for 12 hours and then she still somehow managed to make it out to our practices. We said to ourselves, 'She's offering us this life so we can just focus on school.' We saw the sacrifices she made for us every single day. I don't know what we did to deserve that," said Montoya.  

Latin roots

Despite growing up in Chicago, Montoya never forgot his roots. His first language is Spanish and he has a soft spot for Cuban food and Latin music.

"Cuban food is amazing. My favorite dishes are bistec empanizado, which is like a breaded steak, and ropa vieja. I love beans, plantains, bananas - all the things you'd eat around the holidays," he shared.

Holiday gatherings and family reunions were a constant in the Silva-Montoya household - and they weren't exactly quiet affairs…

"In our culture, we have huge parties. We're loud, there are always a lot of us, and there's a lot of love. Actually, I think there were about 20 people in the room the last time I called home to FaceTime!," he added with a laugh.

Montoya has an incredible amount of respect for his mother and his grandparents. As a father now himself to his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Camila, and his almost-two-year-old son Henry - or Enrique, as he's affectionately known - Montoya tries to instill those same values he learned from his own role models growing up.

"If I could teach them just one thing, it would be 'respect yourself and respect others.' Love is the most important thing. Our family is built on a foundation of love and kindness," explained Montoya.

Montoya speaks Spanish with his kids, but he admits he and his mother tend to revert to "Spanglish" when they chat these days.

"My daughter has become fluent, so we're adding French. But now she'll use Spanish words and try to tell us she's speaking French, which is really cute," he added with a laugh.

Proud of his heritage and his roots, Montoya has made an effort in his previous NHL homes to become as involved as possible in the Hispanic communities in both New York and Florida. He'd like to do the same in Montreal. 

"I'm probably the only player in the league who speaks Spanish. I know the kind of role I can play and if I can open some doors to hockey for that community, I'm going to do it. I see it as a real privilege to be here as a minority," he concluded. 

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