How the Canadiens signed Arber Xhekaj away from Costco and building tennis courts

To understand how Arber Xhekaj, who was ignored three times at the NHL Draft, was able to sign an NHL contract after spending an entire hockey season not playing hockey, you need to look to the Mohawk 4 Ice Centre in Hamilton.

That is where, for the last decade or so, Matt Turek has organized a summer hockey camp that doubles as a four-on-four league made up largely of area players, divided into three age groups. There’s a minor hockey development level, a junior level and a professional level.

Turek was recently named general manager of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and has been involved with the organization ever since it was converted from an AHL franchise to a junior one in 2015. At the same time, Turek joined the Canadiens’ amateur scouting team and spent six years working under Trevor Timmins watching the OHL.

Canadiens fans intrigued by the new methods being employed by Martin St. Louis and Adam Nicholas will feel familiar with some of the methods Turek put in place at his camp, emphasizing skill development that can be applied at higher levels. Coaches focus on time and space, on reading and anticipating play and everything that contributes to furthering hockey sense. The league has some house rules: no dumping the puck and no using the boards to reverse the puck.

They want players to use their skills to make plays and not lean on old habits.

Watching Xhekaj at his hockey camp and the progress he was making year after year led Turek to recommend him to the Canadiens with increasing levels of insistence. We were told NHL players in the four-on-four league in the summer were asking that Xhekaj, still junior-aged, play on their team.

“I watched him play when he was in Kitchener, and Matt would say to me all the time, ‘Martin, we should watch him, he has good potential. He’s big, he can fight and he’s not that bad with the puck on his stick,’” said Canadiens co-director of amateur scouting Martin Lapointe. “And what Matt told me was true. I kept following him — I wasn’t running after him, that said — and I liked him more and more.”

Arber Xhekaj in his Kitchener days. (Chris Tanouye / Getty Images)

When you’re not a traditional hockey prospect — Xhekaj was never listed by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau — there are two fundamental ingredients you need to move forward: you need belief in yourself, and you need people around you who believe in you and are ready to support you.

Xhekaj has always believed in himself, that’s clear. His mother Simona always told him that the key to accomplishing anything is to believe you can do it, and Xhekaj exudes the notion that he always thought he would make the NHL one day. His self-confidence is impressive.

But he also needed other people who believed in him.

“Matt Turek was in my corner,” Xhekaj said.

His junior coaches in Kitchener and Hamilton, Mike McKenzie and Jay McKee, also supported him.

And obviously, he had the support of his agent.

Xhekaj was once represented by Mark Guy, an agent with powerhouse Newport Sports, but he left the business to buy a car dealership. The Xhekaj file was supposed to be transferred to someone else at Newport, but Xhekaj never heard from anyone after Guy left.

Waiting in the shadows was Viktor Saljanin, a former Rangers scout who worked with Jeff Gorton and Nick Bobrov who also decided to make a career change and became a certified agent in 2019. Saljanin had an eye on the young Kitchener Rangers defenceman because he believed he had a way to build a good relationship with him.

“I think the biggest thing that stood out for me with Arber wasn’t just the player himself, but it was the name,” Saljanin said. “Immediately, I knew with the last name that his family — his father — came from the same background as myself and my parents. His dad is Albanian, I’m Albanian, I speak it fluently. So I was able to connect with his father and introduce myself. And, obviously, you just get to know him and his family. And then his mom is from the Czech Republic. But I think there was a good connection there with just getting to know the father.”

Xhekaj figures Saljanin spent two years watching before finally becoming his agent at the beginning of 2021. At that point, Xhekaj had already gone undrafted twice, but Saljanin never stopped believing in him.

Except Xhekaj wasn’t exactly in a position to prove himself because the OHL was on the verge of cancelling the entire 2020-21 season due to the pandemic.

Signing an NHL contract seemed like a distant dream at the time.

Untied to any NHL team and with nowhere to play regularly with the Rangers, Xhekaj was losing precious development time. So it became very important to him to train and find ice time anywhere he could.

