New York Islanders forward Joshua Ho-Sang on Tuesday defended his choice to wear No. 66, calling it a sign of "ultimate respect" for Mario Lemieux.
"It's weird because I wore it in junior and no one ever really bugged me about it," Ho-Sang told Sportsnet. "And then I get to the NHL and it's like a really big deal. So it kind of hit me pretty hard.
"It's just interesting, even people who just take the time to say stuff about it, I mean, I think I made it pretty clear that, for me, it's no disrespect. If anything, it's the ultimate respect, I think."
Ho-Sang, who scored his first NHL goal in his fourth game, a 4-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, has been criticized on social media for choosing No. 66, which Lemieux wore for the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1984-2006.
"Just wearing the number because I looked up to the man," Ho-Sang said. "I think he's an unbelievable, unbelievable player, and just the way he's managed the game and everything. He had his ups, his downs in his career and he came back better. That's just a tribute to the person that he is. That's something that inspires me. And, on a regular basis, he had probably more hardship than most great players and he dealt with it, came back better. And that's something that no one can ever take away from him, and for me, honestly, it's something to look up to."
Video: NYI@EDM: Ho-Sang hammers home his first career goal
Ho-Sang wore No. 66 playing for Windsor in the Ontario Hockey League. He was the No. 28 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and made his NHL debut on March 2.
Calgary Flames defenseman TJ Brodie wore No. 66 for three games when he debuted in the NHL in 2010-11, and also received some backlash, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He switched to No. 7 the next season.
Washington Capitals center Milan Novy was the first NHL player to wear No. 66, and Philadelphia Flyers left wing Yanick Dupre and Vancouver Canucks left wing Gino Odjick also wore it while Lemieux was an active player, according to the newspaper.
Lemieux's number has been retired by the Penguins. Wayne Gretzky's No. 99 has been retired throughout the NHL. Ho-Sang earlier said if Lemieux asked that he no longer wear No. 66, he would consider it, but he has not heard from him.