Josh Ho-Sang on wearing No. 66: ‘If anything it’s the ultimate respect’

New York Islanders forward Josh Ho-Sang talks about wearing #66, and the respect he has and inspiration he gets from the career and play of Mario Lemieux.

When Islanders forward Josh Ho-Sang hit the ice for his first NHL game last week, he caused a controversy right out of the gate.

In an incident that was certainly silly and completely over-blown, Ho-Sang joined the NHL wearing No. 66. Never mind Mario Lemieux didn’t ever play for the Islanders, or that two others have worn it since Lemieux retired, or that the number isn’t retired league-wide, or that Ho-Sang has been wearing it since he was 15 years old. This was something to get angry about, in some circles.

Ho-Sang has now played three games wearing No. 66. He hasn’t yet got a point and has just three shots, but he’s been one of the top three rookies in the spotlight since he joined the league last week — for a completely ridiculous reason.

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On Tuesday night, the Islanders head to Edmonton to take on the Oilers and Ho-Sang will play against his good friend and former GTHL Toronto Marlboros linemate Connor McDavid. Just last summer, Ho-Sang told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox that “I want to be as good as (McDavid) or better.”

Again he’ll wear No. 66 — and again he was asked about wearing the sacred number.

“It’s no disrespect. If anything it’s the ultimate respect,” he told reporters.

Ho-Sang, of course, is right. Many other NHLers in today’s game wear numbers that give a nod to greats of the past. Jonathan Toews doesn’t wear 19 because he was born in the 1900s — it’s a nod to Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. No. 4 is worn by many defencemen in the league and you can guess the influence there. Why retire all these numbers?

The Islanders were considered to have taken a bit of a risk on Ho-Sang when they drafted him 28th overall in 2014 and could maybe have afforded to take a bit of a flyer since that was their second pick of the first round (they took Michael Dal Colle fifth overall).

But Ho-Sang was no slouch. A supremely talented player, off-ice and commitment concerns followed him and were exacerbated in 2015 when he forgot to set an alarm and was late for Day 1 of Islanders training camp, which ended up in his immediate demotion back to junior.

Now, he’s played more NHL games than the top five pick the Isles took before him and was having a good AHL rookie season before his call-up. Ho-Sang has 10 goals and 36 points in 48 AHL games, a point-per-game average that ranks eighth among all freshmen. He could turn out as a steal where he was picked.

There’s no doubt Ho-Sang has set the bar high for himself, which can be interpreted as overconfidence or cockiness sometimes. The 21-year-old somehow made the No. 66 episode a little worse by saying almost passively he would “consider” changing his number if Lemieux ever asked him — angering some by not absolutely committing to give up the number in a scenario that is unlikely to occur anyway.

But that’s who he is and this is the number he wears. If Ho-Sang does hit the potential his skill suggests he has in him, it’s time to start getting used to the idea.

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