Opinions on where Josh Ho-Sang falls in the NHL draft pecking order have gone madly off in all directions for weeks. Now the Windsor Spitfires standout is questioning whether his ethnicity is a factor in how he's been perceived by NHL teams.
Up until now, questions about Ho-Sang have revolved around whether the 18-year-old's hockey gifts override him not fitting the hockey world's broad definition of 'character.' That is the subtext with a top-20 scorer in the Ontario Hockey League who scored 85 points for a middling Windsor Spitfires team being projected to go anywhere from 18th to 61st overall in this weekend's NHL draft. On Tuesday, long-time Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons published an exclusive, and extensive interview where the 18-year-old Ho-Sang, who is black and Jewish, said he has been subject to a double standard from NHL teams. Level-headed people certainly shouldn't dismiss his claims without a thought.
From Simmons (@simmonssteve):
“People watch my games and are very critical. When I start dangling, my GM calls me a Harlem Globetrotter. Why am I a Harlem Globetrotter? Analogies get related to basketball all the time with me. I don’t play basketball. I've never played basketball. I'm a hockey player. Why are they doing that?
“When I do anything, I’m just another black kid with attitude. I think I get misunderstood because these guys want to figure me out without talking to me and try to come up with every single reason why there’s something wrong with me.
“With all this going on, the only place I can win this argument is on the ice.” (Toronto Sun)
That is a far cry from the typical rote 'it'll be a honour to be drafted by any team' quote. It does seem glaring that Ho-Sang interviewed with only 18 of 30 NHL teams during the recent combine in Toronto. Typically, a player with legit first-round hopes will meet with upwards of 25. Eighteen is more characteristic for someone who will be selected much later.
Raising questions about prejudice is a way of going on the offensive, but that doesn't mean there isn't a grain of truth to the allegations. It stands out because 99.9 per cent of NHL draft hopefuls give off an undercurrent of fear of saying the wrong thing and receiving the dreaded 'Milo.' That in itself is contradictory. For instance, being cocky is bad, but projecting confidence is good, even though those are the exact same thing.
Hockey, as Stephen Brunt once put it, "makes a fetish out of conformity." Ho-Sang is non-conforming, "more than (a) round peg in square hole" in both his lineage and his flashy style of play. The quote, unquote good Canadian boy with brothers, uncles and a father who chased the dream often learns that by osmosis. Montreal Canadiens star P.K. Subban did not and the NHL and the country is better for it. Neither did Ho-Sang.
Perhaps the larger point is that the hockey world should try to adapt or meet somewhere close to halfway.
Unfortunately, that point is probably going to get lost. Speaking out puts the onus squarely on the messenger. The defiance will likely make Ho-Sang some fans of the team drafts him this weekend, because it's ballsy in a sports world with too much bland.
Within the NHL world, it might do him more harm than good. Perhaps it fuels more gossip about why teams are being wary. It could also be taken as an 18-year-old calling out the industry, which does not tend to work out well. Or as Ho-Sang being defensive about teams probing about his character or about reports of his off-ice behaviour. The NHL teams believe they have the same approach with every potential draftee.
Ho-Sang is also contending that Hockey Canada leaving him both of its under-18 teams this season caused the innuendo to snowball. Here's Simmons, again:
When it came time for Hockey Canada to announce rosters for whatever national team it was building, the call never came to Ho-Sang.
It is a point of bitter contention with him.
Hockey Canada is supposed to foster talent in this country: Why haven’t they embraced Ho-Sang?
They won’t say.
"Every interview I had I was asked the same question: Why didn't I get asked to play for Hockey Canada? What happened? I don’t know. I’d rather they be public about it than say nothing.
"If you want to see what I can do, invite me to one of your camps. Then you can see how I act, how I compete, how I behave. It’s not like they’re winning everything.
"It's unfortunate the power Hockey Canada has. They have the power to ruin careers and I feel they've hurt me a lot.”
Hockey Canada named its preliminary roster for the world under-18 championship on April 5. Two days later, the OHL handed Ho-Sang a suspension for injuring another player during a playoff game.
Is it remotely likely that Hockey Canada might have known that was coming down? It certainly would know about International Ice Hockey Federation Bylaw 302, which basically states that a player suspension that occurs in the OHL extends to a sanctioned world championship such as the U18.
High expectations come with the territory
Another phenomenon at play is that word travels fast with a mega-talented teenager. Teams notes and he slides down the board. That played out in the Ontario Hockey League in the spring of 2013 with defenceman Sean Day. Day ultimately became the first player given exceptional status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old and not be the first choice in the priority selection draft, as three teams opted for 16-year-old forwards before he was chosen by the Mississauga Steelheads.
Four seasons ago, a Sudbury Wolves star named John McFarland was a former OHL No. 1 overall pick who entered the year with Top 5 or Top 10 buzz. McFarland dropped out of the first round entirely and went No. 32 overall, but only after scoring 35 fewer points in '09-10 than Ho-Sang did in '13-14. Hockey Canada also considered McFarland for the national junior team that season, although it didn't during either of his final two OHL seasons.
Point being, that's not so much prejudice as how the craft of scouting tends to work, for good or ill. Also, as Sunaya Sapurji wrote 12 months ago, there is also The Cult of Sidney Crosby that imposes expectations on players who show NHL potential at an early age to be extra-extraordinary. The player can't do much but accept that it comes with the territory.
It's true that Ho-Sang could, in hockey-speak, 'try to do too much' by trying to stickhandle through multiple defenders. Yet somehow, despite this alleged puck-hogging, he was tied for 10th in all of major junior hockey in even-strength assists.
To (not) answer the multi-million dollar question, it's hard to conclude that being black is at the root of Ho-Sang being at odds with the NHL establishment. There is too much hearsay, too many variables, too much that scouts know that is not publicly available. There are probably also too many other potential biases.
One should credit Ho-Sang for putting it all out there. At the heart of it, this is an 18-year-old speaking his truth to power.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.