On the ice, he’s dynamic, exhilarating, and at times frustrating. Off the ice, he’s refreshingly honest, self-assured, and — yes — cocky. As a first-round pick of the New York Islanders, Josh Ho-Sang has been picked apart and scrutinized. And not only does he profess to not care about what people think; he also feels they’re not seeing the real him.
“I just kind of laugh at [people who criticize him]. Not because of anything negative towards them or that I think that I’m better than them in any way. It’s just like, why are they so concerned?” Ho-Sang said. “The only people who should ever be concerned with what I do is the New York Islanders. As much as you have kids looking up to you and the media, at the end of the day what I do is none of your business. And it’s not a bad thing — if the Islanders tell me they have something they want me to work on, then I’ll be the first to acknowledge that.
“Some guy who has watched my game 30 times says I don’t pass the puck. I mean, you’ve either looked at my game too much or you haven’t looked hard enough.”
Ho-Sang said he feels people who know the game of hockey get that he’s a special player. And he’s not out there to win the casual watcher’s praise anyways.
“I don’t really care what people think. If you just watch the game and you watch hockey and the things that different players do, you can see what makes them special,” he said. “I’m not just saying me; you can watch Connor [McDavid] and see how it looks like he’s just walking around people, almost literally. And he does it so young and that’s what makes him so good — and his ability to pass. And look at guys like Max Domi — it’s his strength and shot.
“And you see other players, you know I just take my game and compare it to other players’ games and I see where I think I can be and how my game will translate to the NHL. Some people think it won’t translate, I think that there’s parts that would translate.”
If he’s not going to be defined by others, how would Ho-Sang define himself? He confirmed that he still thinks he’s the best in his draft class, despite lasting until the 28th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. But he’s got his sights set higher.
So what sets Ho-Sang apart?
“I don’t know, it’s everything that everybody says. Everybody’s first to acknowledge that I’m the most talented and then some people will say I’m a great passer, but some say I don’t pass,” he said. “Some people say I’m a great goal scorer, but I don’t score. I do score, when it’s there. It’s just different things, right.
“I think if I get an opportunity in the NHL to really show my stuff, then I can be one of the best players in the NHL. Obviously you have guys like Sidney Crosby and Tyler Seguin — guys who are at that level and have been for so long — you’re competing against those guys at that level. I don’t expect to be better than those guys right away, but I’m going to try to.”
In speaking with Ho-Sang earlier in the year, he said that he had no interest in leaving the Windsor Spitfires and held a no-trade clause. A couple of weeks later, on Nov. 14th, Ho-Sang was sent to the Niagara IceDogs in return for 17-year-old winger Hayden McCool and a trio of second-round picks.
Why the change of heart?
“Because we’re really good,” he said, laughing. “A lot of people think that with our team they look at me and [Brendan] Perlini and [Carter] Verhaeghe and think that’s it. But that’s nowhere close to why our team is good. We’re good because of [Jordan] Maletta, and [Billy] Jenkins, and [Cody] Payne, and [Brian] Brosnan, and [Blake] Siebenaler.
“You can literally go through every guy on our team and it’s everybody except for the guys you think it is. As much as you think we play a big part on our team, you have a bunch of good, good hockey players. These guys are smart. You notice things right away when you change teams and one of the things about our team — not everyone’s going to have the same skill level — but the hockey IQ and the way Marty teaches us is good for our team.”
Marty is IceDogs’ coach Marty Williamson, and he explained that the franchise did its due diligence before bringing the talented Ho-Sang to Niagara.
“We did our homework. The major thing that I heard was that he gets along with his teammates,” he said. “Sometimes as a coach you pull your hair out with him because of the turnovers, but what’s important to me is that he got along with his teammates. If he didn’t, and also had problems with me, then that’s a big issue.”
Williamson said the club also leaned on those who had experience with Ho-Sang, both on the roster and in the NHL. And he took the Ho-Sang stories with a grain of salt.
“We had a player that played with him before in Jordan Maletta, who had played with him down in Windsor. I talked to the Islanders a lot,” he said. “You can only judge by what you get and he’s been outstanding with us. I really haven’t had the horror story that you heard from other teams.
“And I think half the time everything’s blown out of proportion a little bit.”
Ho-Sang said he’s noticed a big difference between the Spitfires’ franchise and the way that Niagara handles its players.
“Definitely a big culture shift. Windsor’s more of a, um, yelling, get-on-top-of-you organization; in Niagara, Marty just kind of talks to me about most things,” he said. “He’ll come down and just have a chat with me, just because. That’s the way Marty is — he’ll tell you what to fix, but he’ll give you a compliment. He gives you the negatives, but he always picks you up after he brings you down.
“That’s a big thing that people forget, just in general, and that’s something that Marty does really well with anyone on the team.”
Williamson simply said that different styles work for different coaches — and different styles can resonate with different players. He’s not coaching Ho-Sang any differently than anyone else; it’s just his style.
