When New York Islanders rookie right wing Josh Ho-Sang is looking for inspiration, he does not immerse himself in hockey. Instead, he turns his attention to the soccer field.
“I mostly watched soccer highlights,” he said. “I couldn’t sit through a hockey game until I was 16. My dad would get on me and say, ‘You know it’s pretty useful if you watch the game you play.'”
Ho-Sang wears No. 66, the number of his hockey idol, Mario Lemieux, but credits his style to his childhood soccer hero, Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I think my style developed because I was really into Ronaldo when he first came in — I was like 9,” Ho-Sang said. “I always liked the way he played, especially if you look at his Manchester United highlights.”
Ho-Sang, 21, views the game through a prism different from most, and he prefers it that way.
Ho-Sang made his home debut Monday night in a messy 8-4 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes after having joined the Islanders for six games during their nine-game trip. He scored his second NHL goal — his first came at Edmonton on March 7 — late in the second with an assist from Anthony Beauvillier, and he assisted on Calvin de Haan’s goal earlier in the period.
And early in the game, when had control of the puck several times, he heard a variation of the “olé, olé, olé” chant often heard at soccer games, using his name instead.
With sterling play at both ends of the ice, Ho-Sang is quickly making the case for his roster spot to become permanent.
“A lot of guys come up and try to play a different game,” he said Monday. “The key is just go out there and play hockey.”
Recalled from Bridgeport of the American Hockey League because of injuries to forwards Casey Cizikas and Alan Quine, Ho-Sang has brought an extra burst of energy to the surging Islanders, who are 15-8-3 since Doug Weight took over as head coach after Jack Capuano was fired on Jan. 17.
With 14 games remaining, the Islanders (32-25-11) are counting on Ho-Sang’s contribution as they make a push for a third straight playoff spot. The Islanders are in the race for the final Eastern Conference slot, battling the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“This is what I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid, being in the NHL,” said Ho-Sang, who is primarily playing on a line centered by Brock Nelson, with Nikolay Kulemin or Andrew Ladd on the left wing. “As long as I’m bringing that compete level, I’m the happiest guy in the world.”
Weight has been impressed by Ho-Sang’s poise, talent and attention to details.
“He fits in physically, and with his skating ability and skill set, it looks like he’s been in this league a long time,” Weight said. “I’m not surprised. He has been well coached.”
Ho-Sang, who grew up in suburban Toronto, also brings an unusual family lineage to Brooklyn. His father, Wayne, is from Jamaica, and his great-grandfather was from Hong Kong. Ho-Sang’s mother, Ericka, was born in Chile, and her parents were Russian and Swedish. Ho-Sang was raised Jewish.
The Islanders took a chance on Ho-Sang, a brash scorer in the Ontario Hockey League, with a first-round pick in 2014. Many teams avoided choosing Ho-Sang because of reports of discipline issues and concern he may have been more focused on making flashy plays than on winning.
But Ho-Sang has been proving his critics wrong since he overslept on the opening day of training camp in 2015, leading the Islanders to send him back to his junior team.
The most controversy Ho-Sang has generated so far in the NHL has been choosing to wear No. 66, which has been worn by only one other NHL player since Lemieux retired in 2006. Ho-Sang’s decision was debated on social media, sports radio and Canadian television.
This season, his first in the AHL, Ho-Sang had 10 goals and 26 assists in 48 games. Ho-Sang made it a point to praise Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson and his staff.
“The AHL is a great league,” Ho-Sang said. “I think people should acknowledge that. It definitely got me prepared for this.”
His work ethic has caught the attention of Islanders captain John Tavares, who knows well the pressure of expectations.
“Josh has played extremely well,” Tavares said. “He understands how he needs to play, and he’s getting more confident. The hardest thing to do for a guy expected to score is come in and score.”
Ho-Sang always found his solace on the ice.
“I’ve played hockey the same way my whole life,” he said. “I’ve gotten in trouble for it, and I’ve gotten complimented for it. It’s important to just play your game.”