A good summer job is tough to come by.
Accomplished students send out cover letters and resumés
with high hopes that often get dashed. All they want is a chance to
prove their worth.

Ice Hockey
Junior goalie Al Montoya snags a shot last season. (RYAN WEINER/Daily)
Ice Hockey

Al Montoya was lucky enough to get a job offer — and he
didn’t even take it.

The only catch was that he’d have to leave school and
never come back. Fortunately, the company that offered him the job
thinks he has a bright future, so the offer stands whenever
he’s ready. Lucky guy. Maybe you’ve heard of the
company — the New York Rangers.

So what did Michigan’s junior goalie do all summer? Sleep
late and play videogames all day? Nope. Stay out all night in his
hometown of Chicago? Not really. Did he travel at least? Yeah, but
he didn’t backpack across Europe or anything like that.
Instead, he skipped across North America, stopping only to attend
the NHL draft and to set New York abuzz.

After Boston College ousted Michigan in the NCAA Northeast
regional in March, Montoya stuck around Ann Arbor for spring term.
But in the middle of the shortened semester, Montoya had to travel
to Toronto for the NHL combine so teams could evaluate him for the
upcoming NHL draft. At the event, Montoya faced a barrage of
questions from 18 different teams.

“It was a very strenuous week,” Montoya said.
“Everything you did was a psychological test. Every person
you talked to in meetings and even away from meetings was looking
to get bits and pieces from you. There were questions after
questions about everything from your family to your friends,
priorities, goals and values.”

The Rangers were one of the teams that was intrigued by
Montoya’s play. The organization was especially impressed
when Montoya led the United States to gold in the World Junior
Championships in January.

“Al clearly relished playing in big games,” Rangers
Assistant General Manager Don Maloney said. “In our minds, he
was the MVP of the (World Junior Championships).”

And after members of the organization got a feel for Montoya as
a person, they knew he would be high on their draft board.

“We just do the psychological profiles to look for any red
flags,” Maloney said. “But with Al there clearly
weren’t any to be found.”

Montoya survived the rigors of the combine and returned to Ann
Arbor to complete the spring semester. Then he went home to the
Chicago area for a few days before heading down to Raleigh, N.C.,
for the NHL draft with friends and family.

The Central Scouting Service ranked Montoya higher than all
other goalies entering the draft, but the 19-year-old tried not to
buy into all the hype before the big day.

“People were congratulating him the day before the
draft,” his mother, Irene Silva, remembers. “And he
would say, ‘Why are you congratulating me, I haven’t
been drafted yet.’ He didn’t want to jinx
anything.”

The long buildup and whirlwind surrounding the draft took its
toll on Montoya.

“It was ridiculous,” Montoya said. “Up until
that night, I didn’t sleep much, and up until my name was
called, I really had no idea where I was going. Most people told me
I’d go in the first round, but people talk and tell you 15
different things and you have no idea. So, I just tried to enjoy
the day.”

It turns out there wasn’t anything to toss and turn about.
The Rangers selected Montoya with the sixth pick in the first
round, making him the first goalie and the first collegiate player
selected.

Montoya’s convoy of family and friends came from all over
the world to take part in the merriment. In addition to the usual
suspects, Montoya’s surrogate parents — who housed him
when he played for the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey
League in 2000-01 — made the trip, and his older brother, who
works a Naval intelligence job in Japan, also came in for the
celebration.

“It was great to have everyone together,”
Montoya’s mother said. “When the Rangers drafted him,
they joked that Al brought half of Chicago with him. But he’s
used to having a lot of extended family around.”

After the draft, Montoya and his family went down to Hilton
Head, S.C., for a family vacation. It was the first vacation the
family had taken together in years. The tight-knit group hung out
on the beach, chucked a Frisbee around, golfed and kayaked.

The Rangers wanted the newly drafted goalie to cut his vacation
short and head to New York for a public relations tour, but Montoya
wanted to spend the previously planned vacation with his family in
Hilton Head. The Rangers understood and Montoya traveled up to the
Big Apple two days later then the Rangers had originally hoped.

