Detroit Red Wings, Doug Gilmour, Hockeytown, NHL Winter Classic, OHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, University of Michigan
If you’re searching for diversity in hockey look no further than Windsor Spitfires right wing Josh Ho-Sang – a skating United Nations.
The Canadian-born 17-year-old’s father is a black Jamaican of Chinese descent, his mother is Chilean with Russian and Swedish bloodlines, and is Jewish. It’s not unusual to hear Spanish spoken in the Ho-Sang household, where Chanukah and Christmas are celebrated.
“I’m kind of a jack of all trades,” he told me recently.
Ho-Sang’s family roots are intriguing but his hockey potential is fascinating.Gifted with a dangerous blend of blinding speed and sick soft hands, Ho-Sang is a natural goal-scorer who scored an “A” rating among North American skaters on the NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary “Ones to Watch” list ahead of the 2014 draft.
He’s scored 8 goals and 7 assist for 15 points in 12 games this season for the Ontario Hockey League Spitfires, a pace that assures he’ll surpass last season’s 14 goals, 30 assists for 44 points in 63 games. More important, he’s improved his plus/minus from -23 last season to a +5 thus far this season.
Ho-Sang isn’t a household name in the United States yet, largely because the OHL only has three U.S.-based teams – Pennsylvania’s Erie Otters, and the Saginaw Spirit and Plymouth Whalers, both Michigan franchises.
But more U.S. hockey fans will likely get a glimpse of him when the Spitfires play the Spirit Dec. 29 outdoors at Detroit’s Comerica Park – home of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers – as part of the NHL Winter Classic festivities in Hockeytown leading to the main event: a New Year’s Day tilt between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at the University of Michigan’s massive football stadium in Ann Arbor.
Ho-Sang is “very proud” of his diverse background, but says its only a part of who he is.
“I obviously try not to make it a race thing,” he told me recently. “But the biggest thing for me is the amount of kids I have the ability to inspire. Even around the rink, one of our Zamboni guys is of color and, I think, it was two weeks ago I had a really rough game. After the game he came up to me and said ‘You know, you’re doing us proud.'”
“Little things like that, and seeing little coloured kids, more kids coming to the game, that’s kind of what you play for,” Ho-Sang added. “I don’t just want to inspire kids of race. I want to inspire everyone.”
And the way Ho-Sang plays might inspire some NHL team to make him a high pick in 2014, according to Cyril Bollers, coach and president of Skillz Hockey, a Toronto-area-based youth hockey training and development program.
Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals, Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues, and NHLers-turned broadcasters Kevin Weekes, Anson Carter and Jamal Mayers are all Skillz alums.
Ho-Sang played on predominately-minority hockey teams coached by Bollers for several summers.
“Josh should be a first-rounder,” Bollers told me. “I think he’s one of the most gifted and talented kids in the entry draft. He’s very skilled with the puck, very talented with it. He stick handles the puck and doesn’t lose speed.”
When Ho-Sang played AAA minor midget hockey for the Toronto Marlies, former Toronto Maple Leafs legend Doug Gilmour, general manager of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, told The Toronto Star in 2011 that the youngster was “the elite of the elite.”
Former NHLer Warren Rychel, the Spitfires’ general manager, told The Star that Ho-Sang “gets you out of your seat.”
“I think of all the guys since I’ve been here – (Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven) Stamkos, (Edmonton Oilers’ Taylor) Hall, (New York Islanders John) Tavares – he’s the deadliest I’ve ever seen one-on-one with a goalie. He puts pucks away like nobody I’ve ever seen at that age.”
Ho-Sang has an athletic pedigree: his dad, Wayne Ho-Sang, is a highly-regarded tennis pro in Canada. When Josh was a toddler, Wayne and Erika Ho-Sang gave him a tennis racquet and a ball, thinking he would someday follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He’d put the ball on the ground, take the racquet and stickhandle…I guess hockey made more sense to him than tennis,” Wayne Ho-Sang told The Star.
Josh Ho-Sang chuckles when he recounts the story.
“When they put hockey on (TV), it was the only time of the day I would sit still for three hours,” he told me. “They said when they put me on the ice, I didn’t want any help, I didn’t need any help. I don’t remember all of that, but from the stories that they told me, it seems like I was made to do it.”
Ho-Sang said that raw hockey talent helped him make a meteoric rise through the hockey ranks. But he realizes that it will take more than talent for him to succeed in the OHL and beyond. He understands that he’s still a work in progress.
“I have to learn how to use my gifts in the right spots,” he said. “When I was playing minor hockey, the hockey was more one-on-one, right? I would come up the ice faster than everyone, I was even stronger than the guys I was playing against, so I would just take it to the net and do my thing. But now you’re coming up the ice and they have two defensemen back or three guys back. So it’s pull up and make plays. I’ve had double coverage on me…you have to learn how to adapt.”
And Ho-Sang has had to learn to adapt off the ice, too. The life of a major junior hockey player is complicated. Players drafted by OHL teams move away from home and live with billet families during the hockey season.
In between home games, road games, practices, meetings and other team obligations, major junior players also attend school.
“I had a little bit of a tough time at school last year because the school I go to is difficult and it’s really different from the Toronto school,” he said. “Little things like balancing homework and hockey, and all that stuff, and trying to stay away from the stress on top of that. You have three assignments to do, and you have practice, and you didn’t play well the last game.”
He says he’s balancing school work and hockey work better in his second OHL season, thanks in part to sage advice from his general manager and his mom.
“One of the most important things my general manager said to me was ‘Josh, if you do well off the ice and around the ice, the ice will become easier,'” he told me. “Something my mom said to me, too: ‘If your mind is clouded with all the stuff around you, it’s hard to see on the ice.’ It’s so true. The more calm I am about everything going on outside the rink, the way better I see the ice.”
And that could be bad news for OHL goaltenders.