Montoya's bright future may light NHL

Updated: September 17, 2004, 6:40 PM ET
By Mike Eidelbes | Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The overriding theme of the 2004 NHL draft was simple.

"It's all Montoya, all the time," said one media member to another.

The scribe was referring, of course, to University of Michigan goaltender Al Montoya, who was taken by the New York Rangers with the sixth overall pick. And why not? Motion picture studios would likely reject an option to produce a film on his life because it sounds so maudlin.

Montoya left his home in suburban Chicago before he could drive, polishing his hockey skills first in Texas and later in Ann Arbor, Mich. Six months ago, he was thrust into a starting role with the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships after a freak injury kept Maine goaltender Jimmy Howard from playing. He backstopped the Americans to its first-ever gold medal in the tournament and rocketed to the top of the list of prospects eligible for this year's draft. And that's just his hockey career.

He's a good-looking, well-spoken, intelligent, confident young man whose grandfather -- a Cuban native who, by all accounts, was very popular there -- used to fish with Ernest Hemingway. His mother and all his relatives emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in a ship's cargo hold in the early 1960s. His older brother graduated from the Naval Academy and works in intelligence in Japan. One of his younger brothers couldn't attend today's proceedings -- he was in Connecticut, training with U.S. Rowing's under-20 national team.

"Looking at him as an 18-year-old," said longtime New York Post writer Larry Brooks, "if he has the ability, he's going to be a major star in the New York market."

Montoya may be on the fast track to stardom, but today he took a momentary back seat to his mother, Irene Silva, who was a hit with the media. Silva, who came to the U.S. when she was 9, graduated from college in three years and now is a physician in the Chicago area.

"She's just as excited as me," said Montoya, weary from a barrage of interviews, glad-handing and commitments required of the top picks. "She definitely deserves it. The reason I'm here is because of her."

Spend a few moments talking to Irene and it's easy to understand how her sons became such high achievers.

"My theory is that if you raise a child with love and security, they will conquer the world," Silva explained. "My only purpose in life is my children."

That purpose includes a laserlike focus on education, a proposition that can clash with the goal of playing in the NHL. Silva recalled an incident a few years ago when she and Al butted heads over his future. He thought playing major junior hockey was the fast track to the pros; mom put her foot down.

"That's when I said he was still listening to his mother," Silva recalled. "It was a very hard summer. The people that [talked] to him told him the way to go was the OHL. I said, 'No, you've got to get an education. Hockey is a sport, after all.'"

A meeting with coaches and staff members at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor shortly after the spat with his mother changed Montoya's mind. He backed off on the insistence to play in the Ontario Hockey League. And that school stuff? He accelerated his studies and graduated from high school a year early, enrolling at the University of Michigan as a 17-year-old.

Though his path to the NHL is clearly marked and a lucrative contract beckons, seeing her son get a college degree remains a priority to Silva, as evidenced by a conversation she had with Al's current coach, Red Berenson.

"Coach Berenson said he's expecting him back ... for one more year," she said. "I said, 'What do you mean, come back for one? I want him back for two.' And he said, 'Oh, Irene, he'll be too good to stay for two.' I want him to graduate."

Odds are strong that Montoya will earn a degree even if he decides to forgo one or both years of his remaining college eligibility. Mom will be happy. Al, on the other hand, is ecstatic about the possibility of playing for the Blueshirts.

"If I could've picked a team that I wanted to pick, the Rangers were the team," Montoya said. "They're one of the best organizations in the league, and the city just makes you want to be there."

Given his heritage, Montoya has the opportunity to reach out to an untapped demographic of potential hockey fans. Al is proud of his background, a testament to a close-knit extended family led, of course, by his mom.

"When people ask, 'Do your children speak Spanish?' I say 'Yes, otherwise they don't eat,'" Silva said. "Our culture is so beautiful and so great. It's such a shame to see Latinos that don't know how to speak their own language or know anything about their culture. He's very proud of his roots because that's who you are."

While the Rangers love who Montoya is, the organization is enamored by the prospect of what he could be.

"The guy has the physical ability to play, he seems to get better in big games and didn't fold under pressure," said general manager Glen Sather. "He seems to relish the idea of coming to New York."

"[We love] everything that Al brings to the table," added assistant GM Don Maloney. "His size, he handles the puck extremely well, he's very, very mobile, [and] he relishes big games. There's nothing not to like. There are lots of possibilities."

Perhaps the most intriguing one is Montoya's potential to be a transcendent star, which the NHL hasn't boasted since Wayne Gretzky retired in 1999. He's certainly got the charisma, the looks and the attitude to do so. All Montoya has to do is play well.

"If he can't stop the puck, his charisma will be meaningless, his heritage will be meaningless, the ability to articulate will be meaningless," Brooks said. "I think as a Cuban-American in the New York area, he has the ability to be a breakout, crossover hockey player."

Montoya's story remains unfinished, but don't be surprised by the chapters he writes from here on out. If his past is any indicator, he won't be making it up.

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

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