Never drafted into the NHL or even the junior ranks, Xhekaj has had an extraordinary career reminiscent of those of Francis Bouillon through to Michel Therrien, who knew him when the defenseman played at the midget level.
“Xhekaj’s story reminds me of Francis Bouillon’s,” he said in his weekly column on the show. JiCMonday (see video above). I always get goose bumps when I talk about Francis. When I was coaching in the juniors, I often went to mini-AAA games on Sunday afternoons. The scout told me, “Bouillon, he’s a good midget player, but he’s not fit to play junior.” Francis was never drafted at the junior level, but he was my captain when we won the Memorial Cup with the Granby Predators in 1996.
Therrien heard the same speech about Bouillon when he ran the Fredericton Canadiens, CH’s club school at the time.
“When I was signed by the Canadians, I wanted to take Francis with me. Claude Ruel told me at the time, “He’s a good little junior, but he’s not fit to play professional.” Francis played in the East Coast League for a year. After the season I said to Réjean Houle: “I know someone who has a heart as big as the Bell Centre, give him a chance.” The Canadian eventually signed a deal with him. He played in the American League All-Star Game that season. Afterwards, when Alain Vigneault called me to tell me who my best defense attorney was, I replied that it was my adopted son, that it was “Franky” the best.
Bouillon proved Therrien right by playing nearly 800 games (776) in the NHL.
A rare pearl
Xhekaj only has six games of top-level experience. But already Therrien sees in him a promising young man.
“He’s the kind of player you want on your team. As a “coach” it’s “fun” to have a hammer in the toolbox! If you have to use it, you’ll feel taller behind the bench. If you don’t have one, you feel very small.
“It’s rare to find players like him. I hope he will continue to make progress and behave well. He’s a good youngster in the organization.”
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