ARBER Xhekaj knows his name will make ice hockey announcers’ tongues break.
But that’s just one highlight of the Montreal Canadiens defenseman’s incredible journey from Costco worker to NHL rookie standout.
After the first 30 games of the season, Xhekaj led all first-year defenders with four goals and ranked in the top 10 overall on points.
The Canadian also had 92 hits to his name, by far the most among other rookie blueliners – and he’d quickly shown a knack for fighting on the ice.
The 21-year-old is one of the best stories of the 2022-23 NHL season, a revenge for all the hardships he faced before making it onto the biggest stage of hockey.
Xhekaj was undrafted in several CHL and NHL drafts due to his lightweight frame.
At some point he wanted to hang up his skates – but his parents encouraged him to continue pursuing his dreams.
His mother fled the Czech Republic in her 20s and his father came to Canada as a refugee from Kosovo in the 1990s.
If they held out against all odds, so could he.
Waiting for his big break, Xhekaj honed his skills in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
The Kitchener Rangers invited him to their training camp in 2018, and he showed enough potential to sign with the team as an undrafted free agent.
His physicality would impress people in the league.
Even in his late teens, Xhekaj would still be growing – he’s now 6ft 4 and weighs nearly 240lbs.
But when things finally seem to be coming together, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the sports world to a halt.
OHL went on a nearly 19-month hiatus, eventually forcing Xhekaj to find a secondary source of income to pay for training.
He ended up working at Costco; He sometimes misses Zoom team meetings because of his shifts, said Rangers head coach and general manager Mike McKenzie.
In his free time, he skated whenever possible in his hometown of Hamilton.
“It was probably the hardest year to train and wake up every morning and go to the gym and go on the ice,” Xhekaj said last year.
“But I knew I had to keep at it if I wanted to achieve my goals.”
Xhekaj experienced déjà vu when hockey returned.
He got an invitation to the training camp, this time from the Canadians.
And the effort he put in earned him another contract.
However, Xhekaj had to wait over a year for his NHL debut.
Meanwhile, he spent the 2021-22 season on loan in the NHL, reuniting with the Rangers before joining the Hamilton Bulldogs and helping them win the championship.
The Canadians’ roster situation allowed him to create the opening night roster as the new season began in October 2022.
The rest is history.
Among other things, Xhekaj is the first NHL player ever whose last name begins with the letter X.
The particularly confusing name has also earned it an amusing nickname: WiFi.
That’s because, the newbie explained, it looks like a random set of characters typically used as passwords for WiFi networks.
So when someone mispronounces their last name, they know it’s an honest mistake.
“When you look at it, you just spit something out,” Xhekaj joked earlier this year.
https://www.the-sun.com/sport/6969105/arber-xhekaj-costco-nhl-wifi/ Inside Arber Xhekaj’s incredible rise from working at Costco last year to NHL star and nickname “WiFi”