Behind the Mask
I remember the first time I ever put on a goalie mask.
I was seven, playing in a house league at the old Glenview Park District ice arena back home in Illinois. And at that point, on that team, being the goalie was like losing a bet or something. We used to have to pass the goalie bag to a different player before each game. No one wanted the job. And the beat-up bag with recycled equipment didn’t exactly help sell it.
But for me? As a little kid looking for new ways to have fun? Are you kidding?
To me, it was like that bag was filled with gold. What was inside couldn’t have been any more special — the old-school leather pads, one of those ancient chest protectors where it was just the chest and you had to slide on the arms, the whole thing. It may as well have been Patrick Roy’s or Eddie Belfour’s gear. In my eyes, it was beautiful.
And when the bag landed at my feet one day, I strapped on the mask and … I fell in love. Immediately. With that mask on, I felt like I could block out the noise around me and trust my instincts to respond to whatever came my way.
When I wasn’t wearing the mask? Well, things were different.
With that mask on, I felt like I could block out the noise around me and trust my instincts to respond to whatever came my way.- Al Montoya
To fully understand why, you have to understand what it’s like to navigate two different worlds: The one shaped by being the son of a Cuban refugee — my mom, who had come to America after fleeing the Castro regime with her parents when she was 10 years old — and the one I had to create for myself, as an everyday American kid born in Chicago.
Let me be totally clear: I’m proud of every part of my identity. But moving between two completely different versions of yourself on a daily basis can be challenging. It’s not that I didn’t know which one I most belonged to. It’s that I didn’t feel like society would let me be everything I was — Cuban, American, the son of an immigrant — all at the same time.
That’s what goes through your head when you’re switching norms on either side of your front door. Inside, the language spoken was 99% Spanish. My mom, my two brothers and I were usually joined by our abuela de cariño — a God-sent nanny slash fill-in grandmother of Mexican heritage who was always there to support us while my mom, a single parent, worked tirelessly to put herself through medical school, never once complaining about anything.
Then, whenever I walked out of the house, it was like culture shock. We lived in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood. I always knew that I looked a little different and dressed a little different, and I didn’t want to call attention to it. So I became a kid who sometimes had a tough time leaving his shell. I even remember my second-grade teacher brought this up at one of the parent-teacher conferences, expressing concern because I barely spoke.
My mom looked at that teacher like she was crazy. It was like, “Are you kidding me?! He speaks two languages!”
Then, a second later….
“And you should see that boy out on the ice!!!”
So anyway, this is where the goalie mask comes back in.
It might be easy to think of the mask as a way for me to hide, or to blend in, but I don’t think that’s what it was all about for me. Honestly, I think it was almost the opposite. Playing goalie allowed me to be completely in the moment – not trying to walk the tightrope of what people in different settings expected me to be, not wondering or questioning why that tightrope even existed. Just completely zoned in on the puck coming my way and doing my best to stop it.
I felt so free behind that mask, and it gave me the confidence to be myself.
Confidence makes a huge difference for kids with stories like mine — especially when they’re playing a sport with a history like hockey’s.
Now, before I go any further, let me just say: Don’t get me wrong — I love hockey. I think it’s the most beautiful game in the world. It has given me so much. It means everything to me, and I could not be more appreciative of how many ways I have benefited from the game of hockey.
But, at the same time, there were definitely moments coming up when I could tell why more Latino kids like me weren’t showing up at the rink.
Like, I’ll never forget the day when an opposing player at the youth level decided to call me a sp*c on the ice.
I wish I could forget it. And I wish it never had happened. But it did.
And, at the time, get this … I literally didn’t even know what was going on. I was so little, just totally naive. I didn’t even know what that word meant. I’d never heard it before. More than anything, I was just confused.
I guess I knew it wasn’t the nicest thing in the world, just because of how he’d said it. But beyond that it was like ????
I actually had to go to my mom afterward and ask her. I remember hopping into our car and immediately telling her what happened and just … trying to make sense of it.
I forget exactly what my mom said, but I think she just kind of broke it down for me in a very general way that you’d try to use in explaining an epithet to a little kid, right? Like, It’s just a mean thing that some people say, or something like that. And then she immediately went directly into … “Olvídalo!”
