The curious case of controversial NHL prospect Joshua Ho-Sang
Only 18 of 30 teams chose to interview Joshua Ho-Sang at the recent NHL Combine — and many came away stunned and disappointed. (QMI Agency/Files)
The mystery of Joshua Ho-Sang, singular hockey player of immense talent, caught on an island of discourse, will begin to untangle sometime this weekend.
It won’t necessarily be on Friday night when the best of the best will be selected in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
It’s entirely possible — maybe even closer to probable — that the most naturally gifted player available will not be selected in the first 30 picks.
According to sources, numerous NHL teams have Ho-Sang on their Do Not Draft List.
And only 18 of 30 teams chose to interview him at the recent NHL Combine — and many came away stunned and disappointed.
Three years ago, on a gifted Marlies GTHL team, the only difference between Ho-Sang and Connor McDavid was — Ho-Sang was the more electric player. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Now McDavid is considered a certainty to go first in the draft next year, as a generational player. And the hockey world is confounded by who Ho-Sang is and what he is all about.
I asked a chief scout with a late pick in the first round whether he would select Ho-Sang if he was available, and without hesitating, he answered no.
When I asked why, he said there are certain criteria his organization values, “and if I picked him, my scouts would all revolt. He doesn’t fit what we’re looking for.”
Said Ho-Sang, in a lengthy interview: “If I was a general manager and had first pick in the draft, I’d pick me No. 1 ... In three years, I’ll be the best player in this draft. And I have no doubt about that. I know myself. I know the other players. I believe in my ability. There are guys ranked ahead of me who are nowhere near me.
“I’m not concerned about the draft (and where I’m picked). I know what’s being said out there. I know people’s skepticism. I’m prepared for that.”
Ho-Sang was talking outside a Second Cup where we sat for more than an hour. He is an engaging young man, confident, curious, intelligent, naive, and now caught in a squeeze he never saw coming: Me against the Hockey World.
That’s what it’s come down to for him. Hockey is a sport run by conformists for conformists.
You are asked to fit in. You are asked to check your personality at the dressing-room door. You are asked to do what you’re told, when you’re told.
Ho-Sang is more than round peg in square hole. There is almost nothing about him that fits that lifelong stereotype of his game.
He is black, son a Jamaican tennis pro and a Jewish mom, a combination of genes the hockey world has likely never known before.
Ho-Sang’s favourite players are Patrick Kane and P.K. Subban. He loves the way they dangle. He emulates them. He loves that they can change games. He steadfastly believes he will be that kind of NHL player.
“I’m emotional,” he said. “I’m more emotional than most people. That poses a problem for the hockey world. A lot of players are trained to hold their emotions. Look at Sidney Crosby, how much emotion do you see? Pavel Datsyuk, the same. Jonathan Toews, the same. All stone-faced. P.K. gets into trouble. Kane gets in trouble. The guys with more personality play with something more.
“I love to dangle. I love to play an offensive game. I love to celebrate when I score. I believe in myself. And when I tell them that, they take from that what they want.”
One of the teams that interviewed Ho-Sang at the Combine was the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Well, it was part interview, part verbal assault.
“What you have to understand with Josh is, the hockey world won’t conform to him, he’ll have to conform to the hockey world,” said Jimmy Hughes, the Leafs’ director of player development, who has been watching Ho-Sang play “since he was a bantam.”
“I had a heart-to-heart conversation with him. I told him he has to start utilizing his abilities, maximizing his abilities, sharing the puck more, relying on teammates more. He’s a special kid, a talented kid with god-given abilities.
“But sometimes he gets in his own way. I challenged him — where is your game going? Is it trending up? Or is it trending sideways?”
The Leafs pick eighth in the draft. When asked where Ho-Sang will be picked, Hughes said “he could go from 10 to 20 and he could go from 30 to 40 — I really don’t know what other teams are thinking.’
“The Leafs have said they want to move up to pick first,” Ho-Sang said.
“Well, they can stay at eight and still get the No. 1 pick.”
He was referring to himself.
“Josh is smart, very smart,” said Hughes. “Sometimes I think his intelligence gets him in trouble.”
A winger with stunning speed and electric skill, Ho-Sang scored 85 points in his second OHL season. He played on a rather ordinary Windsor team, not surrounded by many players of similar skill level.
Michael Dal Colle of Oshawa, considered a Top 5 pick, had 10 more points than Ho-Sang, playing on a line with former first-round pick, Scott Laughton. Sam Bennett, who might go first Friday night, scored six more points than Ho-Sang, had 20-year-old Finn Henri Ikonen on his line.
“I wonder how many points I would have had if I was playing with Connor Brown and Dane Fox,” said Ho-Sang, talking about McDavid’s linemates in Erie who finished 1-2 in OHL scoring.
And yet, when it came time for Hockey Canada to announce rosters for whatever national team it was building, the call never came to Ho-Sang.
It is a point of bitter contention with him.
Hockey Canada is supposed to foster talent in this country: Why haven’t they embraced Ho-Sang?
They won’t say.
“Every interview I had I was asked the same question: Why didn’t I get asked to play for Hockey Canada? What happened? I don’t know. I’d rather they be public about it than say nothing.
“If you want to see what I can do, invite me to one of your camps. Then you can see how I act, how I compete, how I behave. It’s not like they’re winning everything.
“It’s unfortunate the power Hockey Canada has. They have the power to ruin careers and I feel they’ve hurt me a lot.”
Ho-Sang does wonder if in a very white hockey world, he isn’t looked upon differently because of his colour.
He had some difficulties with his general manager, Warren Rychel, and others in Windsor and worries about what has been said about him.
“I think colour definitely plays a factor in perception,” said Ho-Sang.
“People watch my games and are very critical. When I start dangling, my GM calls me a Harlem Globetrotter. Why am I a Harlem Globetrotter? Analogies get related to basketball all the time with me. I don’t play basketball. I’ve never played basketball. I’m a hockey player. Why are they doing that?
“When I do anything, I’m just another black kid with attitude. I think I get misunderstood because these guys want to figure me out without talking to me and try to come up with every single reason why there’s something wrong with me.
“With all this going on, the only place I can win this argument is on the ice.”
But Ho-Sang is bright enough to know that if he gets there, when he gets there, he won’t just be another player — he can’t just be another player.
“Any team should want me,” he said.
“And I know, it would not hurt a team to have one of their best players being black and have an Asian last name. That wouldn’t hurt marketability or jersey selling one bit. Just from the standpoint of making money, I feel I’d be a pretty big ticket. A lot of my goals are close to highlight-reel goals. I play an exciting game.
“My agent (Ian Pulver) — who didn’t understand me for the longest time — is starting to get me. Ian’s favourite thing is ‘Be Me.’ He encourages me to be that. And that’s all I’ve tried to be.
“If a team picks me, gives me a contract and says you’re not allowed to be late once (he was late twice this season and missed a game for disciplinary reasons) or you’re not allowed to be this or that, I would follow every single rule. I love hockey more than anything in the world. I live, eat, sleep hockey. It’s my passion.
“If you’re going to pay me to do something I love, I’m going to go out there and produce for you so you’re going to have to pay me more.”
So now the questions: Who and when? What team? What round? How early? How late? It’s either gamble or sure thing, risk or reward.
Who in the end will step up and start a new beginning for Joshua Ho-Sang?