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Ho-Sang has big plans for Islanders, himself

Rookie forward wants to be one of best in NHL, help New York contend for Cup

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer

EAST MEADOW, N.Y.  -- "Get good."

That message has been sent to forward Joshua Ho-Sang by the New York Islanders ahead of his first full NHL season. 

"It's just getting better every day," Ho-Sang said when asked to elaborate. "If you're not getting better you're getting worse."

The Islanders want Ho-Sang to be the best, and though that sounds quite simple, it's not.

Ho-Sang's talent and pizazz have him being mentioned as a Calder Trophy candidate. But understanding the rookie's story requires an outsider to unlock the truth behind the perceptions that have tailed him since his junior career began.

The feeling around the Islanders is that he is misunderstood, that he is confident but not arrogant, as some have suggested. They say he has made mistakes like everyone else and should be commended for his drive to win. 

There's no denying what Ho-Sang, 21, brings as a player. He had 36 points (10 goals, 26 assists) in 50 games last season, his first with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League, before debuting with the Islanders on March 2. In 21 games, he had 10 points (four goals, six assists) to help New York make a late run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs after they were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for much of the season. 

Video: Josh Ho-Sang's expectations going into 2017-18

The Islanders finished one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card into the playoffs from the East. They retained much of the core from last season and acquired forward Jordan Eberle, a five-time 20-goal scorer who should immediately play right wing with center John Tavares on the first line, from the Edmonton Oilers in a trade for forward Ryan Strome on June 22. That could put Ho-Sang back at second-line right wing, where he skated with left wing Andrew Ladd and center Brock Nelson, which means favorable matchups against defensemen.

Ladd lauded Ho-Sang's hockey smarts and understanding of time and space to have the patience to make plays. Veteran forward Jason Chimera has gotten to know Ho-Sang as a quiet kid who obediently follows rookie guidelines with regard to keeping his eyes open and mouth shut.

"Different and unique is good," Chimera said. "It's not a bad thing. When you bring different and unique to a lot of situations, it may rub people the wrong way sometimes but I think it's a great thing to have people that are different and unique, and bring those elements to the table.

"I don't think he's immature at all. I think it's maybe a lack of understanding of who he is. We know who he is in the room."

Ho-Sang was criticized on social media last season when he chose to wear No. 66, famously worn by Mario Lemieux with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1984-2006. This was nothing new for Ho-Sang; in junior hockey with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League (where he also wore No. 66), he was perceived as selfish and overconfident despite scoring 148 points (49 goals, 99 assists) in 141 games before being traded to Niagara on Nov. 14, 2014. 

Niagara general manager Joey Burke, an assistant at the time, knew what the organization was getting into. He had heard rumblings about Ho-Sang having a prima-donna attitude until Windsor assured him they were unfounded. 

It didn't take long for Ho-Sang to make an impression in his own way. 

"He's in the dressing room eating a couple of hot dogs getting ready for his first game with Niagara in front of the Sportsnet cameras," Burke said with a laugh. "He came out and I think he had a two- or three-point night. It was just electric.

"He was a bit of a different guy but certainly more the sense in that he was very laid-back and easygoing, which sometimes can be misconstrued as arrogance. From our end, there was nothing like that."

But that perception remained. Ho-Sang was passed over 27 times -- including by the Islanders at No. 5 and twice by the Vancouver Canucks -- in the 2014 NHL Draft before New York traded up to take him late in the first round (No. 28). The next year, concerns about his character were legitimized when he overslept before his first practice at his first training camp. He was forced to run up and down the stairs at Nassau Coliseum and immediately sent back to juniors.

"I grow every day and I learn from my mistakes," Ho-Sang said. "I will continue to make mistakes and apologize in advance to anybody who gets upset by them. I just try to keep that positivity. Everyone's human and that's the reality. I don't think you want to be perfect because that would be so boring. I kind of push limits, push boundaries. I poke the bear once in a while and I get bitten, and that's the reality."

When the Islanders reported for physicals Sept. 14, Ho-Sang was on time the morning after playing a rookie game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. He was on time the next day for the first on-ice session, skating with Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. Coach Doug Weight had sat with Ho-Sang for three 15-minute meetings in the previous 72 hours, telling him he had every intent to stay in his ear, stay in his face, to ensure that his growth continues. 

"That doesn't translate to what he's going to do on the ice, but he knows that it's a team sport," Weight said. "He wants to be a hockey player and he wants to be in the NHL. He wants to contribute to a team in a healthy environment. He knows that certain things that kind of slip his mind as important factors don't slip ours. That's just maturation.

"Some guys drive 75 (miles per hour) down a side street until they're 23. Josh has grown up a lot, and I'm proud of him for making this commitment to this point. We'll see how it goes."

Ho-Sang is beginning his rookie season with great ambitions, and not just for himself. He referenced the Nashville Predators, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final last season, and wondered, why not the Islanders?

"If we can get our foot in the door," Ho-Sang said, "I think we have the type of team that can go all the way."

He hopes the Islanders, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1983, can make a quick turnaround like the Chicago Blackhawks did; Chicago missed the playoffs five straight seasons before reaching the Western Conference Final in 2009, then won the Cup three times in the next six seasons.

Video: The guys chat about the New York Islanders

"Things change," Ho-Sang said. "I think that's something you can look back on when you're 70 years old, and be like, 'Wow! I did something that helped change the franchise.'

"I want to win the Stanley Cup because the fans here deserve it. I want to be one of the best players in the League so people can look at this organization and be like 'Holy, they have John Tavares, they have Josh Ho-Sang, they have Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy.'"

Challenged to get good, Ho-Sang is sure he has greatness inside, and plans to let it out while changing a negative perception into a positive reality.

"You never want to stand still in the hockey world," Ho-Sang said. "You want to keep trying to find ways to contribute night in and night out and be a player that's indispensable. I'm on my way but I'm not quite there yet. Until I am, I'm going to be twice as hungry. And then when I am, I'm going to be three times as hungry. I want to be the best and I want to stay there."

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