Arber Xhekaj, the hope who sees himself succeeding Ben Chiarot

It’s high time Arber Xhekaj played professional hockey. At 21, this nice, 6’4” and 230 lb bully can squeeze the youngsters of the Ontario Junior League like vulgar rag dolls. And it becomes a problem for the hope of the Montreal Canadiens.

“I mean, in my situation, all the guys are small for me at the moment, summarizes the sympathetic Xhekaj during a telephone interview with TVASports.ca. It’s difficult for me, because I can’t play completely freely like I could and hit everything that moves. The league distributes penalties and suspensions more severely than before. It is not easy.

“But I should be correct at the next level…”

It’s almost as if you could “hear” Xhekaj’s smirk when he said that last sentence. Among professionals, the imposing defender will have no restraint. But until then CH director of player development Rob Ramage makes it a point to remind him to be more disciplined and stay away from the penalty box.

The competition will be very strong on defense for the hopefuls of the Habs next fall. Kaiden Guhle, Justin Barron, Jordan Harris, Corey Schueneman and Mattias Norlinder are all expected to contend for a position. Barring any surprises, Xhekaj will cut his teeth in the American League with the Laval Rocket next year.

He’s a rock-hard defender, ruthless against the best players on the other team and endowed with a fluid skate that betrays his big size that Laval residents should have the opportunity to discover.

A kind of… Ben Chiarot.

“I can neutralize any player, any line. I am inspired by Chiarot, confides the main interested party. At training camp earlier this year, we had a similar game. This is the type of player I envision becoming at the professional level.

Xhekaj also insists that his attacking skills should not be taken lightly. He began to reveal them to the general public this season with 33 points, including 11 goals, in 49 games. We will remember more his differential of +35; however, it is not nothing.

“I think my offensive game is very underestimated, underlines the big guy. I have a good shot. I have good hands and good speed. I won’t necessarily be in control of a power play, but I will be able to produce at even strength by using my heavy shot and being the fourth player on offensive pushes.

Like Ben Chiarot, basically.

“Defenders like Chiarot and Jake Muzzin, those big solid defensemen, those are the guys that make your team go far in the playoffs,” Xhekaj said. It’s a tough role to play, because having to play tough every night and throwing the gloves here and there all leaves marks on your body. But I believe I can do it.”

against all odds

With hindsight, that Xhekaj has become a hopeful of Canadians who can seriously discuss a future among the professionals is almost a miracle.

Not so long ago, the young man was ignored by all OHL teams in the bantam draft.

“I tried out with a few Junior B teams in Ontario and ended up carving out a spot with the St. Catharines Falcons. I played my 16 year there and ended up attracting the attention of a few OHL teams, who invited me to their camp the following year.

“I went to the Kitchener Rangers and they liked me enough to hire me. Obviously, the whole process before achieving this was hard. But I believed in myself. I believed in my ability to become a good player at the junior level. It took a lot of work, I had to give up a lot of fun stuff at that young age, but it was worth it.”

Even if Xhekaj managed to break into the OHL through the back door, he was not at the end of his troubles. The start of his junior career was not easy. The big guy must have been very resilient. He doesn’t hold back neighbors: his Albanian father fled the war in Kosovo in his mid-twenties to land in Hamilton and make a living there. His mother did the same to leave the Czechoslovak communist regime.

“I didn’t play much in my first year,” Xhekaj said. I was used sometimes in attack, sometimes in defense. I didn’t get many attendances. I think it was only halfway through my second season that I broke into the top 4 and accepted greater responsibilities. My coach started to trust me. He sent me on the ice short of a man and during the last minute of play to neutralize the other team.

Xhekaj’s progress didn’t escape the Habs’ radar that year, so they showed interest in him.

“I had had a few interviews with them in the second half of the season [2019-2020]. I even took part in a Zoom conference with Trevor Timmins, Doctor Scott and all the other guys. They told me that the interview went very well. But then I stopped hearing from them. They didn’t draft me, there was COVID, and it wasn’t until a year later that they invited me to their training camp.”

Richardson’s lobbying

Xhekaj’s baptism of fire in the colors of the Habs was quite a story: his first preseason game was played against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team of his childhood. The Hamilton boy had butterflies in his stomach.

“I was admiring (starstruck) during this match. It complicated things, it was my first experience in the NHL, I was quite nervous. I think I did well under the circumstances, but I knew I hadn’t lived up to my potential.”

For Xhekaj, it was out of his question that his camp ended on this note. Enter Luke Richardson, coach of the CH defenders. He was sort of the ace up his sleeve.

“I went to him and just said, ‘I need another game. I need to be able to show you what I can do.’ I assume he told the other coaches about it, because my wish was granted. In the second game [contre les Sénateurs d’Ottawa]I gave everything.”

Things then moved very quickly. Xhekaj had barely returned to the locker room when general manager Marc Bergevin asked to speak to him; there was talk of a three-year entry-level contract in the National Hockey League.

“I’m changing and he comes to see me: ‘Hi, can we talk for a moment?’ He took me to a corner to tell me the news. It was special. He told me so calmly. During that time, I was freaking out and trying to look normal!”

funny episode

Xhekaj’s very robust, sometimes a bit nasty game is not quite compatible with the OHL. The main interested party has seen it more than once this season.

Never was that more evident than when he took the knockout. to Mark Woolley, defenseman for the Owen Sound Attack, in a violent fight in December. After sending his opponent to dreamland, Xhekaj pretended to sleep to taunt him, a gesture that raised eyebrows.

The episode took a weird turn afterwards.

“The league does not work on weekends. So I played my next two games, Saturday and Sunday. Then I get to the arena on Monday and I’m like, “Yeah, you’re suspended indefinitely.” And I answer: “Excuse me? What happened?”

This is the league that “went back to work”. But for a moment, Xhekaj was completely in the dark.

“After a few days, they ended up contacting me and we discussed, he explains. They shared their reasoning with me. They don’t want the league to be seen as a fighting league. They don’t want players’ parents to worry about their children. They explained to me that the fight got too much visibility and that it was too violent. Their hands were tied.”

And as for the post-fight gesture? Xhekaj would have done things differently, had he had the chance.

“A lot of things were going through my head at that time and I was no longer aware of what I was doing,” he admits. Of course, I didn’t think he was going to fall like this. There was so much energy and emotion in the air. It won’t happen a second time.”

You have to understand that there was a history between the Rangers and the Attack.

“When I was serving another suspension earlier in the season, the Attack took great pleasure in bullying our players. They had two big players, including Mark. I was the only big player on my team to defend the guys. Mark had fought one of our younger players and given him a good beating. Then he extended an invitation to our bench to find out who was next.

“Mark and I knew we were going to fight. I know the guy. We both play tough. We had talked about it and there was no resentment. That’s just how hockey works.

“It was important for me to let the guys know that I’m here for them and they don’t have to be afraid.”

This role of big brother, Xhekaj no longer plays it with Rangers players. The towering defenseman was traded during the season to the Hamilton Bulldogs, a team with big aspirations.

There, he befriended another Canadiens prospect, Jan Mysak, with whom he sometimes exchanges words in Czech.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen on the ice and in the gym,” Xhekaj said. He loves hockey. We push each other, we do extra time in the gym. We are very good friends.”

Two friends who should also wear the same sweater next year.

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