Canadiens rookie defenceman is already a fan favourite in Montreal

When Montreal Canadiens fans first heard of Arber Xhekaj, many wondered who he was, and how to pronounce his name (Jak-igh).

But over the past few weeks, the player that teammates have nicknamed Wi-Fi due to the odd assortment of letters in his name has become known around the league. A good part of that notoriety comes from the 21-year-old’s aggressive and imposing style of play.

Xhekaj began trending on Twitter after he went toe-to-toe with Zack Kassian of the Arizona Coyotes at the Bell Centre on Thursday. It was only the rookie’s fifth NHL game, but he handled the scrappy veteran like a rag doll, landing plenty of punches.

As the crowd erupted in cheers, Xhekaj, with bloodied hands, skated proudly to the penalty box. Meanwhile the battered, and likely embarrassed Kassian left the ice in frustration.

Fellow rookie Juraj Slafkovsky, who scored his first NHL goal that same night, credited Xhekaj with making things easier for him. “We are having so much fun, all the young guys,” said Slafkovsky. “Especially when you play with a guy like Arber that can kill anyone, so it’s just easy to play then.”

But even before that brave and iconic display, Xhekaj, whose jersey now appears atop the team’s online store selection, has been capturing the hearts of the Habs faithful. A lot of that love comes from the Hamilton native’s story.

Xhekaj signed as a free agent by the Habs after going undrafted after three seasons with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs of the Ontario Hockey League. But throughout the pandemic, the 6-foot-4, 238-pound defender was not practicing his off-ice skills or hitting the gym. He was working at Costco instead.

Suffice to say, the past year has been one of the major changes for Xhekaj. And now that he has his shot in the show, the man some fans refer to as “The Sherriff” will do everything he can to stick around, including imposing the law of the land.

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