Turek’s program, normally offered in the summer, was adapted in 2021 to support players like Xhekaj. That’s why he spent nine months working at Costco, because he needed to find a way to pay for that camp.

Xhekaj stocked shelves, collected shopping carts outside, and sometimes found himself working the cash. His colleagues liked him and he’s heard they’ve taken to pinning some of the articles written about him on the walls of the employee area of the Hamilton-area store after he signed with the Canadiens.

One day, however, his manager had enough of Xhekaj not being available to work.

“I did have a lot of lates because I was coming from hockey,” Xhekaj said. “Yeah, I told them, I would text them like, ‘Hey I’m running a little late, coming from hockey.’ It’s tough to go home, eat and buzz to work. Sometimes I was late, but (my manager) said I was leading all employees in lates.

“She was mad that I had hockey and I wasn’t making Costco more of a priority. I don’t think she fully understood what level I was at.”

A non-disclosure policy on former employees was cited when we contacted the manager to ask about Xhekaj’s time spent working at the store.

Xhekaj was even briefly on employment insurance after being let go at Costco before finding a job building tennis courts with his brother.

Xhekaj had to pay for hockey, and he had to play because he had catching up to do.

That winter, Team Turek Hockey had to adapt its methods because of the pandemic. Players had to practice in smaller groups and the work veered more toward small-area drills and skating development.

Some NHL scouts were told there were draft-eligible players skating in Hamilton, and they would come to watch the sessions that were held two or three times a week.

But what real hope could a young player have who had been passed over at the draft twice and, in his final year of eligibility, didn’t have a league to play in?

“I think it’d be definitely a different story if I had played that year,” Xhekaj said. “I think I probably wouldn’t have slipped through the draft.”

The Canadiens had just reached the Stanley Cup Final thanks largely to Carey Price, but it was also because of their big, tough top four on defence. Former GM Marc Bergevin gambled on going against the grain, and it’s something other organizations have tried to reproduce since then. In light of that, it would be perfectly normal for the Canadiens to be enticed by a player like Xhekaj who could one day be part of a young corps of big defencemen.

But ultimately, the Canadiens decided not to draft Xhekaj in 2021 even though he was on their draft list for a second straight year.

“His 19-year-old season, we thought about drafting him, but we took a chance that once we got to the sixth or seventh round, there was a good chance the 19-year-olds would squeeze through the draft,” Lapointe said. “But we spoke to Marc (Bergevin) and agreed that if he got through the draft without being drafted, we would for sure invite him to development camp.

“Marc and I were suggesting we just draft him, but as a group we decided not to and just invite him to development camp.”

In his first two draft-eligible years, Xhekaj paid attention to the first few rounds, but he wasn’t holding his breath. He watched the first round on TV in 2021, but basically ignored the second day.

“I wasn’t expecting to go, so I really didn’t care for it too much,” Xhekaj said.

The second day of the draft is when NHL teams start targeting players they can invite to camps if they go undrafted. Two teams reached out to Xhekaj before the Canadiens did.

“I was actually going to go to the Florida Panthers camp,” Xhekaj said. “And then I waited, and then Montreal came around.”

This was a familiar scenario to Xhekaj. A few years earlier, when he was playing Junior B, Xhekaj was ignored two years in a row in the OHL draft when the Rangers, having watched his progress, invited him to camp. And now, after going undrafted three times in a row, Xhekaj was getting a similar opportunity.

Considering his client’s style of play and the fact the Canadiens were valuing that style at the time, as well as looking at the prospect pipelines of the interested teams, Saljanin felt Xhekaj was best served attending Canadiens camp.

“Ultimately, I think it came down to the familiarity, his relationship with Matt Turek as well, who was a scout for the Montreal Canadiens,” Saljanin said. “I think that was certainly a big part of it. Obviously, Matt being involved with the Hamilton Bulldogs — essentially they traded for him — I think that certainly had a lot to do with the Montreal decision as well. Arber’s father, and I know it’s only a small part of it, also grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan. But I think a lot of it also, and I want to make sure that gets recognized, is that Matt was someone that believed in Arber, and I think that was a big part of the decision too.”

