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Thursday, May 10, 2012
Updated: May 11, 2:27 PM ET
Mom is where the heart is for Al Montoya

By Katie Strang
Special to espnW

Whatever sport he was playing while growing up in suburban Chicago -- baseball, football, soccer or hockey -- Al Montoya could always hear his mom in the stands.

It didn't matter that Dr. Irene Silva was busy -- this is a woman who emigrated from Cuba at age 10 and went on to establish a thriving medical practice while raising four boys all by herself -- she was always there to witness Montoya's latest sporting feat, cheering wildly.

Not much has changed since.

Montoya has graduated from the little league fields and midget hockey rinks to reach his dream as an NHL goaltender, but, at age 27, he still counts his mother as his biggest supporter.

Al Montoya
Al Montoya, second from left, says his mother, Irene, has been the most influential person in his life.

She was and is, as Montoya explained, "the most influential person" in his life.

"I appreciate my mom so much now," Montoya said in a telephone interview. "Growing up, you don't necessarily take it for granted, but she was always surrounding us with such great role models, and now I look at her and she's still going strong. I can't say enough about her or give her enough love."

Montoya said his father, a prominent heart surgeon in Chicago, was never really in the picture, but that his mother was the pillar of support in a tight-knit, loving family.

Montoya is one of four kids, all of whom would make any mother proud. There is his older brother, David Walsh, 31, a former college football player at the Naval Academy and intelligence officer who now runs a business in private security. Montoya also has two 26-year-old twin brothers, Marcos, who just graduated from dental school, and Carlos, who runs a gym in Glenview, Ill.

"I think I've been blessed. I've just been lucky and I've had a lot of family support with my parents and family around, so I can't take all the credit," Silva said. "You look back on it and you think, 'How did I ever do it?' But when you're in the midst of it, you don't think of it that way."

Family was everything to Silva and her boys. She came over from Cuba in 1963 with her parents and siblings, and all remained close after relocating to Chicago from Miami after being stateside for a few months.

Silva wanted to instill a sense of pride and connection with the family's Cuban heritage (Spanish was Montoya's first language and one that was primarily employed at home) and make sure her sons were invested, as she was, in school.

Before opening her practice in downtown Chicago, Silva attended medical school at Loyola University and completed her residency at Northwestern Medical Hospital. Education was always an emphasis from her parents, who left behind all their possessions in Cuba when they came over to the States. Silva said her father, Manuel, always told her, "Education is food for the soul," and he was always trying to perfect his English up until the day he died at age 96.

"That's something that no one can take from you," Silva said of her parents' lasting legacy. "When my family came over from Cuba with nothing but the shirts off our backs, my parents' education is what helped them succeed."

So imagine how Silva felt when her son emerged as a top goaltending prospect and was urged to go the conventional junior hockey route in the Ontario Hockey League instead of attending college. It was hard enough to let him go to Texas as a teenager for a stint with the North American Hockey League's Texas Tornado in 2000-01.

"It went against everything I believed, letting him go during his formative years, when he should've been at home," she recalled.

Al Montoya
Starting with his grandmother and reinforced by his mother, Al Montoya and his brothers were taught about the importance of education at a very young age.

Silva directed her son to instead put his education first and, ultimately, he followed her advice. Instead of playing in the OHL, Montoya chose to attend the University of Michigan. Montoya excelled there, posting an impressive 30-7-3 record in his third season with the team after being taken sixth overall by the New York Rangers in the 2004 draft. He paved his way to the NHL with a relentless work ethic and unflappable will to succeed, traits he attributes to ... who else?

"She's been working her tail off ever since she got to the U.S., so I've always tried to have that same mentality, to make her proud," Montoya said.

After turning pro, Montoya bounced from New York to Phoenix, where he toiled in the minor leagues for four years before an injury-ravaged Islanders team acquired him via trade in February 2011.

It was there that he established himself as a starting NHL goaltender; he went 9-5-5 with a .921 save percentage and one shutout, and earned his first one-way deal with the team following his two-month audition. Montoya then won the No. 1 job out of training camp with the team this past September before an injury-hampered season that limited him to 31 games. He is now looking to becoming an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Regardless of what twists and turns lie ahead in his career, Montoya has a bedrock of support he can rely on in his mom, a mentor and hero who has given him guidance throughout his life.

Silva said she can see so much of herself in her son. Beyond the physical -- he is the only one of the four boys who, like her, has the hazel eyes of her own mother, Berta -- his open, affectionate nature mirrors Silva's.

"He has the warmest, loving heart," she said. "Being at home, he appreciates that so much, he adores that. What a heart."

It's been a mother-son relationship that has evolved as he has matured, one that has found new depths since he met and married his wife, Annie, who shares many similar traits to his mom ("She's Italian," Silva explained. "Big hearts, big meals."), and one he hopes continues to grow.

Montoya talked about something that struck him recently. After seeing Silva play with one of his best friend's children, he realized that no matter how old he gets or what endeavor he takes on, he'll always lean on his mom, especially when it comes time to have kids of his own.

Montoya chuckled when asked about the prospect. "I think I'm going to have to see if I can live up to Irene Silva again."