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How Stars’ Montoya is helping hockey embrace underrepresented communities

From the very beginning, Álvaro Montoya could feel there was something particular about his presence in the hockey world, something special.

It started early on, in Michigan, as his Wolverines won two CCHA titles. It continued with Team USA, when he helped the Americans claim the first world juniors gold in the country’s history. He felt it especially once he graduated to the NHL, during a near-decade that took him through Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Long Island, Phoenix and Florida.

It wasn’t the titles or the wins or anything else that transpired on the ice, though. It was something more. It was the signs he’d see dotted among the crowd, the shirts with his name scrawled across, that endless love from Hispanic fans that followed him from city to city. It was that feeling he had in June 2004, when the New York Rangers called his name with the sixth pick at the NHL Draft, and in doing so, made him the first-ever Cuban-American NHLer, and the League’s first native Spanish speaker.

The impact of that historic step, and the attention and responsibility it brought, might’ve been overwhelming to other teenagers with big-league dreams. But Montoya never saw it like that.

“I get asked, ‘Did you feel the pressure, or did it weigh on you?’ And the honest truth is it was such an honour,” he says, looking back on it now. That appreciation has only grown with retirement, the time away granting Montoya the chance to see his career from afar. “I go back to when my grandparents and my mother fled Cuba in 1963 from that communist government, you know, left behind everything they knew for future generations, for their grandkids — I really got to see my grandfather’s dream, my grandparents’ dream, come full circle.”

He’ll now look to ensure others get that same chance.

Three years after suiting up for his last NHL game, Montoya is back in the league after being named the Dallas Stars’ director of community outreach, a role that’ll see him help the organization reach out to underrepresented communities in North Texas. It was a long time coming for the 36-year-old, after a couple years spent speaking to different teams gauging who was most willing to help him roll up his sleeves and do the real work, and a career that showed him long ago that this would one day be his calling.

Really, the path that led him to this opportunity started in his earliest days at the rink, his own younger years granting him a firsthand understanding of how different life looks for players and fans who come from communities rarely represented in the sport.

“I grew up in kind of two worlds,” he says of those days back in Chicago. “We grew up in a Spanish-dominated household, which was so beautiful. [But] there were times in our life that we didn’t know if that was right, at least personally — I would leave the house at eight years old and be like, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t speak Spanish anymore, because nobody else around me speaks Spanish.’

“Sport really allowed me to develop and navigate these worlds. … It’s sport that really allowed me to express myself when I was confused, whether it was what path should I follow or who should I listen to — I truly believe that sports transcend all that. It’s that universal language.”

It was in Florida that Montoya truly had his eyes opened, his run with the Panthers bringing him the closest he’d ever been to bridging the gap between those two worlds.

“I mean, the Freedom Tower that’s down there [in Miami]… that’s where my grandparents got off the boat, and where their first apartment was, and where my cousins brought my mom and my uncles sandwiches, you know? They still tell the stories to this day,” he says. “Whether it was doing interviews with the Latin community on a weekly radio show, whether it was speaking to Telemundo or Univision, whether it was helping out in the Spanish broadcasting that we were a part of, it was amazing.

“And it wasn’t something that felt forced — it’s something that helped me, selfishly, connect with those that I grew up around. You know, whether it was going to my favourite restaurant, Versailles, at Calle Ocho in Miami, in Little Havana — these were traditions that happened before hockey and that I was able to bring together with hockey.”

While that run in Florida allowed him to bring his hockey career to his community, it made room for the reverse, too — an early preview of the work he’s since devoted himself to.

“It was bringing my madrina — which is a godmother in Spanish — it was bringing her to her first game in South Florida. What does she do? She shows up with pastelitos, which are Cuban pastries from the local bakery that I had been having since I was a kid,” Montoya remembers. “She shows up with 20 people that I hadn’t seen since, you know, 1990 at a Christmas that we celebrated down in Miami.

“It was their first game, and their cousins were able to come. And it was just that chance to really connect and bring the game.”

Montoya representing the Stars at El Súper Clásico. (Courtney Kramer/Dallas Stars)

Growing the sport and its surrounding culture is going to require more of that, Montoya says. More connections, more bridged gaps, more branching out and taking hockey into communities it’s rarely ever engaged with or embraced.

“I think in hockey, we’ve always relied on the fact that this is such a fantastic game, and ‘Come see us soon and you’ll see why,’ right? And I think nowadays, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what industry you’re in, there’s just too many things out there for people to be entertained by,” he says. “I think the best way to do it, to grow hockey, is to go where hockey isn’t. Not rely on the fact that we have the best game on earth, because we know we do, but the best way to go about it and make people feel more included is to go to events or be in touch with communities that aren’t part of the game.”

Montoya’s vision of what’s needed is clear, because he’s been there himself. He’s confronted those early moments of awkwardness that come with mixing the culture at home with the culture at the rink. For him, the way through came from the luck of simply being the best athlete of the kids around him, he says. But that’s not always how the situation shakes out.

“As a minority in sport, why do we have to be so tough to make it through?” Montoya says. “Why aren’t there more minorities in hockey?… I think all of us in these underrepresented communities had to go through some tough periods in our life early on in hockey or whatever sport you’re playing, to bypass it. And there’s a lot of kids that’ll say, ‘If you’re going to treat me like that, I don’t even want to be a part of this sport.’

“So, what I want to do, and what we’re trying to do, is pave the way so now kids have someone to look up to and they can see that maybe their path doesn’t have to be as difficult.”

Letting those kids see the name ‘Montoya’ as part of an NHL front office is a step in itself, he says. The next ones will come slowly and steadily, by putting in the time to bring about legitimate change in the North Texas hockey community. Maybe not tomorrow, or the week or month after that, but some time down the line.

“You know, we’re going to be at the front of these things now. We’re going to be seeing what’s important — we’ve built a relationship with the Mexican consulate here to understand where we should be,” Montoya says of his plans with the Stars. “I think building these relationships with business owners in the community, and aligning ourselves with them, will help show what we’re doing is honest work. And not only that, we want to be consistent. I think having me here, I’ll make sure that we’re consistent and it’s not just a flash in the pan, and I think that’s the best way to make a difference.

“You’re really trying to build up for the long term and make it something that feels genuine. I feel like we’re starting pretty close to the ground level and the only way is to go up. So, the best way to do that is being consistent, and going to the people.”

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