He was called names, denied a haircut in his hometown, stopped at the U.S. border and refused work in the Trail smelter where his teammates earned extra money.
Larry Kwong is, however, not a bitter man. He was taught to tolerate racism and be a better man. He made history by breaking the colour barrier in the NHL with one 90-second shift with the New York Rangers on March 13, 1948 at the Montreal Forum.
Kwong, born and raised in Vernon, wore No. 11 with the Rangers less than a year after Jackie Robinson shattered the baseball colour line.
Vernon’s Ernie Gare Jr., a scout with the Rangers, presented Kwong with a numbered and lettered New York jersey, courtesy of Ranger president and GM Glen Sather, at the world theatrical premiere of The Shift: The Story of The China Clipper, Sunday night at the Okanagan College Lecture Theatre.
“It’s a very nice jersey,” said the soft-spoken Kwong, 91. “It (time in NHL) was about a minute and a half and I was a winger. We didn’t have any scoring chances. Montreal was a pretty good team. I knew (Jean) Beliveau and Dickie Moore and had played against them before so I wasn’t awestruck.”
A crowd of 120, including current and former players, and scouts from 24 NHL teams, attended the invite-only screening sponsored by the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame.
Veteran filmakers Chester Sit and Wes Miron, both of Edmonton, produced the 45-minute movie. Sit was at the premiere and said it took 18 months to put together.
“I think it’s a great film,” said Sit, 36, whose parents immigrated from Hong Kong in 1970. “I’ve been saying to everybody, it’s for Larry. It’s more about what he went through and what he achieved and how he changed peoples’ perceptions in general. The film kind of pays homage to it.
“I hope we did a good job of it. I hope that other people will learn from the history of it because it’s not so much a racism story, it’s about people learning not to judge each other based on physical attributes or whatever because when one of us is oppressed, we all are oppressed. We all need to be equal because we’re all human beings and that’s ultimately the key to the show.”
Interviews with NHL legend Beliveau and Calgary Flames’ president Ken King, along with Chad Soon of the Okanagan sports shrine, are featured in the film. Soon organized the premiere.
“I’m happy with the final product,” added Sit. “All that matters to me is that Larry likes it and I think he does. He’s such a humble guy. I cast a really handsome dude to play him as a young version because really he was a lady killer back in the day.”
Retired Vernon teacher John Baumbrough was at the Forum for that 3-2 Montreal victory.
” We were up in the bleachers,” said Baumbrough. “I was playing on a Junior hockey team in Quebec and they gave us free passes to the game but we had to go up to the standing-room-only bleachers. It was in the third period and I couldn’t believe it because they didn’t announce him at all. I looked down and geez, there was Larry. He looked so small.”
In one clip, Kwong talks about being coached by Toe Blake while starring for the Valleyview Braves in the Quebec Senior League, often challenging Beliveau for the scoring lead.
“He (Blake) told me I had one job to do. Wherever Beliveau goes, you go. If he goes to the toilet, you go to the toilet.”
A father of one daughter and two granddaughters, Kwong powered the Vernon Hydrophones to the B.C. Midget hockey championship in 1939 and then to the provincial juvenile crown in 1941. As an 18-year-old, Kwong jumped the junior ranks to play senior for the Trail Smoke Eaters, who had won the 1939 World Ice Hockey Championships.
Kwong, an assistant captain with Valleyfield, earned $6,000 a season in Quebec, where he said he was “treated good by all the French people.”
Dean McAmmond, who is four games short of 1,000 regular-season games in the NHL, was at the premiere with his son, Braeden.
“I thought it was great,” said McAmmond. “With Larry being from Vernon and us residing here now, it definitely brings us a lot closer. Watching the adversity he faced, I thought they did a great job in the film showing the background and hockey culture in Canada. I thought the touch by Ernie at the end was pretty classy.”
Kwong also spent one season with the Nottingham Panthers in Britain, scoring 55 goals in 55 games, before moving to Switzerland where he led HC Ambrì-Piotta in scoring as player-coach.
He became the first person of Chinese descent to coach a pro hockey team. He later coached HC Lugano and HC Lausanne and also became a tennis coach in Switzerland.
Former Vernon Laker scoring machine Jason Elders has discussed Kwong’s story with Soon; Elders’ daughter, Emma, played minor hockey with Soon’s son, Quinn.
“I think it was awesome and I think a lot of people are going to like it. It was entertaining, had a bit of humour in there, and it’s part of history in Canada.”
Said longtime B.C. Hockey director Bill Greene, of Armstrong: “Absolutely fantastic. What an honour to be here and what a great guy to honour. It was excellent to see him here and fantastic making note of him and presenting him to the rest of the province as a real builder.”
There was a short question period following the film and retired NHLer Brent Gilchrist asked Sit if the NHL Players’ Association had ever recognized Kwong.
“I think it’s about time,” said Gilchrist, to cheers, after Sit replied the NHLPA had not acknowledged Kwong.
Added Gilchrist afterwards: “This was awesome. (Director of Player Development, Colorado Avalanche) Dave Oliver and I were just talking about it and it needs to be recognized, by not just the Association, but the NHL and probably the Hall of Fame. On my part, I’d like to call somebody in the Players Association and get something started. In the last 10, 15 years, there’s been a lot of diversity training and we’ve had a lot of talk about having minority players who were pioneers, to come in and teach what it was like, and Larry should be part of that.”
Duane Dennis, who along with Oliver, boosted the Lakers to Vernon’s first national Junior A trophy in 1990, also enjoyed the film which will be shown throughout China in coming months.
“It was very well done,” said Dennis. “Just like Gillie said, this guy should have been honoured and recognized decades ago so this is a special honour for him. This was an eye-opener and I’m glad it’s out in the public eye and it’s going to be seen by millions of people.”
Ex-Portland Winter Hawk superstar Dennis Holland, a scout with the Dallas Stars who played in the minors, gave props to Kwong.
“It was quite impressive,” said Holland. “You look at the things you have to overcome just as a hockey player and he has to do that besides everything else. The way of hockey players goes through him and you sure appreciate somebody like Larry who accomplishes something this impressive.”
Three-time Paralympic gold-medalist Sonja Gaudet, inducted into the Okanagan shrine two years after Kwong, said: “I thought it was excellent, it was very interesting. It was great to see such a great trailblazing story. Anytime you can shed some light on some of those social issues, I think it’s a great documentary.”
Short videos on Gilchrist and Eddie Johnstone, who made the Rangers 28 years after Kwong, were shown prior to the The Shift. Fellow Original Six player Odie Lowe, who played four games with the Rangers, was introduced before scores of NHL alumni and scouts, including Mark Ferner, Craig Demetrick, Marty Stein, Al Tuer, Sam McMaster, Jason Podollan, George Fargher and Jerred Smithson.
“I want to thank all of you for coming,” said Kwong. “I didn’t know there were so many hockey players in Vernon. If I had known, I wouldn’t have showed up. I can’t match their records. Thanks, Chad, for making this happen.”
Soon says the Hall of Fame hopes to show the film again at a local venue. The movie is currently running on the OMNI network in Cantonese.
Kwong, who is in a wheelchair, goes to the gym three times a week and attends all the Calgary Stampeders’ home games. His father, who died when Larry was five, ran a general store in downtown Vernon (kitty corner to Fishers Hardware on Coldstream Avenue) called Kwong Hing Lung which translates into “Abundant Prosperity.”