“Bob Boughner, I think, is a fantastic coach and he has his way to motivate his guys and it’s worked very well for him,” Williamson said. “I’m not Bob Boughner, I’m Marty Williamson and I’m not as loud, probably, as he is. I get mad probably just as much as he does, but this league’s about teaching and you have to have patience with these guys.
“Sometimes it’s a good fit for some guys. The boy that we traded to Windsor, Hayden McCool, may react better to a guy that’s in his face all the time and scaring the hell out of him. You know it’s just different guys and that’s why trades are made in this league. And that’s why you see guys flourish in different scenarios.”
After doing its homework, the IceDogs felt that Ho-Sang’s upside was exactly what the squad needed. The IceDogs are presently fifth in the OHL’s Eastern Conference and in the thick of the playoff race. In a wide-open East (save for the powerhouse Oshawa Generals, who have already clinched a playoff spot), it made sense to bolster the team’s offense.
“[Ho-Sang brings] just a whole different dynamic. We found that some teams were shutting down Perlini and Verhaeghe,” Williamson said. “Josh is kind of a one-man show himself, and we’ve got him on a nice complement line with some guys that play a pretty simple game [Jenkins and Maletta]. They’re happy to let Josh carry the puck through the neutral zone and that’s what Josh likes to do.
“He just gives us another weapon. He helps our power play — we were at the bottom of the league forever, I think we’re 15th now. But if you take just the last few games, we’re probably a top-six power play since he’s come to us. He’s added to our offense an awful lot.”
Williamson is aware that you take the good and bad with a mercurial talent like Ho-Sang. But he added that he’s been impressed with the forward’s effort.
“He’s worked on his game. He’s another guy whose turnovers are his biggest enemy. He just tries to do too much,” he added. “He’s a highlight show, hopefully, once a game, but he tries to do it five or six times a game.”
Ho-Sang, himself, wasn’t pleased with his start in Niagara, but feels he’s finding his rhythm. In 11 games with the Spitfires, he accounted for three goals and added 16 assists. In 32games with the IceDogs, he’s added 10 more goals and 32 more assists for totals of 13 goals, 48 assists, and 61 points in 43 games — presently good for a tie for 18th overall in the OHL scoring race.
“My production was pretty (expletive) when I first came here, but nobody really said anything about it. I was surprised,” Ho-Sang explained. “ Once I got to 10 games here, I only had like six points — I wasn’t even at a point-per-game. Nobody said anything. Then I got, like, 30 in my last 15.”
There are a couple of factors that have impacted his game, Ho-Sang explained. One is opportunity, another is that his teammates are burying the opportunities he’s providing — despite perceptions of his passing prowess, he adds.
“I play a lot less here, just because the team’s deeper. Getting adjusted to ice time and being able to do what you did before with less ice, and creating a more efficient game,” Ho-Sang explained. “You’re not just out there because you’re out there all the time, you’ve got to be smarter, you’ve got to have good shifts. Going from 20-22 minutes a game to 15 — it’s definitely a big change. I’m adjusting to that.
“And I mean, as much as people say I don’t pass, I’m a passer — a lot of this is that the guys are scoring for me. Obviously I don’t have a lot of goals here. I now have like 50 assists — it’s ridiculous.”
Though the jerseys have changed, Ho-Sang feels his role on the IceDogs is similar.
“I think it’s the same. If I don’t get points, it does make it harder on the team to win. Obviously we have guys — [Verhaeghe] can cover me, [Perlini] can cover me some nights — those guys can have a four-point night where I don’t have to worry too much,” he said. “A lot of times we’re putting up one or two goals each. That’s what makes us good, but that’s also something I need to bring to the table.”
Ho-Sang also said he appreciates the opportunity to be on a contending squad and looks forward to a deep playoff run with Niagara.
“I just want us to win. I don’t even care — if I play six (expletive) games in a row and we win all six, obviously I’m going to be disappointed in my game, but I’m going to be happy that our team won,” he said. “[Thursday] I wasn’t feeling well, but the team pulled out a big win and that’s huge. Just to be on a winning team — I haven’t done that since minor hockey, and especially with these guys.
“It’s such a good feeling — this team missed the playoffs by a couple of points [two years ago] and just got in last year. It’s nice to be on the winning side and you want to take that as far as you can go.”
He’s also gets regular feedback from the Islanders relating to his performance.
“I talk to them. The Islanders, from what I’ve seen from other players that are drafted, are one of the better organizations in talking to you and helping you develop. I really appreciate that,” he said. ““There’s not much they can say to you. It’s not like they’re going to say if you put up 100 points you’ll be in the NHL next year. And they’re not going tell you that if you’re solid defensively, we’re going to be happy to put you on the team.
“They just said to keep getting better and that’s all you can really focus on. Obviously you want to be as ready as possible to play in the NHL and play that quick game, and make sure that your game translates quickly enough to make an impact.”
And they gave him two words of advice upon notification of the trade.
“Be good,” Ho-Sang added, laughing.
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