March 2nd. The National Hockey League's first league-wide Hockey Is For Everyone month comes to a close with San Jose's victory over Vancouver. The Pride Tape comes off, the copies of Soul on Ice are packed away, and somewhere, Gary Bettman pats himself on the back for a job well done.
That same night, Josh Ho-Sang makes his NHL debut against the Dallas Stars. Just two days earlier, the twenty-one year old was called up on an emergency basis from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The forward had yet to prove himself in the big league, despite the hype surrounding him after being selected 28th overall by the Islanders in the 2014 draft. Citing attitude problems and a lack of maturity, Ho-Sang seemed to clash with the Islanders' management early on.
When he was 19 and still playing with the Niagara Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League, he made headlines after he wasn't extended an invitation to the Canadian World Junior Camp, despite having 85 points on the season. The news, however, wasn't on his side. Ho-Sang called the snub “insulting,” while criticizing the role of Hockey Canada in developing players.
It's nothing teenage hockey players haven't said before.
Just last year, Patrik Laine touted his own skills prior to the draft, stating he knew he was good enough to go first overall. Reporters laughed, even praised Laine for knowing his own abilities and not underselling himself.
Josh Ho-Sang doesn't have a monopoly on outspoken confidence. Though, what he does have makes all the difference in how he's treated by the league, by the Islanders, and by the media.
Ho-Sang is black, Chinese, and Jewish. And hockey is the whitest major-league sport.
There's a Team-First Culture in hockey that sets it apart from other sports. Where other major leagues market their players, hockey markets the team. In some ways, it's a benefit – the trade deadline is much more interesting, and ultimately easier for fans to adjust to when the name on the back of the jersey is less relevant than the logo on the front of it.
But in a lot of ways, Team-First Culture is a detriment to the players themselves. Players who are too loud, too flashy, or too confident are often on the receiving end of coded criticism from the media, coaches, and even opposing players.
The brunt of this weight is shouldered by nonwhite players, who are expected to be the Model Minority – quiet, complacent, humble. When they fail to comply, the consequences have the potential to be career ruining. After all, if the team comes first, who wants to work with someone who shines the light on themselves?
Last year, this exact situation took front and center with then-Montreal Canadien PK Subban. Subban has spent most of his career in the wake of backlash against him, the vast majority of which is racially motivated. Former Habs coach Michel Therrien famously blamed a loss last February entirely on Subban, calling him “selfish” and point-blank called him out as an individual who lost the game for a team that otherwise worked hard.
PK Subban is an incredibly talented defenseman. The problem, apparently, is that he knows it.
This view of Subban, perpetuated by the media and the coaching staff, ultimately lead to the blockbuster trade of the summer that sent him to Nashville before his no-movement clause kicked in, in exchange for noted Team Player and aging defenseman, Shea Weber. Montreal lost a star player, but gained a white man who will give empty sound bites about “getting pucks in deep.” In their minds, they won.
Every nonwhite player in the league has a story like this, of a coaching staff that didn't like how they presented themselves, how they were aware of their own talent. Few white players, on the other hand, have the same problems.
Ho-Sang has already dealt with his fair share of coded critiques of his attitude. In 2014, he was late to training camp and immediately sent back to Ice Dogs in the OHL. The perceived maturity issues pushed back his development. If not for injuries to Ladd and Quine, Ho-Sang likely would not have seen NHL ice time this year.
Things like this happen in the league. In 2011, Tyler Seguin was scratched for one game by the Bruins after he missed a team breakfast. It happened again to Seguin in 2015 for being late to a practice with the Dallas Stars. Coaches demanding a level of maturity and responsibility from their players isn’t unreasonable.
But for Tyler Seguin, he sits one game in the press box, even as a repeat offender (granted, with different teams). Josh Ho-Sang gets stunted in his ability to grow as a player for nearly three years. If not for bad luck (or good luck, on his end), it could've been more.
The latest news around Ho-Sang is only further evidence in how the league fails both it's nonwhite players and fans.
Throughout his junior career, Ho-Sang has donned 66 on his back, a tribute to his favorite player, Mario Lemieux. Players do this all the time. Gordie Howe's number 9 is still in circulation. Aside from Gretzky's 99, no number is retired league-wide. Players often choose their number while they’re still kids, and those numbers usually have significance to how they decided they wanted to play hockey. Hero worship is a big one.
Unlike the many cases of this exact phenomena, Ho-Sang choosing to continue to wear 66 in the big league has caused an uproar among Pittsburgh fans. The reactions have ranged from elitist to extreme, all with an underlying racism.
Josh Ho-Sang can wear any number he likes, but 4 and 9 are regular hockey numbers. No. 66 is a vanity license plate.— Michael Farber (@MichaelFarber3) March 8, 2017
Fans have been wishing violence upon Ho-Sang for something as ultimately pointless as wearing a number – something universally regarded as a sign of respect.
Everything in Ho-Sang's career so far has built up to this. The claims of attitude problems, burying him in lower leagues for being too confident – these are actions directly caused by his race. The language surrounding him is far more intense than around white athletes who have committed the same or worse infractions and it isn't coincidence. The reaction to him wearing Lemieux's number being threats of violence is a reaction motivated by the fact that a confident black kid is wearing a white legend's number.
Most recently, the matter was supposed to be considered resolved when Lemieux came forward to say that he supports Ho-Sang wear his number because “it's just a number.” That's supposed to be the end of it. The white legend says okay and that means it's okay, even though Ho-Sang never needed Lemieux's approval to begin with, and still doesn’t change the violent, racist reaction he got in the first place. Lemieux’s indifference doesn’t make what Ho-Sang has dealt with thus far somehow okay.
The bigger problem is that it wasn't the end of it. Ho-Sang skated out onto Pittsburgh ice on Friday to a chorus of boos every time he touched the puck. For wearing a number on his back.
Right now should be the greatest time in Josh Ho-Sang's life. He's finally getting a long awaited chance to prove himself in the NHL and he's doing exactly what the Islanders had hoped he would back in 2014. And yet, he's surrounded by controversy for existing as a black man who would dare compare himself to Lemieux.
It doesn't bode well for his future. If we learned anything this summer, it's that performance means nothing if you're black and believe in yourself.
The league sets the tone for the fans. The Team-First mentality allows coaches and media to hide behind criticisms of players for being too focused on themselves when what they want to say is that the nonwhite players aren't assimilating to the whiteness of the locker room. That allows fans to perpetuate their hatred against these players free from guilt.
When the nonwhite players aren't safe in the league they give their life to, then neither are the nonwhite fans.
Here I thought Hockey Is For Everyone.