Al Montoya’s Mission to Bring More Latinos to Hockey (INTERVIEW)

Oct 22, 2021
6:08 PM

Al Montoya playing with the New York Islanders in 2011 (slgckgc/CC BY 2.0)

The Dallas Stars lost season ticket holders after supporting Black Lives Matter in 2020. Their endorsement of BLM came on the heels of a racist social media post two months earlier by a Stars staffer, who was then fired by the organization after suggesting that Chinese people be shot.

On the long road to adequate representation, we find some people who are resistant to the fair and necessary changes, usually in a vocal manner. It takes a persistent few to pierce through established barriers long before progress arrives

Today, the Stars are doubling down on their social justice stance.

Álvaro “Al” Montoya, the first Cuban American to play in the National Hockey League, wants a more Latino NHL than the one he played in. As the recently appointed director of community outreach for the Stars, he is working to create the change he wants to see.

Montoya is a product of a single mother who fled the Castro regime and arrived in the United States as a young refugee. The retired goalie was born and raised in Illinois, where he became an elite hockey prospect before the New York Rangers made him the sixth overall pick in 2004 NHL Draft, though he didn’t debut until 2008 with the Phoenix Coyotes. He played in the league through 2018, including runs with the New York Islanders, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Florida Panthers, before retiring in 2019 following a season in the American Hockey League.

Montoya sat down with us to discuss how he and the Stars plan on raising the presence of Latinos on the ice and much more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So, I’m from a Puerto Rican family, Al. First-generation born in America, like you. Growing up, you’re trying to figure out where you belong, who you belong to, and your identity. And then, in your case, you’re playing hockey. Personally, socially, how was your struggle with identity growing up?

My grandparents came here in 1963 with my mother; she was 11 or 12 years old. I was raised in this household where Spanish was the only language. The culture was wonderful. The love that the Latino family has is something I admire, and the traditions. But the second I left that house, it was a culture shock.

Growing up in the North Shore of Chicago, a predominately Irish-Catholic neighborhood, it was different. As a child growing up here in the United States, you kinda want to assimilate, and that’s something that’s always been put on you. So, you go through those struggles, and I always go back to hockey.

Hockey allowed me to transcend and be who I wanted to be without worrying. It really let me feel American and assimilated to this country.

Forgive the basic question, but: how does a Cuban-American kid start playing hockey? Did your mom know anything about hockey growing up?

She didn’t know anything! (laughs) And not only as a Cuban American, but how did I get into hockey being raised by my single mother? It’s such a machismo sport. I had three other brothers, one that was older than me, and he was playing hockey at the time.

I remember my mom saying, “Alvarito, I want you to do everything that I never had the chance to do.”

Fortunately enough, we lived across the street from a rink. I got to the point where people wanted me on their team, even at a young age. So I kept going back to the rink. My mom put herself through medical school in the ’70s, so as a doctor full-time, she couldn’t always be there. But there was always somebody who wanted to come pick me up to play and have those opportunities.

You became the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, so obviously, you played a lot of high-level youth tournaments. How many kids of color did you see on your team or on opposing teams?

A majority of the time, I was one of none in the locker room.

As we know, it’s a sport dominated by Caucasians, but the truth is, if you want to grow in this country, you can’t grow without Latinos. I’ve kinda made it my job and know I’ve always had the potential to grow this beautiful game of hockey that, selfishly, I think is the best game in the world. I want to make it more accessible.

I sat down at a meeting a few weeks ago with other minorities in the sport that made it to the high level, and we started talking about why aren’t there more kids in the sport. Maybe people don’t want you in the sport. Maybe they have that xenophobia that they think you’re gonna take their job, and the parents don’t want you there.

It’s about making it more accessible so that those kids don’t have to worry about being the best on their team to make it all the way through. They could just play this game because they love it.

I’m going to come back to that, but I’m wondering: throughout your playing career, were you talking to Latino families, encouraging their kids to try hockey? You’ve played in some cities that were and are highly populated by Latinos, like New York City, Phoenix, and San Antonio. Now, you’re working in Dallas. As you were playing, did you do some of this work to try and diversify hockey?

You know, when I got drafted sixth overall by the New York Rangers, I remember one of the writers said, “Wow, Montoya has the opportunity to grow this fanbase. What kinda pressure do you feel?” And I think that’s when I realized the potential I had.

And it was never pressure. It was an honor to see my grandfather’s American Dream come full circle —fleeing Cuba, leaving everything behind that he knew for this next generation he hadn’t even met.

But the truth was, when you’re an NHL athlete, a goalie, you’re living day-to-day, and it’s a 24/7 job. So as much as I wanted to grow this game, I really had to focus on one thing and take care of one thing, and that was playing hockey.

I retired in 2019, then I realized: now I want to make this my full-time job. I want to help as much as I can and pay this forward, combining my two passions —my culture, and hockey.

Do you feel like the NHL has done enough, and are they legitimately trying to do better to get people of color in the sport? Because, as we know, it’s still an overwhelmingly white game. I’d like to think there are people in the NHL who want to diversify it, but we know that’s still met with resistance. Could you speak to some of the work that needs to be done to make this happen?

That’s a great question. I think it needs to be deliberate, and it needs to be told or represented by people like myself, that have played the game or that have come up through the sport.

Growing up in this sport, I didn’t have anyone to look up to from my background or culture. The more that kids could see themselves in this sport, whether it is on the ice or in the front office, the more the game will continue to grow. You don’t want all the same perspective. The more we could bring in different minds and different perspectives, I think this game will only grow.

And, like you said, there may be some people that don’t see why this is important. But the truth is, when they will care is when those other teams start taking the lead, and they want to be competitive. So whatever it takes. It only takes that one group, and for me, I found it in the Dallas Stars. They understand that this perspective will lead to growth. And Dallas being almost 50 percent Latino, you need that kind of representation, and these people need a voice. That’s what they have now with me.

Are you guys going to high schools, colleges, youth programs, and things of that nature? Are you talking to kids and their parents? What is some of the groundwork you guys are specifically doing?

The biggest thing is we’re taking hockey to where it isn’t. My first month here, we went to El Súper Clásico —a fútbol match between the biggest rivals in Mexican fútbol, Club América versus Chivas Guadalajara, held this year in Dallas’s Cotton Bowl Stadium. It was my first Texas experience here, and it was awesome. People were coming from all over: Mexico, California, Arkansas, Alabama, predominately speaking Spanish.

And who did they see there? The Dallas Stars.

We’re connecting with you, and we’re saying, “Look, we know hockey is not part of your life right now, but we wanna open the door and show you that we’re here, and we’re gonna support whatever you may do. [Visiting] schools are a little tough right now because of COVID.

Last week I attended the Amerigol Cup in South Florida. We had teams from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and all over Latin America, you name it. Six hundred and fifty players that are saying they want to play hockey, that are saying they want to feel this inclusion in this sport.

We went down to El Paso, Texas for Kraft Hockeyville with the NHL. These youth rinks around the country got to vote for who would get an NHL preseason game. So we’re going down to Kraft Hockey in El Paso. Already, they’re telling us they want hockey, so I’m thinking, alright, we’ll just bring them hockey.

No, forget it, these kids knew how to play hockey! They loved the sport; they knew the players. And to see names like Fernández, Ortiz, Hernández on the ice dancing out there and wanting this sport, I was like, we’re not showing them hockey, they already know it.

It’s just about exposure, and that’s what these kids deserve.


Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY