Josh Ho-Sang is an enigma. A divider. Oozing pure skills, he’s a breath of fresh air in a game that grows ever more stale, as unqualified coaches continue to push creative, round pegs into generic, square holes, and at younger and younger ages. He was a child prodigy, once touted as a candidate for exceptional status (which, we’ve already talked about as being a badge with no safety pin for the less-worthy). In the 1st ever Allstate All-Canadian Mentorship camp (and as it turns out, it’s a concise list of 2), he dazzled. At 15, he was without question the most exciting young talent in the world, if a little one-dimensional.
The shine has come off somewhat since then. Rather than being one of the best prospects in the world, he’s become a player who like many before him has oodles of offensive talent but cannot seem to put it together mentally. Criticised for everything from his defense (which has developed at a snail’s pace) to his hockey sense (blueline dangles being the scourge of many a coach’s nightmare), he dropped to 28th overall in the 2014 draft, and was unceremoniously traded from his junior team, the Windsor Spitfires. In a rare moment of candor in hockey, ex-coach Bob Boughner ripped into Ho-Sang, hinting at anything and everything behind the scenes being the reason for his departure.
And in many ways, it’s very easy to understand why. Ho-Sang, in a world of “Gotta play our game”s and “Just need to get pucks on the net”s, is a loose cannon. This isn’t your P.K. Subban, intelligent and articulate loose cannon. This is your “call out Team Canada brass” loose cannon. In hockey culture, you never call out the team, regardless of whether you agree with the decisions being made or not.
The reality is this. The New York Islanders, who control his rights, run a strict policy: if you’re not on the ice the first day of camp, you’re not playing for the team at all this year. It applied to Brock Nelson, who had to rush to sign a contract in order to play, and if it applies to an NHLer who spent productive time on John Tavares’ wing in the NHL last season, it sure as hell will apply to a 19-year old rookie who has yet to prove anything besides the fact he really likes video games and like many teenagers should probably get more sleep than he does. In the society he lives in, punctuality is key. I would know, I can never actually arrive anywhere on time, and it’s getting to the point where i have to leave 3 hours early just to make sure something doesn’t happen to me on the way, like a bus crash.
But I’m not an NHLer. For me, while it may inconvenience me a little and drive my employers nuts, it’s not the end of the world (this will change the moment I move up). But for Josh, his expectations, both from himself and from his employers is that he is a professional off the ice. If Ho-Sang wants to be an NHLer, then he needs to act it. Spending time playing video games into the night and missing alarms does not scream “I am a mature, responsible adult and you should rely on me to be a core member of your franchise’s team so that I may represent your brand as best I can.”
But here’s the rub. Ho-Sang may not be a mature, responsible adult, but that doesn’t make him a bad person. If you’d never heard of him before, the libel against him would make you think he’s the devil child. He may be a one-dimensional hockey player who can’t pass up making 3 more moves than necessary, but he’s also a valuable asset. Contrary to the cliché, you can teach skill, it’s just a lot harder than it is to teach defense (which is part of the reason why development of players in Canada is starting to stagnate, given the emphasis on playing it safe trickling down). Ho-Sang’s problems on the ice, unlike other young players, is quite easily rectified with good coaching and a solid video crew should Ho-Sang put in the effort.
What Ho-Sang’s mouth has done, though, is reveal a very unfortunate side to professional hockey, and all leagues in general. The moment a player doesn’t fit into a square hole, he’s miscast and will continue to be miscast. It’s almost hilarious the narrative that surrounds him for not being a “hockey player”, which at this point has become somewhat synonymous with dumb jock. The teams don’t care whether you have opinions, or whether you can piece together a coherent sentence. They care about winning games, and quite honestly, the dumber a player is, the easier he is to control, to a certain extent. It’s the same logic used to evaluate the Wonderlic test (a general measure of intelligence) in football. Score too low, and the NFL shies away from the idiot who can’t read plays or think critically in key situations. Score too high, and they’re scared because you’re too smart, and might not respond well to the coach’s influence.
The teams control everything. They run the player’s lives, down to their daily schedules and diets. Players may be given everything needed to perform to their peaks, but at what cost? Everything that capitalists claim is wrong with socialism, with no free will or individual thought (by the way, that actually applies to communism and Brave New World, thank you very much) legitimately finds itself in the realm of pro sport. I swear to god, I’ve watched crappy animes that delve into why that level of control is wrong in anything (Gundam Seed Destiny had such potential…), it’s not a damn secret. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
The moment a player does something that management doesn’t like, they get blasted for it. Sometimes, it’s justified. A lot of the time though, the narrative goes beyond “being a professional” and more along the lines of “he’s not acting enough like a sheep”. And the fans buy into it. Think of all the times a player has held out for more money, and then the fans label him a ‘team cancer’. Think of Ryan O’Reilly, who is now immortalized as Ryan O’Moneybags despite being by all other accounts a fine teammate and character player on the ice (we won’t talk about off the ice, that’s a rant on hockey culture that I’ll save for another day).
This kind of power is easily more than necessary, and is very easy to abuse. Case study: Sheldon Souray. Edmonton got a single great season from Souray before injuries hit. Here’s where things get dicey; Souray’s injury is serious enough that he claims he can’t play. Kevin Lowe then proceeds to attempt to destroy his career through a lot of slander and a bit of management know-how. Doctors for hockey teams face enormous pressure to misdiagnose recovery times, from players and teams alike. So while it’s unconfirmed whether or not pressure from team management convinced them to clear him for play way before he was ready, what’s clear is that the moment Souray took a stand for his own good, he was no longer just a pawn to be moved, and that made him as good as scum in Kevin Lowe’s eyes.
He was demoted to the AHL, labelled a cancer by his own fans, and then left Edmonton for a few more productive years in Anaheim. It’s telling that years later, everything he said about the Oilers management and their inability to work in good faith came true, and bit the Oilers hard. When a portion of fans have actually begun to come around to Souray’s side, you know things got real bad in Northern Alberta pre-McDavid.
Quite frankly, I have no horse in this race. I don’t care whether Ho-Sang pans out and becomes an NHLer or straight out busts, just like I’m quite ambivalent on the Islanders organization as a whole. In my mind, neither group is innocent here, not completely. For the Islanders, they stood up for professionalism, which is a noteworthy cause in an era where such qualities are quite lacking, through the use of high-handed bullying and ultimatums. For Ho-Sang, it’s true that the media are on him for every little thing, and that’s not fair to him. He gets a lot of criticism that he hasn’t earned. But at some point, as a professional he has to be able to take charge of himself and hold himself accountable for his actions. He can’t be held by the hand forever, and if he thinks that his talent and hard work means he “deserves” a chance, then he’s dead wrong.
What I can say is this: it’s not healthy or sustainable for any relationship to have such a power imbalance. And sooner or later, the façade that professional sport is built on might very well come crashing down. My only hope is that it happens later, rather than sooner.