He made history as the first player to break the NHL’s colour barrier.
Vernon’s Larry (King) Kwong, the first Chinese-Canadian to play in the NHL, died Thursday, March 15 in Calgary. He was 94.
Kwong’s death came two days after the 70th anniversary of his historic one-minute, one-shift appearance for the New York Rangers in Montreal on March 13, 1948.
“Larry was a gentleman of great class who also had a playful sense of humour,” said Vernon teacher Chad Soon, who played a big role in having Kwong’s story told on an international scale.
“Always humble, he had the uncanny ability to make others feel special. His whole life he surpassed expectations, defied stereotypes, and broke barriers with finesse and a smile. Larry was a hero to four generations of my family. He was a pioneer who changed perceptions, helping to make the Canadian dream possible for people of all kinds.”
Born in Vernon on June 17, 1923, Kwong played hockey on a lake in Blue Jay subdivision with his friends, and suited up with his hometown Hydrophones, winning a provincial midget hockey title in 1939 and a B.C. juvenile championship in 1941, before moving up to the senior ranks, joining the Trail Smoke Eaters as an 18-year-old.
Kwong faced discrimination in Trail, unable to get a job at the smelter like his teammates because of his heritage.
He eventually joined the New York Rovers, a Rangers farm team, and led them in scoring in the 1947–1948 season.
After his brief appearance with the Rangers, Kwong – nicknamed The China Clipper – went on to play several seasons with the Valleyfield Braves of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, drawing praise from a man who would go to become one of the all-time greatest players in NHL history.
“Larry made his wing men look good because he was a great passer. He was doing what a centre man is supposed to do,” said Jean Beliveau, who played in the league before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.
Kwong also played in England and Switzerland, where he also coached.
Kwong’s story was immortalized in a pair of films.
He was part of the documentary Lost Years, which had its world premier at the Towne Theatre in Vernon in 2011. Lost Years ventures into history to the sites of lost Chinatowns around the country, uncovering past injustices, such as the treatment of Chinese immigrant workers on Canada’s railways, and follows the reverberations to the present day.
The film features exclusive footage of Kwong, who fondly recalls his hometown, with memories of skating on the frozen road that is now Coldstream Avenue in what was then Vernon’s Chinatown.
Kwong’s father came to Canada in 1882, seeking fortune in the gold fields of Cherry Creek. Eventually settling in Vernon, he ran a grocery store from 1895 until his death in 1929, when Larry was only five. The second youngest of 15 siblings, Kwong eventually moved to Alberta in the mid-1940s in the midst of his trailblazing career.
Soon championed to have Kwong’s story told on a global level.
“I picked up on Larry Kwong’s story when I moved to Vernon from Ontario three years ago. I always had an interest in hockey and my grandfather, who was also a fan, told me about Larry,” said Soon in a 2011 interview with The Morning Star.
“When I looked into it, I was frustrated that there were hardly any tributes to him. He broke the colour barrier 10 years before the first black player came on the scene, but he was ignored and forgotten.”
Kwong was also the star of the 45-minute documentary The Shift: The Story of the China Clipper, which had its world debut at the Okanagan College Lecture Theatre in Vernon.
New York Rangers scout Ernie Gare Jr. of Vernon presented Kwong with a numbered and lettered New York jersey, courtesy of Ranger president and GM Glen Sather.
Kwong was twice featured on Rogers Sportnet’s Hometown Hockey broadcasts, once in 2017, when Hometown Hockey stopped in Vernon, and earlier this year when Hometown Hockey broadcast from Calgary.
Kwong was inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame at Kal Tire Place in 2011, and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.
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