'The best year of my life': Xhekaj goes from Costco to Canadiens to Memorial Cup
With no Ontario Hockey League season in 2020-21, Arber Xhekaj ended up working at Costco.
"I was a cart guy. I was a cashier. I was all over the place," he said. "I didn't go overseas like some of the other guys. I was just working. I was working at Costco and training every day."
The undrafted defenceman could never imagine what would happen when he finally resumed his hockey career. The Hamilton, Ont. native parlayed an invitation to Montreal Canadiens rookie camp into a trip to training camp and then an NHL contract.
"He's an incredible story," said Hamilton Bulldogs president and general manager Steve Staios. "A kid who was never drafted in the OHL and signed as a free agent with the Canadiens. The heart and soul of this kid is incredible. His ability to work through adversity is just incredible."
The Bulldogs acquired Xhekaj from the Kitchener Rangers in a January trade. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound blueliner finished the regular season with 34 points and 138 penalty minutes in 51 games. He then added 16 points and 50 penalty minutes in 18 playoff games while helping the Bulldogs win the OHL championship.
"Arber's a strong, physical presence, to say the least, but has so many more elements to his game," said Staios, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. "He moves pucks up. He plays on our power play. He can play on our penalty kill. He can play in all situations."
And now the 21-year-old gets to play in the Memorial Cup, which starts on Monday when Hamilton faces the host Saint John Sea Dogs.
"It's super hard to take in, because everything's happened so fast around me," said Xhekaj. "I never thought anything like this would happen, but it's been the best year of my life so far."
Xhekaj reflected on the journey during a conversation with TSN. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
TSN: Why do you think it's worked out so well for you this season?
Xhekaj: "During COVID I stuck with it and believed in myself all the way. When I went to Canadiens camp, I felt confident out there. I just stuck with it and everything ended up falling into place. If you just believe in yourself and keep your mind focused then things will happen eventually."
TSN: All the hard work led to a special moment on Wednesday. What was it like to win Game 7 of the OHL championship series in Hamilton with almost 12,000 fans in attendance?
Xhekaj: "It was, honestly, a dream come true. To be playing in front of your home crowd and playing a Game 7, I've never been a part of something like that. It was unbelievable."
TSN: What stood out about the experience?
Xhekaj: "I was pretty nervous at the start of the game. Once we started scoring, the fans felt like the seventh man on the ice. They were unreal and it was great to see and great to be a part of."
Game 7 attendance: 11,779— Xyz - Hamilton Bulldogs (@BulldogsOHL) June 16, 2022
A new #OHLChampionship Series record in the @OHLHockey modern era
Thank you to the best fans in the OHL, you made the difference when it mattered most.
#BeTheHammer | #DawgMentality pic.twitter.com/ayBTnbw0Tj
TSN: What's it mean to be a Hamiltonian?
Xhekaj: "It's awesome. I grew up in this city. I love everything about this city. It's a hard-working town."
TSN: Did you take a moment on Wednesday to appreciate how far you've come and what it means to do this in your hometown?
Xhekaj: "The game was pretty much a blur. I had some time at the end, though. I went on the ice by myself and sat with the trophy at centre ice and I just soaked it all in. I got pretty emotional."
TSN: What's going through your mind now?
Xhekaj: "We're celebrities in the city and, like, it's unreal. It's just a great time. All the boys are excited."
TSN: Fellow Bulldogs defenceman Nathan Staios made sure you got a hold of the J. Ross Robertson Cup shortly after it was handed out. What's it like to play with him?
Xhekaj: "He's an unbelievable player. He's a great skater. He's a tough guy. He's from Oakville, but has Hamilton in his blood from his dad [Steve] and he sure does show it out there. It was a great honour for him to hand me that trophy right away."
TSN: During Game 7, you made a great play to set up fellow Canadiens prospect Jan Mysak for a goal to make it 4-0. What do you appreciate about Mysak's game?
Xhekaj: "He's a great guy. He works his [butt] off every game and he tries so hard out there. He's just a great player and for me to set him up and to see how happy he was after that goal, it was great."
TSN: That was some celebration.
Xhekaj: "I flew right past him (smile). I was like, ‘We got this! We got this!' and then I turn around and I see him jumping around."
TSN: What sort of communication has there been between you and the Canadiens during the season?
Xhekaj: "There's been lots. They're fantastic with their communication. I've been talking to a lot of their guys here and there. They've been great to me and they want me to keep pushing and doing my thing out there."
TSN: Why do you wear No. 8?
Xhekaj: "When I was younger, I used to model my game after Drew Doughty. A lot of younger guys like the skilled, offensive defencemen. I ended up growing up and being bigger and tougher and that was my game, but I just stuck with No. 8."
TSN: Is there an NHL player you see as a role model now?
Xhekaj: "Ben Chiarot. He's a Hamiltonian too and I model my game after him and Jake Muzzin. Bigger, stronger guys out there."
TSN: Is that a style that came naturally to you as a Hamiltonian?
Xhekaj: "I've always been a tougher kid. My dad's a tough guy and he's been through a lot so I think [the style] just put itself on me."
TSN: What excites you the most about the Memorial Cup opportunity?
Xhekaj: "I've never been out there, actually, that side of Canada so I'm super excited to go and see everything over there. And to play in the Memorial Cup is such an honour. I'm so happy I get to go with this group of guys."
TSN: Do you have any sense of how the Bulldogs will match up against the teams from the other leagues?
Xhekaj: "I'm not sure. I haven't really watched the other teams, but I know how my group is and we like the taste of winning. It felt really good so we want to keep it going."