Before his junior year at Loyola Academy, a prep school outside Chicago, Al Montoya considered dropping out to play goal in the Ontario Hockey League. That idea, however, was quashed by his mother, Irene Silva, and with good reason. In 1963, when Irene was nine, her family fled Cuba for the U.S. with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They eventually settled in Chicago, and Irene went on to become an internist. She didn't want her son to give up his dream to play pro hockey, she just believed that getting an education was more important. "God gave you a brain," Irene told Alvaro. "Use it. Go to school."
As the hockey world now knows, in addition to having a strong-willed mother, the 18-year-old Montoya also counts a quick glove and superior puckhandling skills among his blessings. The Michigan sophomore backstopped the U.S. to its first gold medal at the World Junior Championships, making 27 saves in a 4-3 win over Canada in the final on Monday in Helsinki. In helping the Americans to a 6-0 record, Montoya had two shutouts, a 1.33 goals-against average and a sparkling .944 save percentage. Said U.S. coach Mike Eaves, "His confidence has grown as we've gone along here."
As a freshman last season Montoya led all NCAA goalies in games (43) and took the Wolverines to the Frozen Four with a 30-10-3 record. He was tabbed to be the backup on the U.S. team, but he became the starter after Maine sophomore Jimmy Howard suffered a sprained left knee on the eve of the two-week tournament.
Montoya's athleticism, quasi-butterfly technique and ability to move the puck remind observers of the Devils' Martin Brodeur and the Stars' Marty Turco, but it's Montoya's background that makes him unique. His mother's family was a fixture of upper-class society in Cuba: His polymath grandfather was a wealthy cattle rancher, attorney, painter and musician, and Montoya has photos of his great-uncles fishing with Ernest Hemingway near the town of Gibara. "They lived the good life," says Silva, "but they gave up everything for freedom."
Now Irene, who raised Al as a single parent, is sharing in another family dream: Between patient visits in her office on Monday, she followed the final match on the Internet.