Forget about it!
Confidence makes a huge difference for kids with stories like mine — especially when they’re playing a sport with a history like hockey’s.- Al Montoya
So I did. I really did. For whatever reason, I was always able to just let go of things.
But that didn’t mean the incidents stopped. What probably got to me the most was when some other hockey parents would complain that my mom was “too loud” or “too aggressive” at the rink. What they really meant, of course, was that my mom was being “too much of herself as a Cuban woman.” She was already one of the only people of color at the rink. Already being treated as an outsider by some. But now people were labeling and judging her based on stereotypes.
And I could do nothing but watch.
It hurt for sure, but you know what? At the same time, I’m proud to say that none of that stuff ever worked on us. Those efforts to make me feel lower or to disrespect me or my family? Those efforts never accomplished that goal.
It never stopped me from showing up at the rink. It never made my mom quiet down and sit on her hands. We kept on being ourselves. We’d been through a lot as a family. We knew how to pull together and look inward for inspiration and strength.
Plus, as long as I had my mask … I felt like I could do anything. I really believed that. It didn’t matter what language I spoke or what I looked like. And it certainly didn’t matter if a few jerks were trying to bring me down.
That mask allowed me to rise above it all.
I’m not mentioning this stuff to play the victim. That’s not the point here, and no one should feel sorry for me. At all.
Almost all my experiences in the game of hockey — 99.9999% of them — have been positive and amazing and uplifting. Those run-ins with a few knuckleheads? Those kinds of things were few and far between. And to some extent, I genuinely think of those experiences as part of growing up — building up the resilience that all people of color in predominantly white spaces have had to build for generations.
But I do think that, to the extent that those sorts of things are happening more frequently to others within our game, or have become traumatic experiences for little kids out there just trying to have fun, it maybe makes sense to ask, like, really, How resilient do we want diverse kids in hockey to be? Why are people activating fight-or-flight responses in little kids at eight or nine years old? Is that really something we want to be doing if we’re trying to grow our game? Is that stuff something we’re O.K. with, especially in an era when we know so much more about mental health than we did in the past?
Why are people activating fight-or-flight responses in little kids at eight or nine years old?- Al Montoya
In my case, I loved hockey enough that I chose to fight through stuff like that. I was able to keep pushing forward, and to keep my focus on the game itself.
When I played for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the most important fight in my mind was the fight to win — to see the American flag raised at the end of every international competition. Even as a teenager, the meaning of that was not lost on me. That flag represented everything my grandparents prayed for when they left Cuba and brought their daughter to a new country. There was nothing more motivating to me than doing justice to their story while simultaneously giving my teammates all I had as we wrote our own story together.
I’ll never forget standing on the red line during those tournaments and looking up at the flag, thinking to myself, This is for you, abuelo y abuela. This is for you, Mom — for all the sacrifices you made. Those moments filled me with so much pride — pride that I still carry to this day.
But by the time I made it to the NHL, I kind of assumed maybe the stereotyping and ugliness that I ran up against sometimes would be a thing of the past. But, as much as I wanted it to — as much as I hoped it would — that stuff never completely went away during my time in professional hockey.
One of my first experiences in the league made it very clear to me that I’d always have to navigate a different kind of pressure. There was so much extra attention added because I was the NHL’s first Cuban American player — as well as a rare native Spanish speaker in NHL history, and the only player ever to be regularly doing locker room interviews in Spanish.
Imagine this: You make your NHL debut with the Phoenix Coyotes. Behind the bench is Wayne Gretzky — Yes, the Great One is your coach. You’re at the top of your game, and you deliver a shutout performance that gets your team the win.
In your first game ever! Shutout. Boom. Like, come on!!! Just imagine that. One of the happiest days of my life, bar none.
Then, the next day, a local radio show asks me to call in and talk about my debut. Heck yeah, right? Who WOULDN’T want to talk about a debut like that?! It was like, Let’s do it! Let’s go!
So I call in to the show, just so absolutely happy and ready to go. Cloud nine.
“Hey!!!! What’s up, guys?”
