Why Josh Ho-Sang dedicates Olympic shot to Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas

Josh Ho-Sang spoke about why he would've laughed if someone had told him he'd make Canada's Olympic team several months ago and credits the support of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and the organization for helping him make the Olympic team.

TORONTO – Josh Ho-Sang keeps them within reach all the time.

That way, whenever he feels a rush of anxiety, whenever his nerves get overwhelmed by life’s relentless pressure, he can reach for his string of Buddhist prayer beads.

He can run his fingers over each bead in his japamala and count them individually.

A simple, small ritual. A tool to help calm his busy mind.

Because of the beads, and because he practises Buddhism, and because he’s prone to sharing nuggets of advice (sample: “It's not necessarily how long it takes you to learn; it's that you learn”), Ho-Sang’s fellow Toronto Marlies anointed him with a nickname.

They call him “Buddha.”

“I'm a pretty mellow dude. I try to look at the positive side all the time,” says Ho-Sang, speaking over Zoom Wednesday, his first press call as a member of Team Canada’s men’s hockey squad.

“All nicknames are good, right? Especially when they're being used by your teammates. It means that they care enough to give you a nickname.”

How’s this for a nickname, Josh: Olympian.

Would you have believed that title would apply after your unpleasant divorce from the New York Islanders in 2020? When you toiled away through a pandemic and in obscurity last season for a pro team Linköping, Sweden? When you showed up at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility this past summer without a contract or a backup plan, your NHL dream on life support?

What if someone told you that you’d be wearing a red Maple Leaf on your chest and representing your country in Beijing come February?

“I would’ve laughed in their face,” says Ho-Sang.

He slipped on a national team practice sweater for the first time Tuesday, as the chosen men kicked off their eight-day training camp in Davos, Switzerland. All the golden goals he scored on Toronto driveways flooded back.

“It's one of those things that you think you're ready for, and then you're not. And you're overcome with emotion. And I think that’s good. I think it's important to feel that way, because that's how you know that you're ready to take it on,” Ho-Sang says.

“Trading in the Leaf for another Leaf. It's really cool. I haven't worn red in a while. So I'm really excited about that. I like red. It’s my favourite colour.”

Ho-Sang was once labelled a hotshot. Difficult to coach. Or, worst of all, lazy.

The flip side is that Ho-Sang is anything but a hockey robot. He’s a creative cat weaving his own thread through a culture of conformity — and getting tangled and snagged along the way.

A gifted first-round talent who could turn himself into something incredibly special if his internal motivation ever matched his buttery hands and swift feet.

“Undeniable” is how Canada’s coach, Claude Julien, characterizes his skill.

Ho-Sang would turn heads annually at Toronto’s summertime BioSteel Camp, dangling and darting through established NHLers.

Team Canada mate Jason Demers remembers Ho-Sang stealing his eye during those pre-training-camp workouts, though he assumes Ho-Sang doesn’t remember the boring older defender he was playing with.

“Great kid. Wants to learn,” says Demers, now noting a heightened work ethic. “He’s a highly skilled guy. We’re looking forward to have him.”

Adds Canada GM Shane Doan: “I talked to a few of his GMs in the last couple years, and the way he has grown as a person, they all rave about him.”

Second chances are a trending topic in our sport these days.

A humbled Ho-Sang arrived home in need of one last fall, and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas provided.

“Ultimately, I wouldn't have been able to do this without the opportunity that was given to me by Kyle,” Ho-Sang says.

First, a tryout. No promises.

Later, a one-way contract with the AHL Marlies. No cap hit.

“I'd be willing to start in the East Coast,” Ho-Sang had said at training camp. “I'm not entitled by any means. I don’t think that I deserve anything here. For me, I am 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, you know? This place is so special.”

Having bounced out of the bigs, then out of the minors, then over the Atlantic, the former minor hockey phenom conceded there were moments his love for the sport waned.

“Everyone deals with anxiety and depression in different manners. Some people have it more severe than others, but I think when that stuff creeps in, it can get difficult to love the game you play,” Ho-Sang said.

“When you bring it back to the base, this is the game that you've been playing since you were little. And how much joy it's brought you, how many good experiences you've had, how much you've learned — I think when you take that and appreciate it instead of looking at what you don’t have, I think that it becomes a lot more enjoyable.”

For Olympian Ho-Sang, hockey is fun again.

So fun, he did the robot to celebrate his most recent Marlies goal, his 11th in just 27 games:

So fun, that Ho-Sang has been hanging around the Marlies practice facility, nagging head coach Greg Moore and his assistants to pore over video with him. He’s searching for details to improve and is encouraged that the staff doesn’t find his persistence annoying.

“Just the dialogue in Toronto,” Ho-Sang explains. “One thing that's really helped me is I feel very heard there. My opinion seems like it matters, and that inspires me to go and be better on the ice — because I feel like I have a lot of stake in what's going on. I want our team to do well for my teammates, for my coaches.

“And I think that really inspires players, when they feel connected to their organization rather than a piece of meat, like players I’ve heard have experienced in some places.”

Ho-Sang says Moore & Co. have helped “tame” his style of play as he tries to let his offensive creativity and explosiveness sing while smartening up his decision-making.

He likens it to an NFL team punting on fourth down. You can’t always go for it; sometimes it’s wiser to live to fight another day.

“I like to go all gas all the time. That's just my nature when it comes to hockey,” Ho-Sang says. “You put yourself in a bad position sometimes when you try to risk it all. Being a river riverboat gambler is fun, but it's not conducive to winning consistently.”

A tamer, calmer Josh Ho-Sang — particularly one with a gold medal next to those beads in his pocket — should have no trouble enticing an NHL team to come calling with a contract.

So, what happens if that team is not the Leafs?

“I think it'd be silly not to consider it. For me, I have the utmost respect for Toronto,” Ho-Sang says. “I'm so grateful for everything that they've done that I would definitely take that into consideration very, very heavily.

“Even if I got an offer from another team, I would like to have a respectful conversation with Kyle, thanking him and discussing with him before I would accept anything. Because, like I said, I have so much respect for that man and what he's done for my hockey career that I'll never forget it. It's not something that I'm just gonna throw away. Because, for me, any NHL team that's knocking, it's because of Kyle.”

For now, though, Ho-Sang is devoted fully to his Olympic moment. To staying forever present, as is the Buddhist way.

Embrace his teammates in red.

Focus on the task at hand.

Distraction would serve an injustice.

“This is a moment that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it's fleeting, you know? It goes by as quick as it comes,” Ho-Sang says.

“And I don't want to blink.”

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