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NHL Mad On-Line: Josh Ho-Sang deserves respect for wearing Mario Lemieux’s number

Get over it.

New York Islanders Blue & White Scrimmage Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome to SB Nation NHL’s new “Mad On-Line” series, where we find something trivial the hockey world is mad about and tell you whether you should be, too. Usually the answer is no. Spoiler alert.

Josh Ho-Sang was controversial before his NHL career even began.

He was widely considered one of the best players in the 2014 NHL entry draft. And yet, 27 teams passed on him before the New York Islanders took him at 28th overall. Why?

Because he’s flashy ... to the point that his maturity came into question. The NHL’s culture is sort of archaic. The NBA and NFL are wildly popular because they embrace the personalities of their star players. Hockey people boast about it being the ultimate team sport. Which might be true. But that doesn’t sell tickets.

Exactly. What that second guy said.

With that in mind, Josh Ho-Sang was never going to have an easy transition into the NHL. I could go further, but Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet put it perfectly in a profile of the young guy a few years ago.

If Patrick Kane (one of Ho-Sang’s favorite players) is too brash, and Tyler Seguin is too self-centered, and P.K. Subban celebrates too much, what will [the hockey world] do when confronted with Ho-Sang, a player who, after scoring an end-to-end goal earlier this season on which his teammates might as well have stood on their skates and watched, beelined directly toward the opposition bench so he could perform a shimmy shake in front of it?

A player whose outspoken, contentious comments about his abilities, his place in the game and his perceived mistreatment throughout his career stand in stark contrast to the team-first, me-last culture that hockey’s most die-hard supporters aim to instill? Is Ho-Sang a selfish malcontent? A problem child? Or is he just a confident kid being himself?

Good question! I’m going to lean toward the latter. But his first week in the NHL shone a gigantic spotlight on the exhausting conflict between the NHL’s ultra-sensitive culture when it comes to #respectingthegame. Or whatever.

You see, Josh Ho-Sang got called up to the Islanders this week. And he chose the number 66. He wore it all through juniors. His idol is Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.

And suddenly this is a thing. People are not happy. People like well-respected NHL writer Michael Farber.

TSN held a segment called “Is Ho-Sang wearing 66 disrespectful?Blogs primed themselves for debate.

Never mind the fact that billions of players have worn Gordie Howe’s 9. Or Yzerman’s 19. Or Sakic’s 19. Nobody seemed angry when five other players wore number 66.

But Ho-Sang was the lightning rod that required this “respect” discussion to happen. Here’s a list of players who’ve had that “respect” debate follow them early in their careers: P.K. Subban. Evander Kane. Nail Yakupov. All players of color or Europeans. Hmm. Interesting. Surely a coincidence, and not a deeper cultural issue buried even deeper than the sport’s team-first culture.

There’s no doubting Ho-Sang has had some maturity issues. He could’ve made the Islanders out of training camp last year if he hadn’t overslept and gotten immediately demoted. Questions about a player’s character don’t appear out of nowhere. Missteps have to happen along the line, and Ho-Sang (as a teenager) has had a few.

None of us hold up to scrutiny at that age. Or any age. Even you, computer commenter.

But let’s just shut up about Ho-Sang having the GALL to wear Lemieux’s number. Because, as he told this week, he wears it as a reflection of his growth as a hockey player. Of his lessons learned.

“[Lemieux] had his ups, his downs in his career and he came back better. That's just a tribute to the person that he is. That's something that inspires me. And, on a regular basis, he had probably more hardship than most great players and he dealt with it, came back better. And that's something that no one can ever take away from him, and for me, honestly, it's something to look up to."

By donning Lemieux’s number, Ho-Sang is literally putting a high standard for himself on his back every night. If that’s not respect, I don’t know what is. And coming from a young man under so much (somewhat undeserved) criticism, it’s worthy of your respect, too.