And as soon as it goes live, I hear the hosts using a fake, overdramatic Spanish accent … and I know it’s not going to be good. Their next question confirms it: “For your first NHL game, what did they do? Did they bring out a U-Haul truck, open it up, and say, ‘Ándale!’ ?”
Being a rookie, the only thing I could think of was to make a joke and go with it. I was so excited from my game. I was beyond happy. Those jokers weren’t going to slow me down.
Thinking back on it now, yeah, it sucked. It shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t right. It’s the exact type of thing that … if a Hispanic family was listening to the radio in Arizona that day, and heard that? They’re not going to another hockey game for the next five years, if ever.
But back then? When it happened? I honestly just rolled with it. I kept moving forward and just tried to forget about it.
If a Hispanic family was listening to the radio in Arizona that day, and heard that? They’re not going to another hockey game for the next five years, if ever.- Al Montoya
Then, a few years later, in 2011, I’m playing with a team up in Canada and it’s like … here we go again.
Out of nowhere, a radio show up there somehow decides it’s a good idea to produce this on-air bit where “Al Montoya” calls in as Tony Montana.
Um … yeah.
Mind you, it’s not me. It’s some person they hired to, I don’t know … I guess talk like Scarface and pretend to be me at the same time?
I’m not someone who likes to run around raising a fuss, but right from the start, it felt wrong. I remember thinking: Hey, I thought Canadians were supposed to the nicest and most accepting people in the world? What’s up with this?
So I voiced my concern, but they kept doing it and doing it. And again it was like … Just shake it off, Al.
Think of Ma, she never complains. Shake it off.
But when I think about today’s game? In 2021? Like right now? I keep coming back to the same question….
Can’t we do better?
I know for a fact that my experiences with xenophobia and racism in the game weren’t unique. That others have dealt with similar things, and stuff that’s much, much worse. (Like I said, I consider myself lucky when it comes to the bulk of my experiences in hockey, and in life generally. The ugly moments … they were few and far between, thankfully.)
That stuff — bigotry, exclusion, racism, xenophobia, bullying — is still going on. It still happens.
It doesn’t have to, though.
The way I see it, diversity is a source of strength, and the game needs more of it, along with more acceptance of all the different types of people who love this sport.
Hockey has so much to gain by taking steps to welcome those from underrepresented groups — from Hispanics and Latinos to other people of color in Black, Indigenous, and Asian communities, as well as girls and women, and members of the LGBTQ community. Empowering and welcoming players from different backgrounds will create a new wave of talent, plus connection points for new fans. It’s the most exciting way for hockey to grow.
I’ve been proud to work on the NHL’s Player Inclusion Committee, which is helping the league develop initiatives and programs that foster a more inclusive environment for male and female players at the elite level. It’s understood that the progress we’re working toward will require a sustained movement — it’s not something that can happen overnight.
What I know for sure, though, and what I’m proud to say is that ... it’s happening. It’s coming. And, in fact, I felt the beginnings of the movement back when I played down in Florida and saw the energy of what hockey can become when it works to engage and unite everyone.
In Miami, I was out in the community as often as possible. Not just because I wanted to be immersed in food, music, and atmosphere that reminded me of my family, but also because I wanted to be around people who reminded me of my family, and who now could see themselves represented in my sport.
That stuff, it matters!
I wanted people in the community to know hockey was a place where they could embrace their full identity, as players or as fans. Validating their stories through my own really seemed to make a difference. Sometimes, I’d even see signs in the stands with “Orgulloso de ser Cubano” — Proud to be Cuban.
How can you not be excited to see something like that at a hockey game?
Feeling that connection always made me smile before I took my place in the crease and got ready for game time — putting on a goalie mask with a little Cuban cigar painted on the back. It’s something I tried to incorporate in every mask design, a simple expression and a reminder of how wearing my mask has always enabled me to be exactly who I am….
A proud Cuban American in hockey.
Now it’s up to all of us who love this game to make sure that, going forward, every little kid out there who thinks they may want to play, watch, or be a fan of hockey feels like — no matter what their background, no matter what their unique story — she or he can have that same sort of connection between our sport and who they are as a person.
We owe that to the game of hockey, and we owe it to each other.