Josh Ho-Sang will do anything to make the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or, it turns out, the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Or even the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers.
“I’d be willing to start in the East Coast,” said Ho-Sang. “I don’t have a preference. I’m not entitled by any means. I don’t think I deserve anything.
“I’m 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. This place is absolutely wonderful.”
Indeed, Ho-Sang seems to be in a good space, making a positive first impression on his teammates and coaching staff while skating on a line with John Tavares as on-ice work began at training camp.
The 25-year-old forward from Toronto has been a bit of an enigma since he was drafted 28th overall in 2014 by the New York Islanders. Once mentioned in the same breath as Connor McDavid in terms of raw talent, Ho-Sang has bounced around the OHL, AHL and Sweden as successive Islanders regimes tried to fit the sometimes square peg into a round hole.
To some, he has come across as brash and cocky. He has battled Hockey Canada. He was famously late for the first day of an Islanders training camp in 2015, and cut immediately.
On Thursday, the Leafs’ first full day of practice, he came across as a man on a journey home.
“Every kid who grows up in Toronto dreams about playing for this team — such a special organization, things that they have accomplished, things that they continue to accomplish,” said Ho-Sang. “It’s really special to be able to put on this uniform every day and really embrace what this culture is, and try to embody everything that they’re trying to instil in the players.”
He says those aren’t just words, that he’s changed, after a life-altering trip to Sweden and some serious mentoring from both Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello and his son, assistant GM Chris Lamoriello.
“The head coach in Sweden (Bert Robertsson) absolutely changed my life, changed my outlook on hockey,” said Ho-Sang. “Sometimes you need to get to a new environment to really appreciate some of the things that maybe have been said to you your entire life.
“Sometimes we’re not ready to hear things, and I believe that I’m at the point now where I am.”
What he’s hearing from the Leafs is a message that resonates team-wide.
“The message throughout the organization is hunger,” said Ho-Sang. “Everyone is hungry to do better, to be better.”
Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev are with the Leafs on professional tryouts. To earn a job, he’d have to beat out players with better NHL resumés and on guaranteed contracts, such as free-agent signings Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, Ondřej Kaše and David Kämpf.
It’s a steep climb, but not impossible.
“We’re looking for somebody to really grab hold of the opportunities,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’re playing games for real in three weeks or so, so those positions are going to be filled. We’ve laid it out here now and given you guys different looks and different opportunities, and you just expect them to take advantage of it.”
Keefe had Ritchie working with Mitch Marner and Adam Brooks, who seemed to be a place-holder for Auston Matthews. Matthews, recovering from surgery on his left wrist, only participated on the ice in skating drills.
“We like some of the elements that Nick can bring there in terms of his size and his ability to play around the net, the physicality that he brings in, the presence that he brings,” Keefe said of putting Ritchie on the top line. “So we’re going to look to give that some time to grow, see how that goes.
“But we’ve got a lot of hungry people that would love an opportunity to play there.”
Keefe had Ho-Sang with Tavares and Bunting. Tavares had been Ho-Sang’s captain with the Islanders.
“Josh is getting older, and I know he wants to make the most of the opportunity he’s getting, and knows he’s extremely talented and has obviously shown flashes of what he can do and what he can be,” Tavares told the Star last week. “It’s just putting all that together.”
The Leafs received high marks for turning much-travelled forward Alex Galchenyuk’s career around last year, with a patient approach that saw the former third-overall draft pick work on his game with the Marlies. Galchenyuk is now in Arizona on a tryout. The same approach may be needed with Ho-Sang, who’s been working with the Leafs for more than a month.
“We’ve got a great program from the development side,” said Tavares. “Management does everything they can to give everyone the resources they need to maximize their potential. So I think that’s been really helpful for (Ho-Sang) over the last couple of months.”
Ho-Sang has seven goals and 17 assists in 53 career NHL games. For the Toronto kid who grew up admiring Mats Sundin, this could be his last best shot at being an NHLer again.
“It’s going to take everything I have,” said Ho-Sang. “I’m coming here to work to the best of my ability and to try to learn as quickly as I can, and give that maximum effort that they’re looking for.
“Nothing is given in this world. Everyone at home working that 9-to-5 job, they understand that you have to give it your best effort every day or you won’t move forward. For me, if I’ve learned a lot from the things that I’ve been through, I’ve had a lot of great mentors.
“It’s not necessarily how long it takes you to learn; it’s that you learn. And I feel like I’ve embodied a lot of things and I try to use them in my day-to-day.”
Camp notes: Wayne Simmonds missed Thursday’s camp session for personal reasons, said Keefe … Winger Ilya Mikheyev denied reports that he asked for a trade over the summer. He did, however, get married … Mikheyev practised with Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander, Gusev with Kaše and Kämpf, and Pierre Engvall with Kirill Semyonov and Joey Anderson.
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