Arber Xhekaj, the Bulldogs’ miner

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

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Well, the potential Canadian still has a few crusts to eat before he matches Weber’s 230lbs, but at 6’4 and 204lbs, the Hamilton Bulldogs guard has established himself as a real force on the ice this season.

“He’s a man on the ice,” Bulldogs head coach Jay McKee said Monday morning. I think he’s the most influential player in all of OHL. He is imposing 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’re 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 Canada’s top scorer Wyatt Johnston of the Windsor Spitfires.


Arber Xhekaj had an assist in the Hamilton Bulldogs' loss to the St. John Sea Dogs in the Memorial Cup tournament Monday night.

Special group photo of John Morris

Arber Xhekaj had an assist in the Hamilton Bulldogs’ loss to the St. John Sea Dogs in the Memorial Cup tournament Monday night.

PHYSICAL ADVANTAGE

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

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

“A lot of 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 frame gives him will certainly not be more or less with the pros, 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. It should also run games faster. »

READY FOR MORE

The past year has been a little crazy for Xhekaj. After missing an entire OHL season due to the pandemic, he was invited to the Habs camp and forced the team on hand, prompting him to sign an entry deal. 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. 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 more 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, know that Xhekaj is pronounced “Jack-go”.

The neglected but self-aware cataracts


Mavrik Bourque

Archive photo

Mavrik Bourque

Despite being champions in their league, the Shawinigan Cataractes are hardly anyone’s favorite to win the Memorial Cup. And it suits them perfectly.

The Cats open their contest Tuesday night against western champions, the Edmonton Oil Kings.

“We seem to have been marked as underdogs from the start and we’re fine with that, very fine in fact,” said formation captain Mavrik Bourque. We only played one game with our full squad and that was before Christmas. Since the start of the playoffs, we’ve had nothing to blame for sacking three of the top five teams in the league. Yes, we are still neglected by some, but internally we believe in our chances and in our group of players. »

There are no complexes for head coach Daniel Renaud either.

“We are neglected, as we read everywhere. We’re aware of our placement in the regular season, but we’re also aware of the fact that we’ve faced a lot of adversity and injuries. I don’t think you need to be jealous or intimidated by anyone. Anyway, I’ve mentioned it so many times that I want us to focus on how we play. If we respect our playing style, then we are effective. »

THE PARTY IS OVER

After the excitement of winning the Finals against the Charlottetown Islanders and parading the champions through the streets of Shawinigan, the Cataractes must return to Earth as they face the biggest trials of their season.

“We gave our boys three days to experience the championship. It’s so rare and we ask our players to live every situation intensely. For three days they behaved well and enjoyed the moment. Wednesday morning when we started training again, the Switch was at we and our level of competition was excellent. I have no doubt that we will be ready,” added Renaud.

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