Larry Kwong, a Chinese-Canadian player who many believe was the first person of color to reach the National Hockey League, isn’t in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But his hockey jersey will be.
The Hall recently received a well-preserved 1942-43 Nanaimo Clippers jersey from Kwong, a diminutive scoring dynamo who made hockey history when he skated a single one-minute shift for the New York Rangers against the Montreal Canadiens during the 1947-48 season. He accomplished the feat 10 years before forward Willie O’Ree joined the Boston Bruins and became the NHL’s first black player, skating against the Habs, and seven years before Chicago Blackhawks forward Fred Sasaskamoose became the league’s first Native/First Nations player, breaking the barrier against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kwong, in strong voice at 90 years old, told me recently that it feels “wonderful” knowing that the jersey from his senior amateur team will hang in the Hall in Toronto and hopes that it will inspire more Chinese kids to lace up the skates, take up the game, and aim for the NHL.
“I hope it helps other Chinese players coming up,” said Kwong, who was nicknamed “King Kwong” and the “China Clipper” during his playing days. “When I first started, there was some discrimination and it was hard getting a job – I went to quite a few teams – and there was always some discrimination. I hope that this will start something, a ball rolling, and getting more Chinese boys in on the team.”
As thrilled as Kwong is of having a piece of his hockey legacy in the Hall, the Hall is overjoyed to have an artifact from Kwong’s lengthy playing and coaching career.
“The Larry Kwong Nanaimo Clippers game worn jersey is a great addition to our Hometown Hockey display,” said Phil Pritchard, a vice president and curator at the Hockey Hall of Fame and the white-gloved gentleman who’s the keeper of the Stanley Cup. “Nanaimo has a rich hockey tradition and to have a (jersey) from ‘King Kwong’ adds to the great legacy of the game.”
Kwong’s NHL moment was brief, but the British Columbia native cherishes it as a high point of his playing career.
“I enjoyed it because all my life, when I first started as a youngster, my goal was to play in the NHL,” he said. “At that time I started with the Trail
Smoke Eaters, another senior team, then I went to Nanaimo, and then I went to Vancouver. All my life I wanted to play in the NHL, and then I got that chance.”
The journey of Kwong’s jersey to the Hall of Fame was aided by a 10-year-old boy’s curiosity. Quinn Soon was working on a heritage fair project on the late Herb Carnegie, a black Canadian regarded as one of the best hockey players never to reach the NHL because of his skin color. Quinn interviewed Carnegie’s daughter, Bernice, and Kwong, who played against Carnegie in the Quebec League, for the project.
Quinn remembered unsuccessful attempts to get Carnegie inducted into the Hall of Fame and wondered whether the shrine could make a display to showcase items from Carnegie – and Kwong.
“He realized they would need some memorabilia,” said Chad Soon, Quinn’s father and an educator who has championed long overdue recognition for Kwong. “So he contacted Bernice Carnegie, who agreed to donate Herb’s skates and a bunch of articles and pics. Quinn and I decided to see if we could get Larry in, too. With Bernice’s and Larry’s support, Quinn called Craig Campbell (manager of the Hall’s Resource Centre and archives), who was extremely enthusiastic about the idea.”
Bernice Carnegie says she’s still talking with Hall officials about her father’s artifacts. She believes having items from Kwong, her dad, and other players of color in the Hall is important in order for hockey to visually tell an under-told story.
“There are so many people who think they know all about the sport, but they are not really informed about all aspects of the sport and how difficult it actually was for people who were not like everybody else to open those doors,” she told me recently. “I think that actually just having something there to say ‘Here is another part of that wonderful sport’ that people might actually be surprised to know that there were minorities that were good enough to have played there (in the NHL) but just didn’t have that chance.”
These days, Kwong is enjoying accolades. Powered by efforts by Chad Soon and some of his students, Kwong was inducted last September into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. And his jersey adds to the Hockey Hall of Fame’s collection of minority hockey artifacts – memorabilia that includes a game-used O’Ree stick from the 1960-61 season; Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr’s equipment from his stints with the Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues; and a stick and Washington Capitals jersey from Reggie Savage, a black player who was the first NHL player to score on a penalty shot in his first game. The Hall would love to have more, Pritchard said.
“The Hockey Hall of Fame is always looking for artifacts…equipment, original slides, video, etc.,” he said. “Let us know.”