The Panthers already had one extremely marketable goalie on their roster in Roberto Luongo.
On July 1, they added another — one who could help them reach a large segment of the community who may not know much about the game.
Al Montoya, the first Cuban-American to play in the National Hockey League, said Monday that coming to South Florida and the Panthers is an exciting time not only for him but for extended family in the area.
“I’m not only able to further my career, but do so with a team that wants to bring a winning franchise to South Florida,” said Montoya, who was born and raised in Chicago and is nicknamed the “Big Cubano.”
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“I grew up going down there visiting cousins, uncles. I have family in Coral Gables, my brother has a place in Miami Beach. I’m very familiar with the area. Whenever I get the chance, I come to Miami.”
Family is certainly important to Montoya and he has credited his mother — Dr. Irene Silva — as his biggest inspiration in the past.
Now a successful doctor on Chicago’s north side, Montoya’s mother escaped Cuba for Miami with her family as a young girl in 1963.
Montoya, who says his favorite local haunt is Versailles in Little Havana, is not only a solid backup to Luongo but he brings the added benefit of potentially helping the Panthers continue to grow hockey in the NHL’s southernmost market.
“I was blessed with a gift and the Cuban people are a motivated bunch, a passionate bunch,” Montoya said. “I’m just lucky enough to where I have an arena to show off my American dream. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve been. Everyone can play hockey. Like I said, the Cuban people are very passionate. Once they figure out what the game is like, it’s tough to let go.”
Montoya signing with the Panthers seems like a natural fit and perhaps could have come earlier.
When Montoya was taken sixth overall in the 2004 draft by the New York Rangers, there was talk Florida had interest.
The Panthers were picking one spot back of New York and ended up taking forward Rostislav Olesz — who played in 349 games for Florida — instead.
With the Panthers having Luongo back then as well, they may have been tempted to take Montoya in the first round in 2004 if they had the chance although there is no certainty then-GM Rick Dudley would have done so.
“I have had the ‘what-if’ in my head for a long time, wondering where my career might have been,” Montoya said. “I’m very excited because this is somewhere I want to be. I want to help the franchise grow. I’ve seen hockey grow in the non-traditional climates.”
Montoya was expected to be the next big thing in New York after being drafted. Not only did Montoya help the United States win its first-ever gold medal at the world junior tournament, but he had a standout career at the University of Michigan.
With the emergence of Henrik Lundqvist, however, Montoya toiled in the Rangers’ minor-league system for three seasons and never reached the heights New York had hoped.
“In my mind I should have been in the NHL from Day 1 and that was my mistake,” Montoya said. “The passion and compete level has always been there with me. I think I’ve really grown the past few years in the NHL. I feel very comfortable out there.”
With the Rangers, Montoya did get to experience playing against the Panthers in the first NHL-sanctioned game held in Puerto Rico in 2006.
Montoya started that game in San Juan, stopping nine of 10 shots and picked up the victory in New York’s 3-2 win.
Montoya never made it into a regular season game with the Rangers, that chance finally coming when he was traded to the Coyotes in 2008.
On April 1, 2009, Montoya made his NHL debut as he pitched a shutout of host Colorado in the Coyotes’ 3-0 victory.
In 2011, Montoya was traded to a New York Islanders team desperate for goaltending help. Montoya finally got a chance to see regular NHL minutes and played well enough to be brought back in 2011-12.
Montoya spent the past two years as the backup goalie in Winnipeg. Now 29, he has played in 91 NHL games, going 37-26-13 with a goals-against average of 2.63 and has stopped 91 percent of his shots faced.
Unhappy with the play of Dan Ellis, whom the Panthers had backing up Luongo at the end of last season, general manager Dale Tallon pursued Montoya and signed him to a two-year deal worth $2.1 million on July 1.
Ellis, too, is under contract for next season.
“Al has had a winning career in the NHL and in the AHL,” Tallon said. “He’s always wanted to come to Florida. He’s excited.
“We already talked to [Luongo] about it and it takes a special type of goaltender to be a backup, to accept that role, be positive toward the No. 1 goalie.”
With Montoya and Luongo, the Panthers have a strong 1-2 punch in net. Montoya says he’s excited about the possibilities.
“The coach and the team knows what I’m capable of and when I’m called, I’m going out there to win games,” he said. “I’m not just there to give Roberto a night off, I’m there to help the team move forward. I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think things are headed in the right direction. I haven’t seen my best yet.”