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July 24--Nothing goes together better than a Florida Panthers hockey game and munching a Cuban sandwich, sipping a cafecito or Mojito before topping off a victory with a big, fat Cuban cigar.
Huh? That may sound a tad incongruous and illegal, given the BB&T Center's anti-smoking regulations and the lack of interest in hockey among South Florida's humongous Hispanic community.
However, that all could change now that the Panthers have signed Al Montoya, nicknamed the Big Cubano, to back up goalie Roberto Luongo. Montoya, 29, the first Cuban-American to play in the NHL, was signed to a two-year deal worth $2.1 million on July 1.
The hope from the Panthers' brain trust is not only that Montoya -- who's coming off the best statistical season of his five-year NHL career -- will provide better insurance in the net than Dan Ellis behind the 35-year-old Luongo, but also that his arrival will help attract some of the approximately 850,000 Cuban-Americans in the area to the BB&T Center.
"This is a very cool experience, not only on a hockey level, but a bigger level than that," Montoya said via phone from Chicago. "[The Cubans] should come out to see a hockey game. It's an unbelievable sport, and we're a team that's going to give its all. Once you taste a piece of it, you'll keep coming back."
Montoya was born in Chicago and raised along with three brothers by his single mother, Dr. Irene Silva, who escaped the communist regime of Fidel Castro with her grandparents in a ship in 1963, when she was 10.
Half of the extended family migrated to Miami Beach, which is where the Montoyas would vacation sometimes twice a year for huge family "fiestas." So playing for the Panthers is more of a homecoming for the goalie, who's joining his fifth organization since being drafted No. 6 by the Rangers in 2004.
"The house was always filled with Cuban family members, and my first language growing up was Spanish," Montoya said. "I left home at an early age of 15, but the best part was always coming home for the traditions."
Montoya's grandfather, Manuel Silva, was an artist and ranch owner in Cuba, but the language barrier relegated him to him selling strawberries from the side of the road when he came to Miami. Montoya's grandparents were around long enough to see him play three seasons for the University of Michigan, win a gold medal for Team USA in the World Championships and get drafted, but they didn't live to see him play in the NHL.
"They left it all behind and decided the best thing for them was to start a new life and get out of Cuba," Montoya said. "For them to see us living our lives and being happy and free was their plan all along. Then to put the hockey on top of it was just a bonus."
Montoya draws most of his inspiration, particularly his work ethic, from his mother, an internist in Chicago, who made sure he and his brothers were busy playing sports to stay out of trouble. His parents were divorced at an early age, and his estranged father Alvaro Montoya, is a cardiologist in Kendall.
"She sacrificed everything in her life to give to her sons so we could have our lives," Montoya said. "When I'm standing on the ice doing what I love, I don't forget to remember the struggles that they've gone through."
That's why one of Montoya's more colorful goalie masks contains the names of his mother, grandparents, three brothers, wife Annie and their 19-month-old daughter, Camila, along with a Michigan logo and an American flag wrapped around a cigar.
Montoya, who lived across the street from the Saddle and Cycle Club in Chicago, caught the hockey bug from his role model and older brother David Walsh, who he tagged along with to the rink.
"I always wanted to do what he was doing," Montoya said. "So when I was 3, my aunt took me to a rink, and the rest is history."
Walsh runs a defense company in Washington, D.C., but has an apartment in Miami Beach where he winters with his wife, who he married in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. So Walsh can't wait to cheer for Montoya, along with their 28-year-old twin brothers, Carlos and Marcos -- even against their beloved Chicago Blackhawks.
"I led the way, but he was the special kind of athlete across the board," said Walsh, 33, who at 6-foot-6, 250 played offensive line for the Naval Academy football team. "He was a great forward for a long time, but they put him in goal and he got hooked."
Five years after he was drafted by the NHL, Montoya, then with the Phoenix Coyotes, finally made history in his NHL debut on April 1, 2009, when he shut out the Colorado Avalanche 3-0. To make it more memorable, his coach was the Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
"There was a snowstorm, and about 8,000 people showed up for the game," laughed Montoya. "It was very cool, the fact I have the score sheet, a shutout and Wayne Gretzky's name on it."
Montoya also made history when he split the net with Henrik Lundqvist in the first NHL game of any kind played in Puerto Rico, a 3-2 Rangers' preseason win over the Panthers on Sept. 23, 2006.
"They announced my name and it got pretty loud, so it was a very cool moment," said the 6-foot-2, 203-pound Montoya.
Montoya is getting a second chance of sorts, as he was confident he would be drafted by the Panthers at No. 7 in 2004, but the Rangers beat then-General Manager Mike Keenan to the punch by one spot. Montoya floundered in the Rangers' organization with Lundqvist, a three-time All-Star, as a strong starter. Montoya didn't fare much better with the Islanders, either.
"Now I get the chance later in my career where I feel I'm more developed, more mature and feel like I'm even more ready to take on this challenge," said Montoya, whose record is 37-26-13 with a 2.63 goals-against average, but was 13-8-3 with a stellar 2.30 GAA last season for the 22nd-ranked Jets.
Although Montoya is thrilled to be mentored by Luongo and understands his role, that doesn't mean he doesn't aspire to be the starter.
"That's the ultimate goal. I'd be lying to you if it wasn't," he said. "At the same time I understand my position. I look forward working with Roberto. ... It's only a bonus for me coming to this team to work with him."
Montoya knows that his heritage isn't enough to create fan interest. After all, the Marlins didn't fare too well on the field or in the seats when they signed Cuban first baseman Orestes Destrade in the embryonic stage of their franchise.
"First and foremost, if you put a winning team on the ice you're going to get fans, so I think the start of it would be a good hockey team and give the people a reason to come into the arena when there's a ton of things going on all the time," said Montoya, a semi-regular at Versailles, a renowned Cuban restaurant in Little Havana, when he is in town.
"Add to that, me being able to go into the Cuban community, bringing in people would just be a bonus."
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