Arber Xhekaj likes to be called The Sheriff, but don't call him a goon

“I’m a player first and I think that’s why I made this team,” the Canadiens defenceman says.

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Arber Xhekaj isn’t crazy about his nickname. In fact, he wouldn’t mind changing it.

After joining the Montreal Canadiens last season, his teammates dubbed the defenceman “Wifi”, riffing on the fact the spelling of his last name was reminiscent of one of those complex Wifi passwords you sometimes come across.

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In a conversation at La Chambre Microbrasserie Sportive in Terrebonne Wednesday afternoon, Xhekaj said he’d like to revive the nickname he had when he was playing with the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League. Back then he was known as The Sheriff, a nod to his role as a guy not afraid to lay down the law on the ice.

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“It was a nickname I had in junior when I was with Kitchener and it stayed through junior but it kind of switched up a bit here when I made it to the NHL,” said Xhekaj. “But it’s definitely a nickname I liked. I think (Wifi) is good, the people love it. But when people are calling me Mr. Wifi and they don’t know my name, that’s a bit tough. But if the fans like it, I like it.”

He was at the La Chambre in Terrebonne to help launch a promotional campaign for the chain of restaurants’ new smash burger named … The Sheriff.

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Xhekaj is indeed the CH’s new sheriff, something the team had been lacking in recent years, and he isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, as he showed in this season’s first game, when he took on Toronto Maple Leafs heavyweight Ryan Reaves.

“We’re two big boys and we both play hard and he threw a couple of big hits so right after that I think I wanted to set the tone early and say ‘We’re not just going to sit there and let you run around like that’,” said Xhekaj. “Obviously it wasn’t much of a fight. I don’t know why there’s so much talk about it.”

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After the fight, which was really more of a wrestling match, ending with Xhekaj tossing Reaves into the back of the net, Reaves trash-talked the Habs tough guy.

“I don’t like getting jumped,” said Reaves. “I don’t know if I’ve really jumped anybody. If you want to fight, just ask me. I’m always around. You know where to find me.”

When those comments are mentioned to Xhekaj, he politely suggests Reaves is not telling the whole truth.

“It’s on video,” said Xhekaj. “You can see that he’s throwing the first punches of the fight. I didn’t grab him right away. I let him get up, turn around and get settled, and then we went from there.”

In his rookie season, Xhekaj quickly became a fan favourite, in part because of the fights, but also due to the fact that fans could see that he’s more than just a pugilist — he’s also a pretty good NHL player. That season was cut short — he only played 51 games — after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a fight.

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For many years the Habs often didn’t have a tough guy ready to stand up for players when they got pushed around by the opposition. It happened more than once that star goalie Carey Price would get run over with no teammates coming to his rescue.

“For any team that’s got a guy who’s willing to protect his teammates, it’s huge,” Xhekaj said. “It gives them space. It lets them play fearlessly. For me it’s very important that I can bring that aspect to the game. When guys are going to be taking runs at our guys or doing anything stupid on the ice, in the back of their mind they have to know that I’m going to be coming for them.”

He earned 101 penalty minutes in his rookie season but he also showed that he’s a solid blue-liner who can spark some offense when needed.

“I’m not a goon, I’m a hockey player first,” said Xhekaj. “I think that’s where people get confused. They think I’m just there to fight guys. I can play the game and I have pretty good offensive upside. I’m a player first and I think that’s why I made this team.”

His younger brother Florian was drafted in the fourth round by the Canadiens this year and Xhekaj would love to see the two of them together on the same team.

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“That was amazing, that was the icing on the top of the cake,” he said. “If he ends up playing with me, that would be a dream come true. We’d play on the street every day and any sport, we’d challenge each other one on one.”

Xhekaj, 22, was born and raised in Hamilton, by immigrant parents. His dad is a refugee from Kosovo who arrived in Toronto in the ’90s and ended up working as a welder in Hamilton. His mom is from the Czech Republic. He said it was his parents who instilled in him the drive to succeed, allowing him to face all kinds of adversity, including making it to the NHL even though he was never drafted. The Canadiens invited him to their training camp in 2021 and the team was impressed enough to sign him to a three-year contract worth US$2.485 million.

“It definitely comes from my parents,” said Xhekaj. “The came here with nothing. My dad came here with maybe two dollars in his pocket and started a life and created a family. He’s worked hard for everything he’s got and they always reminded us where they came from and how their life was back home, so we knew we were truly fortunate to get what we had.”

Growing up in Hamilton also influenced his outlook, he added.

“I love everything about Hamilton, but it’s tough city, you don’t mess with guys from Hamilton,” said Xhekaj.

Whether you call him Wifi or The Sheriff, you don’t mess with Arber Xhekaj either.

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