Brad Kwong, Dubuque Fighting Saints, Larry Kwong, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, United States Hockey League, Willie O'Ree
Larry Kwong made hockey history in a minute.
In one game, one shift, one minute on the ice with the New York Rangers on March 13, 1948, Kwong became the first person of color, the first player of Asian heritage, to skate in the National Hockey League.
That game was the sum of Kwong’s NHL career, but he left a lasting legacy on the game as seen by the number of minorities in hockey – on the ice, in the owner’s suite, behind the bench, and behind the mic – today.
Kwong passed away on March 15 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at the age of 94, two days after the 70th anniversary of his NHL debut.
“The man was just the biggest gentleman you’ll ever meet, so humble but so accomplished from the standpoint of hockey,” said Brad Kwong, no relation, a managing partner of the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League.
With his 60-second shift, Larry Kwong “created a shift in perception for minority people in Canada, and he had an impact in the (United) States as well,” said Chad Soon, a family friend who has campaigned for greater recognition for the high-scoring forward who was nicknamed “King Kwong” and the “China Clipper.”
1st NHL player of colour, Larry Kwong, dies at 94 https://t.co/Wobs0MbHq7 pic.twitter.com/s9Cq95TC31
— Hockey Night in Canada (@hockeynight) March 19, 2018
“Born in Canada but not being considered Canadian, growing up in a country that had officially racist laws that prevented Chinese people from coming, that prevented Chinese-Canadians from voting, to achieve the Canadian dream coming from those humble beginnings is something,” Soon told me. “Society may not have been ready for him given that he was given only that one minute, but he opened the door and moved society forward.”
Kwong was born in Vernon, British Columbia in 1923, the 14th of 15 children. The son of a grocery store owner, he was lured to hockey by Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play accounts of games on “Hockey Night in Canada” radio broadcasts.
He begged his parents for a pair of skates and eventually got a $19 pair of oversized CCM’s.
At 5-foot-6, Kwong developed into a speedy skater and a shifty center. He joined the Trail Smoke Eaters in 1941-42 after a successful midget hockey career. During World War II, he joined the Canadian army and mesmerized troops with his hockey skills.
His play also caught the attention of the Rangers. The team offered him a tryout in 1946. The audition earned Kwong a spot on the New York Rovers, the Rangers’ farm team in the old Eastern Hockey League.
Kwong became a scoring threat and a Rovers fan favorite, tallying 52 goals and 71 assists in 112 games.
His minor league performance, and a rash of injures on the Rangers, prompted the a promotion to the parent club. Wearing Rangers red, white and blue, Kwong faced the Montreal Canadiens on March 13, 1948.
Kwong sat through the first two periods, waiting Rangers Head Coach Frank Boucher to put him in the game. He got his chance near the end of the third period with the game tied at two.
“They got me out there and I did the best I could,” Kwong told me in 2015 for an article in “Legends,” the official program guide for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kwong was one minute and done for the game and the NHL. He never asked the Rangers why he didn’t get a longer look.
“Oh, I was disappointed that I didn’t play more. I just let it be,” he told me in 2015. “I always thought the coach knew what he was doing. Maybe he had orders from the top brass. I don’t know.”
Brad Kwong, whose family knew Larry Kwong, figures that the late player never asked why because he seldom dwelled on the negative.
“He was a very positive person, very optimistic,” Brad Kwong said. “Later in life, he lost both legs to poor circulation. Even then, he’d be visiting my parents house, laughing joking and everything – a man without two legs, but always optimistic. I think that was a part of his nature, growing up the way he did, a family with 15 kids, fighting for what he had, but just being optimistic and thankful for what he had, what he was able to do.”
Larry Kwong quit the Rangers after the 1947-48 season and joined the Valleyfield Braves of the Quebec Senior Hockey League.
He notched 164 goals and 220 assists in 347 QSHL regular season games from 1948-49 to 1952-53 and was named the league’s most valuable player in 1951.
Kwong tallied another 51 goals and 61 assists in 147 games with the Braves from from 1953-54 to 1955-56 when the team was in the Quebec Hockey League.
Kwong ended his North American playing career in 1956-57, a season before forward Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he joined the Boston Bruins.
Our #NYR family recently lost two former Blueshirts. We send our deepest condolences to the families and friends of Greg Polis and Larry Kwong. pic.twitter.com/5i5TnjLEOy
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) March 20, 2018
Kwong left the game in 1960-61 after playing for the Nottingham Panthers in England and HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland. He also coached in Switzerland for Ambri-Piotta and HC Lugano.
While O’Ree has been hailed as the “Jackie Robinson” of hockey, Soon and others feel that Kwong hasn’t been given sufficient due for his accomplishments in the game.
One of Kwong’s jerseys is on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame, but Brad Kwong believes that “King Kwong” should be in the hockey shrine in Toronto.
Former Mighty Ducks of Anaheim star forward Paul Karyia, a Canadian of Japanese descent, is currently the only player of Asian heritage in the Hall, inducted in November 2017.
“I look at what the Hockey Hall of Fame stands for and what it tries to honor and I think (Larry Kwong) has accomplished something that very few have,” Brad Kwong told me.
Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. Download the Color of Hockey podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.