Young children often look up to their older siblings, which frequently leads to similar interests and hobbies. For some, this means playing in the marching band, collecting baseball cards, or even becoming reality television stars and dating athletes. For three-year-old
Montoya’s older brother, David, played hockey growing up and it didn’t take long for Al to join him on the ice. Montoya grew up in Glenview, IL across the street from the Glenview Ice Center, so he and David got plenty of practice.
Today, Montoya is known for his goaltending abilities, but when he first started playing organized hockey at the age of five, he played forward. But, it didn’t take long for Montoya to find his place between the pipes.
“During my second year of Mites my team didn’t have a goalie,” Montoya said. “I remember telling my coach I wanted to play goalie and I never looked back.”
|Goalie Al Montoya looks for a shot against the Tampa Bay Lightning October 20, 2011 at St. Pete Times Forum. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) |
Montoya developed his skills while playing for the Glenview Stars and then the Chicago Young Americans. This is where his love for hockey really grew, but he also liked cheering on Chicago’s professional team, the Blackhawks.
Learning the goalie game in the Windy City in the early 1990’s, Montoya was attracted to a couple Blackhawk goaltenders who turned out to be two of the best all-time.
“I really liked Eddie Belfour, just because he was a Chicago Blackhawk player, but then Dominik Hasek was also with the Blackhawks at the time too,” Montoya said. “I never watched that much television growing up, but when I had players to follow, it was definitely those guys.”
Montoya continued to make saves for the Chicago Young Americans until he started high school at age 14. During his freshman year, he played both football and hockey. His older brother played tight end in high school and went on to play football at the Naval Academy. Naturally, Montoya played tight end in high school too, but during his freshman year, he realized his true calling.
“At the end of football season, I started skipping football practice and going to hockey practice,” Montoya said. “That’s when I realized that hockey was what I wanted to do.”
He didn’t have a typical high school experience, attending three high schools in three years and graduating a year early to attend college. After his freshman year, he headed south.
“I played juniors in Texas for one year in the North American League,” he said. “Then my junior year I went to the National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I graduated early. I fast tracked two years into one.”
Most teenagers may have a problem attending three different schools, but Montoya said he enjoyed the experience.
“It was all great because you get put into school with 20 guys who are all on the same page as you,” he said.
Montoya put up solid numbers while in high school, with his best statistical year coming in his sophomore season with the Texas Tornados. His 10-3 record and 2.92 GAA garnered attention from some Division I programs.
The following year, after completing his season with the U.S. National Team in Ann Arbor, Montoya did not have to travel far to make his collegiate debut. He committed to the University of Michigan, and for Montoya, it was his plan all along.
|Al Montoya reacts after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1 at Nassau Coliseum on October 13, 2011. (Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images) |
“We had talked about graduating early with Michigan and that was a no-brainer for me,” Montoya said. “To go to a Big Ten school with the atmosphere, the tradition and the academics was great.”
Montoya did not hesitate to make an impact during his freshman campaign. He led NCAA Division I goalies in games played (43) and minutes (2,457:33). He also led the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in wins (30) and helped Michigan reach the Frozen Four.
It’s tough to dispute Montoya’s accomplishments at Michigan. He led the CCHA in wins with 26 in his sophomore season and was named the team’s MVP. Montoya was happy to make a positive contribution to a program and environment he respects.
“I’ve played in some great rinks in the NHL and with Team USA, but when you get those 7,000 fans in Yost Ice Arena, there’s not anything like it,” he said. “I’m glad I went to a program like that.”
He capped off his collegiate career with a 30-7-3 record and a 2.52 GAA. A few months later, he was drafted by the New York Rangers as the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
“It was kind of like a reward, but also the beginning of something that I wanted fulfilled,” Montoya said of getting drafted. “Being drafted in the NHL was just a dream and it showed my hard work did pay off, but I knew I had a long road ahead of me. Maybe not the six or seven years that it took me to get here, but draft day was a special day for all of us.”
Despite taking a longer road to playing in the NHL, Montoya used his time wisely while playing in the American Hockey League.
“I learned a lot in the AHL and from the Rangers organization,” Montoya said. “They treated us like professionals since day one. I learned the ups and downs, how not to get too high, not to get too low. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.”
Montoya played well for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, but was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes organization in 2008. He played for the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL and in 2009 made his NHL debut.
|Winning goaltender Al Montoya is congratulated by teammates after the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on October 13, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders defeated the Lightning 5-1. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images) |
He recorded a shutout in his first NHL game, becoming the first goalie in Phoenix’s franchise history to do so.
“I went out there and I just played a simple game,” Montoya said. “I knew I was always capable of doing it, I just wanted to show it.”
After five impressive NHL starts at the end of the 2008-09 season, Montoya was back in the AHL the next season. However, that all changed in February of 2011 when the Islanders traded for the now 26-year-old goaltender.
“I realized the situation that I was in and I realized the situation I was going to and was thrilled,” Montoya said. “This is my chance to make a name for myself and help a team win games. I feel like I’ve been doing that and continue to do that every single day.”
“Monty” or “The Big Cubano” as he’s known around the locker room, has been a welcomed addition to the Islanders. While Montoya is enjoying his first sustained time in the NHL, he has recently taken on a different role.
Montoya has been an ambassador for the game, doing interviews with untraditional hockey markets in the Latin American community. He speaks Spanish fluently and enjoys talking about hockey and life to those who aren’t exposed to the game very often.
“I feel like I’m talking to my family when I’m talking to them and it’s great,” Montoya said. “Most of them are clueless about hockey and I want to inform them about the game.”
Montoya knows that with his background and on-ice success he can be a driving force in growing the game of hockey.
“I know I’m privileged, especially from the background I come from, to be able to play this game every day,” Montoya said. “To influence or help some kids go in the right direction with hockey is something I enjoy.”
It’s safe to say that Montoya’s big brother and the rest of “The Big Cubano” nation are proud.