Hope of the CH and Bergmann of the Bulldogs

If Shea Weber is nicknamed “The Mountain Man” in the NHL, that nickname could probably apply to Arber Xhekaj in Canadian junior hockey.

Well, the Montreal Canadiens offspring still have a few crusts to eat before they reach Weber’s 230lbs, but at 6’4 and 204lbs, the Hamilton Bulldogs guard has established himself as a real force on the rink this season.

“He’s a man on the ice,” Bulldogs head coach Jay McKee said Monday morning hours before his team’s first game of the Memorial Cup tournament against the Saint John Sea Dogs. I think he’s the most influential player in all of OHL.

“He is impressive and has good individual skills. He can do anything on the ice rink. He can avoid pressure with his skating or take opponents out of play thanks to his physique. We are lucky to have him here.”

To say that he’s the most influential player in all of OHL is quite a compliment considering the league has had several first-round picks in the NHL, including his teammate and third overall pick for the Ducks in 2021, Mason McTavish or the top scorer in Canada Wyatt Johnston of the Windsor Spitfires.

physical advantage

At 21 – playing in his 20-year junior year – Xhekaj already has the physique of a man and you can see his impact on the rink, especially when he’s competing against players aged 16, 17 or 18 who are still at it are a growth spurt.

However, its effects go beyond physical benefits, says McKee.

“Some 20-year-old players play against younger players in the league but have no physical impact. Sometimes I enjoy pushing him around and he makes my life miserable, admits the head coach, a six-foot-tall, 195-pound former NHL defenseman. […] He also has good hands and a good throw. He’s not just a defender.”

Certain advantages that his physique gives him will certainly not be more or less with the professionals, adds the trainer.

“If Arber makes the leap to the pros, he’ll have to simplify his game a bit. He can now do things that won’t work on the next level. For example, he will no longer be able to get rid of an opponent with just one arm. Also, he needs to make games run faster.”

Ready for what’s next

The past year has been a little crazy for Xhekaj. After missing an entire OHL season due to the pandemic, he was invited to Habs camp and forced the team on hand, prompting him to sign an entry contract. He then started the season with the Kitchener Rangers before moving to Hamilton, his hometown, with whom he won the championship.

“It’s hard to put into words what last season was for me. I hope now that we end this with a title [de la coupe Memorial].”

Because his short-term goal remains the Canadian title with the Bulldogs. In the medium term, however, he also has great ambitions.

“I’m going to keep the same mentality during my training this summer, but I have to work twice as hard because my goal is to play in the NHL next year. I know I’ll probably need some time in the minors, but I’ll be training with the goal of playing in the NHL.

Also, if his name gave you trouble reading this text, you know that Xhekaj is pronounced Jack-aille.

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