Montoya preparing for next step

Updated: June 14, 2004, 8:25 PM ET
By Mike Eidelbes | Special to ESPN.com

Al Montoya won't be the first player selected in the National Hockey League entry draft in Raleigh, N.C., later this month -- that honor likely will go to Russian forward Alexander Ovechkin. Montoya might be the most recognizable prospect, however.

The 18-year-old from Glenview, Ill., completed his sophomore season in goal for one of the nation's marquee college programs, the University of Michigan. The list of former Wolverines currently in the NHL includes John Madden, Brendan Morrison and Marty Turco.

Montoya enjoyed fine seasons in his first two years at Michigan, but he jumped into the upper echelon of players eligible for this year's draft thanks to his sterling performance for the U.S. National Team at the 2004 World Junior Championship in January. He was named the tournament's top goaltender, leading the U.S. to its first gold medal in the event by posting a perfect 6-0 record, a 1.33 goals against average and a .944 save percentage.

Montoya, whose family emigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1963, agreed to share his thoughts with ESPN.com in the days leading up to the June 26 draft. His whirlwind tour began May 27, when he joined other top prospects in Tampa, Fla., for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, then flew to Toronto for physical testing and meetings with representatives from NHL teams.

"First, [the NHL] brought some of us to Tampa and we got to watch Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. We got to meet everyone from both teams.

We've had a couple big games at Yost Arena where the fans have been unbelievable the whole time, but I've never experienced anything like Tampa.
Al Montoya, Michigan goalie
"I was wishing to go to Calgary, but when I first got there the arena was packed. The fans were loud -- you could hardly hear yourself the whole game -- and they were on their feet the whole time. They were consistently loud. We've had a couple big games at Yost Arena where the fans have been unbelievable the whole time, but I've never experienced anything like Tampa.

"Being able to watch [Nikolai Khabibulin and Miikka Kiprusoff] at their peak, which they both were during the finals, and being able to see how calm and collected they were before the game was pretty amazing. [Playing for the Stanley Cup] seemed like the same for them. The only difference that I noticed was the media. Besides that, they were doing the same thing and nothing changed."

"The next day they flew us to Toronto. I met with 18 teams there. It's pretty strenuous, but it was exciting. You know you're getting that much closer to the draft.

"It was pretty straightforward. There wasn't anything that surprised me. It was more them trying to see where [I] was at ... what I got from them was how close I was to playing in the National Hockey League. For most of the teams, both sides felt they were pretty much in sync with each other. It makes you feel that you're taking the right strides and going in the direction you want to be going, and you're close to reaching the goals you've set for yourself.

"With [the Florida Panthers, New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes], I felt like I fit in with them and everything went pretty well. It was more of a comfort thing. As a kid growing up, I always loved following Mike Richter and New York and dreamed about playing there.

"In New York, they've been struggling for a couple of years and it seems like they need that something extra, or that one thing, to turn it around. When I look at that organization, the only way they can go is up right now, and that's a positive.

"I know that I'm one of the few Hispanic players and that I'd be the first Cuban-American drafted into the National Hockey League. I look at myself as a role model in a sense that there are kids all around the world from different backgrounds. If you're from a different background or you grew up in a different place, it doesn't mean that you can't play hockey or you can't do what you want to do. I feel like I have a job to do -- showing people that anything is possible if you want to work for it."

Mike Eidelbes is an editor for insidecollegehockey.com, an associate of ESPN.com.

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