EAST MEADOW, N.Y. – It took all of 20 seconds for Josh Ho-Sang to have his “Welcome to the NHL” moment when he made his New York Islanders debut in March.
As Ho-Sang took the puck in the corner of the Islanders’ zone, Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn, he of a 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, was charging at him. A split second before Benn laid a hit along the boards, the rookie forward was able to make a play up ice.
The lesson learned so very early into his NHL career?
“Just got to be ready all the time or you’re going to die,” he joked on Wednesday.
Ho-Sang is taking part in Islanders prospect mini-camp this week a little over two months since he completed a 21-game NHL stint at the end of the season. He scored four goals and recorded 10 points over that time, but easily could have picked up a few more given how well he adjusted to the NHL game after his call-up. He left an impression with the coaching staff, one that’s stayed head coach Doug Weight.
“What was most enjoyable for me was he had that initial start where you get so much excitement and you’re playing on adrenaline, and he had a little dip but he recognized it, he stayed focused and he went back up,” he said. “He had some challenges. He had some games where he gave up a couple of giveaways and it cost us. Those are tough to go through but you learn from them and he bounced back, showed a lot of confidence. He’s a special player, he’s talented.”
The talent’s always been there for Ho-Sang. Just take a glance at his numbers (82-210—292, 256 GP in the OHL) in junior and you’ll see. The question has been about maturity. Two years ago he was sent home on the opening day of Islanders training camp for oversleeping. That led to general manager Garth Snow to sound off to Arthur Staple of Newsday with “Enough with the bull—-. It’s time to grow up.”
(Ho-Sang poked fun at himself with a Tweet a year later featuring alarm clocks and the caption “I made it.”
That was a well-needed wakeup call. Now 21 and with a year of professional hockey under his belt (21 NHL games, 50 in the AHL), Ho-Sang is ready to continue his development, and he’s aiming high.
“I think if you’re not the best player you always need to do something differently,” said Ho-Sang, who graded his first NHL season between a B and B-minus. “If you’re not Connor McDavid putting up 100 points leading his team to the playoffs for the first time in a long time, I think that you need to improve. Even he’s going home and he’s trying to get better. I don’t think you can stop.”
“I believe in myself and I don’t think that I need to say much more than that. If I ever get there and people ask me, ‘Did you think you could get there?’ … yeah, I’d say yes, but [McDavid’s] a ways away. He’s an elite talent, but it’s always fun to have someone to chase. For him, he only has to chase himself right now. I kind of got a rabbit to go after and that’s fun. I just want to keep getting better and keep comparing myself to the best players in the league and try to keep myself in that conversation.”
The work has been there, and that’s been encouraging to Weight this week. After a cameo in the NHL it could be easy for a young player to take that chance for granted, but Ho-Sang has impressed the Islanders coaching staff. That’s an extension of his off-ice mindset, where the focus has been on personal improvement. Even his Twitter account has gone quiet, where a quick search from the past year will find more Tweets featuring motivational quotes than an random opinion shared to his nearly 12,000 followers.
Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present
— Josh Ho-sang (@66jhosang) June 7, 2017
“It’s something that, especially in a sport where people are watching you and are constantly trying to judge you for what you do in a game or in a minute based on a day, I think it’s important to remind yourself of who you are,” he said.
“I think it’s important to stay grounded in terms of understanding that there is more going on just outside yourself and you may have personal problems and you may have things going on on a regular basis, but as long as you can put your head down and keep fighting through those, trying to find the right side more often than not, I find that will help you maintain your happiness.”
Ho-Sang’s personal growth was boosted during his time with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. He formed a bond with head coach Brent Thompson and produced, scoring 10 goals and 36 points in 50 games before his March call-up.
That September morning where his punishment for oversleeping was running the Nassau Coliseum steps and a plane ticket home was only two years ago, but Ho-Sang has made strides to put that in the past and let the questions going forward be about his play.
“I think it was harder on him than people think he thinks,” Weight said. “He takes it seriously. He knows he made his bed in certain areas, made some mistakes. They weren’t anything that other people hadn’t gone through at times. He’s a different kid. He’s starting to figure that out that maybe the things that aren’t more important in his eyes, when you’re on a team, in an organization, you’ve got to look at and change yourself a little bit. I want him to be himself. I think that’s a good asset of his. He’s handled it well, he’s learned from all those things and he’s taken it as a challenge to prove people that he’s going to be a pro. We’ve got to keep on him, but he’s a good kid.”
At this week’s mini-camp, Ho-Sang has already hit it off with new Islanders assistant coach Scott Gomez, who has 1,079 games of NHL experience and two Stanley Cups on his resume.
“A guy like Scotty, who played with so much vision, so much grit and enthusiasm to the game, and he brings that enthusiasm on the ice, he gives me energy when he’s talking to me,” Ho-Sang said. “He’s one of those guys, he just wants you to get better.”
“He’s one of those guys who really cares about the players and you can tell that from the couple days that I spent with them. I don’t know how many guys on the team have actually met him, but I think when they do they’re going to love him, and I know I do.”
Gomez and Ho-Sang share at least one thing in common: a love of passing the puck. Gomez had 575 helpers in his NHL career but also possessed a strong knowledge of an all-around game. That experience will be beneficial to not only Ho-Sang, but the rest of the Islanders’ forward group.
“Obviously, scoring goals is just as important as passing, so just ways you can incorporate both sides into your game — play away from the puck, things that he did that worked, things that he did that didn’t,” Ho-Sang said. “It’s the same thing. You’ve got to be open to learning and that’s how you can get better.”
The hiccups that delayed Ho-Sang’s journey to professional hockey appear to be behind him. McDavid is the rabbit to chase in the long run, but a regular spot in the Islanders’ lineup is the carrot dangling in front of him right now. His 21-game stay at the end of last season impressed many and now it’s expected that the progression will continue and alarm clock jokes will be a thing of the past.
“When you know what’s expected of you, you’re held accountable, but you’re also in an environment of fun and you want to win and be professional,” said Weight. “It’s just going to help him and he’s going to get more and more confident from it.”
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