Josh Ho-Sang, Mario Lemieux and the dumbest NHL controversy

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New York Islanders forward Josh Ho-Sang made his NHL debut on Thursday night, wearing No. 66. He played 17:01, had two shots on goal.

Then, after the game — and I still can’t believe this happened, you guys — the Hockey Hall of Fame smashed and destroyed ALL of Mario Lemieux’s stuff because another player wore his number and rendered him obsolete.

Or so it seemed, based on the reaction to Ho-Sang wearing ’66.’

Ho-Sang wore the number as a tribute to Lemieux, the fourth-greatest player of all-time, whom he said was “a little more dynamic on the skill side than Wayne [Gretzky].”

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This, apparently, is a bad thing.

They say life comes at you fast, but nothing travels with the velocity of an idiotic sports debate.

Ho-Sang has been wearing No. 66 since he was 15 years old. He wore it in Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League. He’s wearing it again in the NHL, and on the day of his first game it became “a thing.”

It was debated on Canadian television. It churned its way through social media, onto blogs and became a Pittsburgh sports radio topic. Was this disrespectful to Mario Lemieux?! Who does this rookie think he is, wearing a sacred number such as No. 66, which as you know is only retired by a single team in NHL history?

This stupefying controversy was fueled by two things. The first was the usual hockey traditionalist pabulum that shames players who violate an arbitrary set of dogmatic standards (i.e. ‘you can’t do that in an interview/shootout attempt/goal celebration! SHAME! SHAAAAAAAAME!’).

It’s super weird how this hockey traditionalist nonsense ALWAYS seems to target young players of color, you guys. It’s almost like Ho-Sang has been a “controversial” player during his entire hockey career, you guys …

The second was the decades-old bitterness from Pittsburgh Penguins fans over the fact that No. 99 was retired by the entire NHL and No. 66 remains rights-free to be adopted by players like Josh Ho-Sang. The thought is that the number should be unofficially taken out of circulation, a sort of ‘no fault’ League-wide number retirement.

This is now the second player they’ve attempted to bully into changing his number out of deference to Super Mario.

In 2010, T.J. Brodie was a rookie with the Calgary Flames. He was assigned No. 66 in training camp two years earlier – we won’t reveal the name of the equipment trainer here, for his own safety – and “it stuck,” he said. So he wore it in his rookie season, leading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to interrogate him and a Penguins fan Facebook group to form, demanding that he change his number.

“You realize some Penguins fans aren’t crazy about this?” asked our buddy Seth Rorabaugh.

“I understand,” said Brodie. “He’s a great player, and I have total respect for him. It’s not any disrespect. If I get a chance to change it, I will.”

T.J. Brodie wore No. 7 the following season, and from then on.

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No word if the family of Howie Morenz has ever gotten around to starting that Facebook group in protest.

Look, this one of those stupid sports controversies designed to fill time on an ESPN or FS1 talk show if they actually ever covered hockey. But to set the record straight, Ho-Sang was asked about it, and told Newsday:

“I’ve been wearing it since I was 15 and I really admire Mario Lemieux,” Ho-Sang said. “Just the skill level he brought to the game, the excitement. Some people would say he’s a little more dynamic on the skill side than Wayne [Gretzky] . . . I know there are some people who aren’t too happy about [me wearing No. 66], but for me it’s like the way guys wear 10 and 23 [in soccer and basketball for Lionel Messi and Michael Jordan].

“It’s honoring [Lemieux] and just, I think a lot more people remember who he is now because they’re yelling at me about wearing the number, right? I think that’s cool too. There’s a lot of light being shined on an amazing player. By no means am I trying to be better than or trying to prove anything. For me, it’s definitely a tribute to a great player. If he asked me not to wear it, I’d definitely consider it, but I haven’t gotten any phone calls or anything. So for now I’m gonna wear it.”

Let’s put this quote in the time capsule: “I think a lot more people remember who he is now because they’re yelling at me about wearing the number, right?”

Yes! THAT should actually be the debate: Should numbers ever be retired League-wide, officially or unofficially, or is that completely self-defeating?

I’ve written about this before: Retiring Jackie Robinson’s ‘42’ in baseball and retiring Wayne Gretzky’s ‘99’ in hockey were supposed to deify those players and make those numbers sacred. But isn’t the greater honor, you know, players choosing to honor them by wearing their numbers? Because they were inspired by them or they were in awe of them? Doesn’t it serve Mario’s legacy better if someone rocks the No. 66 and is asked “why?” and he’s like “he was better than Gretzky?”

Are there really Penguins fans that believe there’s any disrespect, inherent or unintended, by Ho-Sang wearing No. 66? Are they worried that 20 years from now, when they reference ‘66’ that someone’s going to be like “YA MEAN MARIO OR JOSH HO-SANG?”

You might want to ask Bobby Orr about a crowded field of Hall of Famers wearing “your” number.”

So keep on rocking the ‘66’ Josh. Just because the Penguins decided to put Rich Pilon on a Mario Lemieux statue doesn’t make the Islanders have to reciprocally retire his number.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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