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Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Unique skills, story for Ho-Sang

By Craig Custance
ESPN The Magazine

Josh Ho-Sang
Josh Ho-Sang, right, has embraced a philosophy of life that rubs some in hockey the wrong way.

The line of questioning tipped off just how teams felt about him. On the week of the draft combine, the Windsor Spitfires' ultra-talented Joshua Ho-Sang went room to room, meeting with NHL teams and the questions were intense.

Why were you late for practice? Why weren't you on Hockey Canada's under-18 team? Are you more worried about entertaining than winning hockey games? Do you think you play defense?

They kept coming at him, because that's what teams do. They want to see how an 18-year-old kid reacts under the pressure. Even among those, one interaction stood out. The questioner stood up and started yelling. For two solid minutes, he was telling Ho-Sang exactly what he didn't know about hockey. Telling him that he was a blue-chip talent who didn't do the little things to win games.

When he was done, Ho-Sang's response was about the last thing you'd expect. He asked the guy to meet up for dinner. He wasn't offended by what was said and he didn't back down, either. He saw somebody who was passionate about his game and may have answers on how he could improve it. So they penciled in some time outside the combine to meet up.

That's Ho-Sang. That's how he operates. He doesn't mind if you're critical, he doesn't mind if you push him; just be ready to be pushed back. Naturally, in the conservative hockey world where empires rule from the top down, it's an attitude that will lead to friction.

Take Ho-Sang's philosophy on the coach-player relationship, for instance.

"I think it should be a level playing field. Where it's like, I can talk to you. I can tell you I think you're an idiot and that I think we should be running a different power play, we should be running a different penalty kill," Ho-Sang told ESPN The Magazine. "And you can tell me as a player, 'You're an idiot. You can shut up. I'm the coach.' I want a relationship like that."

When the NHL draft begins on Friday in Philadelphia, Ho-Sang will be the biggest wild card on many levels. Based on pure skill, he's as good as anyone. He believes he's a lottery pick. And yet, he might be available when the reigning Stanley Cup champs from Los Angeles pick. There are some teams that simply won't take him.

Josh Ho-Sang
Josh Ho-Sang has worked to become a more complete player but is still trying to prove himself.
"There is no player like him. No player. Sometimes guys ask, 'Who do you play like?' There's no answer. Either he's that unique or he has to change a bit," said Spitfires part-owner Warren Rychel. "It's a combination of both."


The Spitfires have pumped out NHL draft picks over the years, including 2010 No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall; Cam Fowler, who should have been in the top three in 2010; and Adam Henrique, who probably should have been a first-rounder in 2008. All are high-end talents, but none who matched Ho-Sang's skill, according to Rychel.

"He's the most skilled player in North America. He's the most skilled player to ever come through Windsor," Rychel said, with one caveat. "Skilled player, but not the most complete player."

Ho-Sang may not be the most complete player, but he may be as well-rounded an individual as there is in the draft. For scouts looking for hockey savants, that's not always a good thing. It's just part of the most unique package in the draft, a player who stands out for several reasons.

First, there's his name. His father's grandfather was from Hong Kong, but his father, Wayne, is from Kingston, Jamaica.

Wayne, a respected tennis pro, emigrated to Canada when he was 10 years old and was raised Christian. Joshua Ho-Sang's mother, Ericka, was born in Santiago, Chile, and moved to Canada when she was 9. Her mother is Russian and German. Her father is Spanish and South American. She's Jewish.

Joshua's godmother is Greek, so he's been going to Greek Easter since he was a baby, along with celebrating all of the Jewish holidays. Speak to him for awhile and you realize he's cherry-picked what he likes best about all the philosophies, backgrounds and religions he's surrounded by, and applied it to his life.

"How brilliant is that? We should all have that luxury," said Ericka.

So, yeah, he stands out.

"You know what? Yeah, I'm diverse. I'm a weirdo. It's hard to explain to people," Ho-Sang said. "You look at me. Once you actually see me, I'm a black kid missing a tooth. Who is this guy? Misconceptions can totally be drawn from that. That's not profiling. That's not anything. You don't know what to expect. I think that's life."

On top of his diverse background, he was raised to be independent. He was taught to question everything. His mom is a business analyst who works with CEOs and business owners to try to fix their problems. In her world, one of the worst things you can do is continue to do something just because it's always been done that way. The first questions she asks is, "Why?" Ericka encouraged her kids to do the same.

