TORONTO - There's no denying the talent of forward Josh Ho-Sang. But the New York Islanders' first-round NHL Draft choice from 2014 has had a difficult time finding his footing. The negative experiences at the professional level at times made him question his love for the sport.
"I think everyone deals with anxiety and depression in different manners, some people have a more severe than others, but I think that when that stuff creeps in it can get difficult to love the game you play," Ho-Sang said. "But I think that's when you have to go back to your roots."
The 25-year-old from Thornhill, Ontario, joined the Toronto Maple Leafs on a professional tryout in an official capacity on Wednesday. He's been training at the team's practice facility since July, around the time he officially became a free agent. On Thursday, he skated with a familiar linemate, John Tavares, and newcomer Michael Bunting, signed by the team to a two-year, $1.9 million contract in July.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said on Wednesday he'd be looking to give some players an opportunity to show what they can do in certain positions. Should that mean a start with the Marlies for Ho-Sang, he's open to it.
“I’d start in the ECHL, I don't have a preference, I'm not entitled by any means, I don't think I deserve anything," Ho-Sang said. "I am happy to be a part of this organization in any way they need me.
"If they need me sharpening skates, if they need me taping sticks, this place is so special."
Ho-Sang's challenges have been well documented. In 2015, he slept in on the first day of New York Islanders training camp. That put him on a one-way ticket back to the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL.
He went on to play a total of 53 games in the NHL over the next three seasons where he scored seven goals and 17 assists. He bounced around between the Islanders and AHL Bridgeport. In 2019, Ho-Sang requested a trade when he was cut by the club and placed on waivers. He was told to stay home while the Islanders worked on granting the request. Ten weeks later, Ho-Sang was permitted to report to Bridgeport.
He was later loaned out to the St. Louis Blues AHL affiliate San Antonio shortly before the pandemic hit North America. In a surprise move, Lamoriello extended a qualifying offer to Ho-Sang in October, 2020. The forward was loaned to a Swedish club where he continued his career.
In some way you could sympathize with what Ho-Sang went through. But instead, he was complimentary of Lamoriello, who are seemingly polar opposites of one another from a philosophical standpoint.
"Things didn't work out the way I wanted in New York but he's a great man," Ho-Sang said. "He has his core values, his beliefs are exceptional. I mean you've seen what he's accomplished in his life."
And perhaps that's where things may have turned for the better and changed Ho-Sang's mindset. He sung praises about his experience in Sweden, despite only playing in nine games split over clubs Orebro HK and Linkopings HC.
"The head coach in Sweden (Linkopings HC coach Johan Akerman) changed my life, changed my outlook on hockey," Ho-Sang said. "Sometimes you need to get to a new environment to really appreciate some of the things that were maybe said to you your entire life, but sometimes we're not ready to hear those things and I believe I'm at the point now where I am."
Ho-Sang is the next big turnaround project for the Maple Leafs, who helped forward Alex Galchenyuk move from obscurity, to semi-regular spots on the team's top-six forward group last season.
Tavares had a front row seat for Galchenyuk's transformation and sees potential in Ho-Sang.
"He'd be a great asset because obviously his skill set is through the roof," Tavares said. "I think you notice a sense of maturity, definitely from him, even just the way he's carrying himself, the workouts, just his interactions with the guys and what not.
"He's been great and excited and motivated so it's great to have him part of the group here and just knowing the potential that he has, it could be something that could really work out for us.
Ho-Sang, recounted watching Mats Sundin and admired the way he conducted himself and "never got in trouble or did anything bad" and is drawing from him as inspiration in his new chapter of his hockey career.
He has to prove it on and off the ice with the Maple Leafs and he appears ready to take that challenge head on.
"Being good when you're in junior is awesome, being good in the NHL is a whole different monster," Ho-Sang said. "I think that I've shown flashes but it's consistency that I'm focused on and building from there."