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Al Montoya hopes to make impact like Willie O'Ree

Canadiens goalie first player of Cuban heritage to appear in NHL game

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

One day, Al Montoya might be considered the Willie O'Ree of the Cuban-American community.

Nothing would make him prouder.

Montoya, a veteran goaltender in his first season with the Montreal Canadiens, is the first player of Cuban heritage to play in the NHL; O'Ree became the first black player in NHL history when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins against the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1958.

It is not a distinction Montoya takes lightly.

"It's everything," Montoya said. "For me, what I do is a privilege. To play this game from where I came from and my background, it's who I am and what I'm made of. Without the sacrifices my family made to get to the United States and put me in hockey, I wouldn't be here. The Cuban background is a huge part of what I am."

Montoya's maternal grandfather, Manuel Silva, was a successful landowner and lawyer in Cuba in 1963 when he was faced with a decision between staying in his homeland and joining the revolution or moving his family to the United States.

He chose the latter, loading his family on a boat and selling strawberries on the sidewalks in Miami before finding work in Chicago, where Montoya was born in 1985.

Montoya, whose full first name is Alvaro, played at the University of Michigan, won the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championship as the starter for the United States and was selected by the New York Rangers with the No. 6 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft.

Video: MTL@WPG: Montoya makes strong pad save on Perreault

Before signing with the Canadiens as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Montoya spent two seasons playing for the Florida Panthers in the same area where his grandfather sold strawberries.

It was an opportunity for Montoya to reach out not only to the large Cuban-American population in South Florida, but the Hispanic community at large.

"I think 30 of our games were broadcast in Spanish, which is pretty phenomenal," Montoya said. "I started doing more and more interviews as it went along trying to draw in that Hispanic community. It's there to be had, it's just getting them to the rink."

Montoya says getting more hockey broadcasts on the air in Spanish is an important step in making that happen.

"The Cubans who come over who were in South Florida, who knows how many of them speak English?" he said. "So for them to turn on a hockey game and not understand the rules and not understand the way of the game is difficult. But for them to see it in their own language, it's easier to translate and they start relating it to other sports like soccer. And then you turn them into a fan, just overnight. Just like that."

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