Ask those who have been around Josh Ho-Sang lately to describe the dynamic winger and you’ll notice a common theme.
“He’s a guy that obviously has an incredible amount of skill, somebody that can get around the ice,” said Canada’s GM Shane Doan on Monday.
“Watching him today skating with us, you can see his undeniable talent,” Claude Julien chimed in later.
“I think all of this (the Olympic recognition) is through the work he has put in,” explained Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
“Combined with, of course, the talent that he has”
Ho-Sang has always had talent. It’s what propelled him up the rungs of Toronto’s minor hockey scene, earned him mentions in the same breath as Connor McDavid during their time with the GTHL Toronto Marlboros, and eventually led to the New York Islanders calling his name in the first round of the 2014 NHL entry draft.
Talent has never been the problem. But what Ho-Sang really needed, above all else, was the guidance and patience to mature into the player that he was destined to become – both on and off the ice. And after a rocky start to his professional career, Ho-Sang has landed back in his home city and grabbed the opportunity in front of him by the throat.
An opportunity, the Toronto-native likes to emphasize, that was given to him by Kyle Dubas.
Now, a few short months later, the 26-year-old is an Olympian. And his performance over the next three weeks may just be what dictates whether he can make it back to hockey’s highest level.
But for Ho-Sang, any thought of his NHL future is trumped by the pursuit of a gold medal.
“My focus right now is the Olympic team,” explained Ho-Sang while speaking for the first time as a member of Team Canada on Wednesday morning.
“I think to look forward would be an injustice to myself and the opportunity I have right now. I’m trying everything in my power to stay present and really embrace every single day with this group…because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’s fleeting.”
Ho-Sang speaks with the wisdom of a man that has careened between five teams in three different leagues in three different countries over his past three professional seasons. It seems that Ho-Sang is well-versed in the perils of becoming distracted with what lies ahead.
But for hockey fans, and specifically those of the Maple Leafs, it’s hard not to look down the road. Ho-Sang has done nothing but impress since donning the Maple Leaf in September, putting together a brilliant preseason with the NHL club before following it up with a torrid start for the Toronto Marlies.
Yet while Ho-Sang’s 11 goals and 20 points in 27 games for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate are impressive, his greatest strides have come in a newfound willingness to add nuance to his game.
“I like to go all gas, all the time. It’s just my nature,” laughed Ho-Sang.
“But I think to get to the next level, or to even be an efficient hockey player, you have to learn when you’ve got to live to fight another day.”
There’s that wisdom again.
“It’s kind of like punting in football,” he continued.
“There’s a reason why teams don’t go for it on fourth down all of the time. Because you put yourself in a bad position. Being a riverboat gambler is fun. But it’s not conducive to winning consistently.”
These realizations didn’t just come to Ho-Sang on their own. He’s gone out of his way to commend the Maple Leafs and Marlies’ development staff for helping him gain this clarity, describing in jest how he felt bad for “annoying” various skills coaches during training camp and early season practice with questions on possible tweaks to his game. And for a player who was sent home from his first professional training camp years ago for being late, an obsession with refining his craft is precisely the type of annoyance the Maple Leafs are happy to enable.
It’s clear that Ho-Sang values the opportunity the organization has given him to resurrect his career. And, frankly, the Maple Leafs seem to value him right back. Ho-Sang says he feels “heard” in Toronto. Like he has a stake in what’s going on.
And that stake will almost certainly influence what comes next.
“I think I’d be silly not to consider it,” answered Ho-Sang when asked if he would consider leaving Toronto if another organization approached him with an NHL offer.
“For me, I have the utmost respect for Toronto. I’m so grateful for everything they’ve done and I would definitely take that into consideration very, very heavily. I would want to have a respectful conversation with Kyle (Dubas), thanking him and discussing with him before I would accept anything.”
It’s not a secret that Ho-Sang wants above all else to play for the Leafs. Growing up in the GTA will do that to you. And yet, despite how it may look, the fact that he’s remained unsigned to this point may just suggest that the Leafs want that, too.
Right now, Ho-Sang could be dropped into the Maple Leafs lineup at any moment. Currently signed to an AHL deal, the CBA allows Ho-Sang to bypass waivers on his trip up Lakeshore Blvd from Coca-Cola Coliseum to Scotiabank Arena whenever the Leafs choose to make the call. The only downside is that that trip would need to be one-way, with Ho-Sang requiring waivers in the event he is ever sent back down. And given how the man is now an Olympian with some sterling AHL numbers, a rebuilt reputation, and first-round pedigree, it’s unlikely that he’d manage to slip through.
To the Leafs, Ho-Sang would need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s ready. Half-measures are not an option. When he comes up, he needs to stay.
And what better way to make that happen than leaving Beijing with a gold medal?
“It’s pretty cool, right? Trading a leaf for another leaf?” joked Ho-Sang.
If all falls into place, he might find himself doing it again sometime soon.