Arber Xhekaj playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs. (Vincent Ethier / CHL)

But it wasn’t only Xhekaj’s size and his progress on the ice that interested the Canadiens. The team was also seduced by his personality. After the draft, the Canadiens sent Xhekaj an email to organize a Zoom call to get a feel for his personality and character.

“We loved him,” Lapointe said of that Zoom interview. “Everyone who was on that call said ‘Wow’ when the interview was over. We all saw that he knew where he was headed, that he had a plan and that he wasn’t intimidated.

“You could see his maturity and his confidence. He wanted to become an NHL player and he was going to do whatever it took to get there. When you listen to a kid like that and you watch him play game after game, he doesn’t back down. He has that confidence, he has that swagger, and in his mind, he’s an NHL defenceman.”

Thinking back to that Zoom call, a little smile comes across Xhekaj’s face. He knows he won some people over that day.

“You know how kids practice and they’re all prepared for their Zoom calls?” Xhekaj asked. “Well, they said it was one of the best they had that year, so it was pretty special to hear that.”

Xhekaj arrived at Canadiens camp with the goal of leaving with a contract and taking advantage of the fact he was already 20 years old to start his professional career in Laval. But the Canadiens believed that if Xhekaj managed to earn that contract, they would still send him back to Kitchener to get him the most puck touches possible. The Canadiens saw to what extent they were proven right, especially after Xhekaj was traded to Hamilton, in watching how much more confident he was making plays under pressure and how much he had improved in that area of the game.

But first, Xhekaj needed to pass his rookie camp audition.

“They just kept me around and I think I compared myself to the other Ds there and I thought I stood out a little more with some of the things I was showing,” Xhekaj said.

Once he reached the main camp, Xhekaj admits he was a bit star-struck against some of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best players, so he went to see assistant coach Luke Richardson the day after that difficult game to ask for one more game.

Xhekaj facing the Maple Leafs in preseason. (Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

“I asked the coaches, because I had a feeling they were going to send me home after that, because it wasn’t a great game,” Xhekaj said. “I don’t know if they liked what they saw, but I asked them for another game. I said, ‘I have more and I need one more game to show you guys.’

“There’s nothing to lose with asking them. If they say no, then whatever. If they say yeah, then maybe you’ve got another chance. And they gave me another game. And obviously that was my best game of camp and then I got a contract after that.”

On Oct. 4, 2021, even though he hadn’t played a hockey game that counted in nearly a year and a half, and even though he only had 20 points in 110 OHL games, Xhekaj signed his first professional contract.

“I told Marc that we’ll invite him to camp and if he has a good camp, for sure we’re making an offer,” Lapointe said.

To him, if the Canadiens didn’t offer Xhekaj a contract, another team would.

“I was convinced,” Lapointe said. “They don’t make guys like him anymore.”

That contract was obviously an important moment in Xhekaj’s career, but it was also one for his agent, as he was his first client to sign an NHL contract.

“To be able to get certified with the NHLPA, to have a player that was being offered an NHL contract, was exciting for me,” Saljanin said. “I moved over to this side of the business in 2019, so I was waiting for an opportunity that there would be a player that I can recruit and identify that would have a chance to sign an NHL contract. So yeah, for myself, it was really special as well.”

Turek’s recommendation made all the difference, because it was he and the Bulldogs coaching staff — some of whom worked in Kitchener previously, and others who were involved with Team Turek Hockey — who were best placed to vouch for how much progress Xhekaj made from one year to another.

It was that same development curve that led Kent Hughes, Bergevin’s successor, to constantly mention Xhekaj’s name when talking about the team’s best prospects on defence. The same development curve that has the 21-year-old defenceman playing his first 10 NHL games without spending one minute in the AHL.

Xhekaj’s story is only beginning, but the premise is somewhat reminiscent of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, who was also never drafted and was stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa before signing his first professional contract.

But Xhekaj doesn’t need to reach the Hall of Fame like Warner for his to be considered a success story. It already is.

(Top photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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