So, on Friday October 8th, the year of our Lord 2021, I was invited to the Kitchener Rangers season opener at home against the Guelph Storm. To those not particularly familiar with the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), these are two teams that have had a long history in the rivalry of Highway 7 , and I got to be in the press box for the reignition of said rivalry. Both teams have NHL pedigree. The Guelph Storm was home to Nick Suzuki before he was called up to the big leagues and new Canadien Mike Hoffman played all of 2 games as a Ranger. Other notable alumni include Gabriel Landeskog and Jeff Skinner, just to name a few.
It was the first OHL regular season game in almost two years, and it was quite the barnburner. L.A. Kings 2nd round pick Francesco Pinelli scored on a beautiful shot to make it 2-0 Kitchener to end the first period. But then the teams combined for 3 goals in the first two minutes of the second period to make it 3-2 Kitchener. Guelph would later tie the game, only for Kitchener to score 30 seconds later.
The game fittingly went to overtime, with the two of the teams’ best defenders in the penalty box, Roman Schmidt (3rd round pick for Tampa Bay) for Kitchener and Daniil Chayka (2nd round pick for Vegas). We ended up with an overtime that included 4-on-3, 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 and ended on a blocked Pinelli shot that was bulldozed into the Storm’s net by a Guelph defender.
There is one name that you wouldn’t see if you looked at the box score, unless you look at the penalties, where you would see the name Arber Xhekaj more than once.
Xhekaj (pronounced Jack-Eye) is one of the more interesting hockey stories in the past few weeks. As an NHL prospect, you would expect him to be a high OHL draft pick. Except you won’t find his name on any OHL draft. That’s because Xhekaj was undrafted. He was, however, invited to the Kitchener Rangers training camp and played himself onto the roster.
It is literally the exact same story with the Montreal Canadiens. Xhekaj was invited to the Montreal Canadiens training camp, he played his way not just onto the team, but he garnered a three year deal with the Habs.
So what do the Habs have in Xhekaj? He is an older player in the OHL at 20 years old and he is a leader for the Kitchener Rangers due to his personality and on ice play. He is a big guy, standing 6’4″ and weighing in at 225 pounds, and is very active physically. He would be the type of guy that would be awful to play against in a playoff situation. He was also very good positionally in the game that I watched. Whenever his partner (frequently Schmidt) had the puck, he would be in the perfect position to provide a release valve and an easy pass to get it out of the defensive zone.
It is also worth noting that Xhekaj had a fantastic next game against the same Guelph Storm where he collected 3 assists.
However the big event for me, and the climax of this article, happened before the game, I had a chance to sit down with Xhekaj and ask him a few questions. Here’s the transcription:
Joshua Rosa: Tell me, how’s it going?
Arber Xhekaj: It’s going good man. A lot of things happened for me in the past couple weeks so it’s been very exciting. It’s been very overwhelming. Everyone has been really good with the appreciation about me.
JR: It’s hard to be feeling bad when you just got a contract from Montreal.
AX: Yeah, there’s no feeling bad about that.
JR: So this year in the OHL it’s obviously the weirdest year. There’s basically two rookie groups coming in. You are one of the older guys, you’ve been to the NHL camp, are you looking to take on a leadership role in the room for some of the younger guys?
AX: Yeah, I’ve definitely put that upon myself to become a leader in the room and I think a lot of the guys respect me in that way. Even before the contract I just had the respect from the young guys. I’m definitely going to take a bigger role in the leadership group this year.
JR: So obviously you were undrafted in the OHL and undrafted in the NHL, you get the feeling that you are always trying to improve yourself. Is there any specific aspects of the game that you are trying to work on to get better and better?
AX: Yeah definitely. Playing in those two NHL games it’s definitely an awakening to see how much attention to detail you need to have there. I’m obviously a bigger guy and can handle myself in that respect, but it’s just building the attention to detail part of the game, knowing where guys they are and always reading what hands they shoot and which sides they are coming down and all kinds of stuff like that.
JR: How good does it feel to get back to meaningful, regular season hockey after so long?
AX: Yeah. We were all sitting in the room and we were like ‘This game is worth two points’. It’s crazy, it’s been so long and we’re just all excited and it means a lot.
JR: Well, I’ll let you get back to getting ready for everything. Thank you so much for talking.
AX: Thank you, thanks a lot man.
To hear the audio version of the interview, it is available on Episode 12 of the Puck And Roll podcast, at around the 50 minute mark.