When he arrived in New York, Montoya got a preview of what
celebrity life might taste like. The Rangers brought him to the
world-renowned Carnegie Deli where a sandwich was promptly named in
his honor — the deli added the “Al Cubano” to the
menu. The hefty bite to eat, which is named after Montoya’s
Cuban heritage (Montoya’s mother left Cuba for the United
States when she was 9), is a traditional Cuban pork sandwich.

The Rangers were not done showing off their newest prized
possession. The next stop was the Yankees-Mets Subway Series. At
Shea Stadium, Montoya got to meet a number of New York sports
stars, even a Cuban.

“It was unbelievable,” Montoya said. “I got to
go on the field and meet (Derek) Jeter, (Alex) Rodriguez and (Jose)
Contreras. Contreras actually thought I was from Cuba, but that
would have been pretty impressive to make it to the NHL while
growing up in Cuba.”

Jeter and A-Rod may have to get used to sharing space with
Montoya because The New York Post’s Page Six gossip column
has already dubbed Montoya the “next athlete heartthrob in
New York.”

After living it up in New York City, the dreamy draft pick
finally went back home for a few weeks, but he had a huge decision
to make: Should he give up his final two years of eligibility and
sign a contract with the Rangers, or should he return to Michigan
for his junior year? The Rangers wanted Montoya to play for their
minor league team in Hartford, Conn., which will play regardless of
the NHL lockout.

“It was definitely a tough decision,” Montoya said.
“I’ve been dreaming about playing in the NHL my whole
life.”

Montoya sought out the opinions of others who had been in his
place. He spoke to former Wolverine netminders Marty Turco and
Steve Shields, both of whom spent four years between the pipes in
Ann Arbor before moving on to the NHL.

“They were both really helpful and supportive,”
Montoya said. “They told me about the advantages and
disadvantages of both. They both played in the minors and they said
it’s not the greatest thing ever. They said it’s not
like the NHL, and until you’re 110-percent ready,
there’s no reason to rush it.”

Montoya was not sold. He took his time contemplating while all
parties involved waited. Finally, after delaying until late July to
announce his highly anticipated decision, Montoya decided to stay
at Michigan.

“You have to step back and look at the big picture,”
Montoya said. “If I’m good enough, I’ll make it
one day. It doesn’t need to be rushed. And these two years at
school could be the best ones of my life. I want to experience
everything.”

The Rangers supported the decision and feel like Montoya can
continue to improve in Ann Arbor.

“If he had wanted to sign, we would have signed
him,” Maloney said. “But the (American Hockey League)
is a rough league with players who are much older than Al, so I
think Michigan will be good for him this year.”

Two others, Montoya’s mother and Michigan coach Red
Berenson, passionately supported the decision.

“Education is always number one,” Silva said.
“I want him to graduate, and that’s what I’m
working on with him now.”

Said Berenson: “I think he made a good decision to come
back. It shouldn’t just be about money. It’s about
development. He had good family support, and I think we need more
of that now. I’m a strong supporter of a four-year career in
college hockey.”

After the decision, Montoya’s tour of North America took
him to Grand Forks, N.D., for the USA Hockey National Junior
Evaluation Camp and to Calgary for a Rangers training camp. But
after all the summer travel, Montoya is back where he started
— in Ann Arbor.

“When I came up to visit, I’ve never seen him
happier,” his mother said. “I know he made the right
decision. It’s exciting to be drafted, but he’s got two
years of school left.”

When he does finally sign a contract with the Rangers —
whether it’s next year or the year after — Montoya has
something special planned for his mom.

“I have a certain gift in mind,” Montoya said.
“But that’s between me and her.”

His mother, unaware of her son’s thoughtful intentions,
says she has already received her reward.

“The biggest gift you can have is to see your children
happy,” the single mother of four said. “It’s
great to see them make the right choices.”

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