In the hockey world, a lot of people take comfort in doing things the way they've always been done. Getting people in hockey to change is a grueling process that takes years. Just look at the analytics debate that baseball worked out years ago, but is still in its infancy in hockey.

So when an 18-year-old kid pushes back against authority, people notice. They don't necessarily like it. They check off a box on a clipboard and maybe knock him down a few pegs on the draft board. Or remove him completely. And at times, Ho-Sang hasn't helped himself.

He acknowledges struggling in school during his first year in Windsor. He understands now that his habit of blaming others for his struggles wasn't productive. Once he stopped accusing teachers of giving him too much homework or not working enough with him, and realized that other hockey players were managing the same workload, he straightened out.

It was also widely circulated among NHL teams that he had to sit out a game because he was late for a morning skate in Ottawa. He was careless and didn't understand why it was so important to be on time. He figured out that it's a respect thing, not just rules for the sake of rule. It was a learning process.

This was a kid who was given a bedtime growing up but was allowed to challenge it. He had to learn the lesson on his own that no matter what time he went to bed, he still had to get up at the same time. If he was tired, his hockey suffered. He figured it out.

"When my children were small and they asked a question or we needed them to do something they didn't want to do, we always reasoned with them," his mom said. "We joked that it's come back to bite us because our kids have reasoned us out of a lot of things at this point."

It's how Ho-Sang processes things. It's how he learns. It's also not how the hockey world is structured. So he adjusted, and is still adjusting.

When you start to add up the early struggles in school, the internal discipline in Windsor, Ho-Sang being left off Hockey Canada's U18 team, his reputation as someone who questions authority and his flashy plays on the ice, then mix in how much is at stake with teams selecting in the first round, it's easy to see why teams might be nervous.

On top of all that, he sees himself as an entertainer as much as a hockey player, another attribute conservative hockey minds don't appreciate. He admires that a guy like Johnny Manziel excels on the football field and celebrates off the field in Las Vegas. He loves athletes who stand out in all sports -- Tim LincecumLionel MessiKevin Durant. Those are the ones people remember.

Ho-Sang sees a bit of himself in the way that Patrick Kane plays, but also loves how Kane embraces life off the ice, even when it gets him in trouble.

"He parties all the time. There's pictures of him shirtless, partying regularly. There's stories about him everywhere. That's cool," Ho-Sang said. "You look at Patrick Kane, he's having a good time. He's getting the job done. I guarantee you ask Patrick Kane how much he loves to party, he'd say '10,' [on a scale of] one to 10. You can tell.

"The bottle's popping, all this stuff. He's absolutely hammered at all the parades. That's hilarious. These guys are having a blast. I know they've won, so people are like, it's OK."

Like everything with Ho-Sang, context is important. He says he doesn't go out partying. He just admires those who embrace life, those who have more going on than what's happening on the ice.

"I'm different. I'm interested in the world. I'm interested in traveling. I'm interested in Buddhism and I'm interested in people, helping people and changing the world because I think you can," he said. "I think a lot of athletes are in a bigger position to do that."

It can all be a distraction from analyzing the hockey player under it all. Strip away the extracurriculars and look only at the numbers and you see a player who has improved his game, including finding the weight room, which wasn't always a priority for him.

He totaled 44 points in 63 games in the 2012-13 season, in which he finished a minus-23. This past season, he put up 32 goals and 53 assists for 85 points and was a plus-26, a number he will point out to anyone who questions his commitment to defense. It's a common concern.

"Either I play defense or I have the puck a lot 5-on-5. Either one of those is a version of defense," he said. "I came back, put up 85 points, doubled my points. Put up 44 penalty minutes, doubled my penalty minutes. Was a plus-26. Then teams are still questioning my commitment to improving."

Rychel has seen that improvement in the little things, like Ho-Sang opting not to stickhandle his way out of the defensive zone. He's still learning to play a team game, and promises that he's willing to do whatever any NHL team asks. He's unlike anybody out there. But isn't that what you want from your first-round pick?


"Sometimes he'll frustrate the s--- out of you. Sometimes, he'll just win the game," Rychel said. "He's going to see how hard it is. He's going to go [to an NHL camp] and he's going to learn to adapt.

"Someone is going to get a great player here. Someone is going to get a hell of a player."