Al Montoya said the NHL can’t take a “Field of Dreams” approach when it comes to attracting Hispanic fans.
“You can’t rest on ‘If you build It, they will come,'” said Montoya, a former goalie who was the first Cuban American player in the NHL. “We need to go into these communities instead of us relying on having such a fantastic game and expecting them just to show up.”
Which is why Montoya found himself at a soccer game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on a sweltering Sunday afternoon recently.
Montoya is the Dallas Stars’ director of community outreach, a newly created position. He set up shop at El Súper Clásico, a soccer friendly between Mexico rivals Club América and Chivas Guadalajara, at the famous football stadium, where he talked hockey in Spanish and English and distributed free Stars tickets to some of the estimated 50,000 mostly Hispanic attendees for the match.
“There were people that came from 17 hours away from Chicago for one day, people from Mexico were there, Arkansas, Alabama,” said Montoya, who played for the Phoenix Coyotes, New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. “Some 500-plus people registered for (free) Stars tickets. It was great.”
Stars president and CEO Brad Alberts said Montoya will be an invaluable resource in helping the franchise connect with underrepresented groups in hockey. Hispanics account for nearly 42 percent of population of the city of Dallas, according to recent U.S. Census figures.
“The life experiences that he brings to this role can’t be understated,” Alberts said. “We look forward to seeing how his leadership will positively impact the Dallas/Ft. Worth community and Stars fans across the world.”
Montoya said he’s dreamed of getting more Hispanics interested and involved in hockey ever since he was a kid growing up in Glenview, Illinois. The 36-year-old’s hockey journey began when he and his brother began skating at a rink across the street from his family’s home.
After seeing a bag filled with goalie gear at age 7, Montoya was hooked on hockey, even though there were few kids on the ice who looked or sounded like him.
Montoya’s mother and grandparents fled Cuba and Fidel Castro’s regime for the United States in 1963 and settled in Illinois. Though the family was in a new country they retained some of the ways of the old one, including speaking Spanish at home.
“I knew I was different, I spoke Spanish, but hockey was my equalizer,” said Montoya, who is a member of the NHL’s Player Inclusion Committee. “You put on that mask [and] within the hockey community it was nothing but support. It might have been because I was one of the better players.”
Being one of the few Hispanic players on the ice wasn’t always drama-free.
“The few outliers didn’t taint my experience,” he said. “There might have been the nastiness. There might have been people who didn’t like seeing ‘Montoya’ on the back of a hockey jersey. But they were few and far between.”
Montoya became good enough to play one season for the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program at 16 in 2001-02.
He earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan where he went 86-29-8 from 2003-05 with a 2.36 goals-against average and .908 save percentage under coach Red Berenson.
Montoya was selected to play for the United States at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland. That team went undefeated (6-0) on its way winning the first title for the U.S. and Montoya was named best goalie in the tournament.
Montoya’s performances in Helsinki and Ann Arbor prompted the New York Rangers to select him with the No. 6 pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.
He’s the third-highest drafted player of Hispanic descent behind Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (No. 1 in 2016), who is Mexican American, and Bill Guerin (No. 5 in 1989, New Jersey Devils), a former forward who is the son of a Nicaraguan mother and American father.
Former forward Scott Gomez, an Alaska native of Mexican-Colombian descent, was also a first-round pick, No. 27 by the New Jersey Devils in 1998.
Montoya said he felt the weight of history of being Hispanic and a high draft pick from the moment he was chosen. And he embraced it.
“For me it was an honor to tell the stories, to represent the Hispanic community, to be the first player in 100-plus years to give interviews in Spanish in the locker room, to say ‘Here we are, it’s a beautiful game and we love it,” Montoya said.
Montoya never played for the Rangers. New York had a 2000 seventh-round pick (No. 205) named Henrik Lundqvist in their system who would make his NHL debut in 2005.
The Rangers traded Montoya to Phoenix midway through the 2007-08 season. He played his first NHL game on April 1, 2009, under coach Wayne Gretzky, a 3-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche.
“I still have it in my house, the signed score sheet by Wayne Gretzky, and the game puck,” he said.
Montoya spent most of his nine seasons in the NHL as a steady backup for All-Star goalies like Carey Price in Montreal and Roberto Luongo in Florida.
He retired in 2019 with a 67-49-24 record, 2.65 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in 168 NHL games, 136 of them starts.
Through all his stops, Montoya said he never forgot his roots, especially when he played for the Panthers near Miami where his family arrived by boat from Cuba.
The area has a large Cuban American population. Montoya spoke weekly about hockey on Spanish-language radio, following then-Panthers coach Gerard Gallant’s advice.
“He said ‘I want you to go out there and be whoever the hell you can be, stop the puck and embrace the community,” Montoya said.
The community loved him back.
“There were Cuban people who were bringing signs, who were bringing me food, who were bringing me pastries and coffee after games,” he said. “It was a chance to connect with people who were like me. It wasn’t something that I wanted to do because it was good for hockey. It was something I wanted to do because it felt good for me. It felt good to give back.”
Now Montoya hopes to capture that same feeling in Dallas.
“The Dallas Stars are highlighting who I am and how I got into hockey, how I was raised Hispanic, Spanish-speaking,” he said.
His hire is part of the Stars’ long-term strategy to tap into a market in a region that demographers say is on course to become majority Hispanic.
The Stars have forged a relationship with Francisco de la Torre, the Mexican consul general in Dallas, who told them about El Súper Clásico and other Hispanic community events.
De la Torre also helped organize a reception with team officials and CEOs of 35 Mexican-owned companies in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex at American Airlines Center on February 19, 2020, before the Stars faced the Coyotes.
“Many of them had been here for years and they never thought about attending a game,” de la Torre said. “They never felt that the promotion of the Stars was meant for them. For about half of them, it was the first time they attended a game of the Stars. The more venues and events where the Hispanic community feels welcome, it’s better for everyone.”
The Stars held Learn to Play clinics at a rink in Mexico City in February and March 2019 with an eye toward returning to what they feel is part of their fanbase territory.
Montoya said he can’t wait to see the results of the outreach efforts.
“Now we’re here and you can’t get rid of us,” he said. “We’re going to come to where you are, where you feel comfortable and we’re going to keep talking and show you how great this game is.”
Photos: Courtney Kramer/Dallas Stars, Al Montoya