Mario Lemieux said Thursday he has no problem with New York Islanders rookie forward Joshua Ho-Sang wearing No. 66, which was Lemieux's number during a Hockey Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I'm fine with it," Lemieux told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's just a number. No. 4 and No. 9 were worn by great players (Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, respectively), and they are not retired forever. Players can choose whatever number they want."
Ho-Sang has been the subject of social-media crticism for choosing No. 66. The 21-year-old, who made his NHL debut on March 2, told Newsday earlier this month that he wears it as a tribute to Lemieux and would consider changing it if asked. He told the Post-Gazette on Thursday that it's more than Lemieux's on-ice success he wants to honor.
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"You look at the [Mario Lemieux] Foundation he's created for cancer patients and in retrospect what happened to him in his career and how he got cancer and dealt with that," he said. "He fought and continues to fight for other people. He thinks outside himself. For me, that's a man worth looking up to. That's why I wear the number. That's the type of guy who's behind that number, and that's what's so inspiring for me, you know."
The Islanders play at the Penguins on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, TVA Sports, SN, ROOT, MSG+, NHL.TV). New York is two points behind the Boston Bruins for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference but has two games in hand on the Bruins.
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"For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I'm totally OK with them hating me for wearing No. 66," Ho-Sang told Newsday. "Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.
"I think it's everyone outside of Pittsburgh that should kind of get over it. But if they want to hate me for my career, they're welcome to. I have no bad blood with them; they can have whatever they want with me."
Lemieux, who was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian in January, is 10th in NHL history in goals (690), eighth in points (1,723), and helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997.
No. 66 isn't retired League-wide like No. 99 is for Wayne Gretzky. Two players have worn it since Lemieux retired from the NHL in 2006: Ho-Sang and Calgary Flames defenseman TJ Brodie in 2010-11.
Ho-Sang has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 11 games this season.
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