Brad Kwong has gone from the Ivy League to corn country for the love of hockey, adding to the game’s rich Asian history along the way.
Kwong, a defenseman who captained Harvard University’s hockey team in 1984-85, is part of the group that owns the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country. When Northern Lights, LLC purchased the team in 2009, Kwong became part of a growing number of people of color – many of them Asian – in hockey’s ownership ranks, from the junior leagues to the National Hockey League.
“I have the benefit of having some really good partners that helped me get along in this profession,” Kwong told me recently. “I don’t ever recall an encounter where I was compromised or biased because of my ethnicity. And that might be me just having the blinders on or being naïve to it. But I think this sport in particular, because I lived through it, and in business in general, if you prove that you have a certain acumen, drive, and initiative you can succeed in anything.”
Brad Kwong, center, congratulates on of his team’s players (Photo/Dubuque Fighting Saints).
Harvard crimson and business ties run deep through the Fighting Saints ownership: Kwong, Phillip Falcone, Northern Lights’s principal owner and part owner of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, and Peter Chiarelli, general manager of the Boston Bruins, played hockey together at Harvard in the 1980s. Mark Falcone, another Northern Lights managing partner and a Minnesota Wild board member, played hockey for the University of Denver hockey player. Phillip Falcone is chief investment officer of Harbinger Capital Partners, a Wall Street private hedge fund, and Kwong is a managing partner in the firm.
“Our experience at Harvard actually changed the courses of our lives,” Kwong said. “We all believed that hockey, most notably college hockey, changed the trajectory of our lives. So we wanted to give back to the sport and college hockey and obviously the USHL being the primary feeder of players to NCCA Division I hockey was a great platform to do that.”
The 50-year-old Kwong may have good partners assisting him in the hockey business, but he also learned a lesson or two from his dad. Norman “Normie” Kwong was a star running back Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But he was also part of the ownership group that bought the NHL’s Atlanta Flames and moved the team to Calgary in 1980.
When the Flames won the Stanley Cup in 1989, the elder Kwong became one of the few people whose names are etched on both the CFL’s Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup.
“He, of course, back in the 40s and 50s, experienced the racial stuff,” the younger Kwong said of his father, who also served as lieutenant governor of Alberta from 2005 to 2010. “He always just fought through it, never saw himself as different, and just kind of worked hard and achieved a lot, regardless of his race. He always instilled in my brothers and I to just do your best, work hard, and you’ll achieve the goals you set out for yourself.”
Kwong, front row, center, was captain of Harvard’s 1984-85 hockey team (Photo/Harvard University).
Brad and Norman Kwong aren’t the only family members with hockey ties. Graham Lee, Brad Kwong’s cousin, is owner and governor of the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League. Lee’s company, RG Properties, built and operates the 7,000-seat Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, the arena where the Royals play.
Lee and the Kwongs are part of a history of Asian ownership in hockey. The Tampa Bay Lightning began its NHL life under a Japanese ownership group. Shanghai-born and New York-raised Charles Wang, owns the New York Islanders, an NHL franchise that’s currently up for sale. Chicago-based businessman Horn Chen is a minority owner of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
The media-shy Chen once told The Chicago Sun-Times that he became interested in hockey when his son played in a youth tournament in Indianapolis. That interest launched Chen on a team-buying binge: He founded the Central Hockey League and owned the CHL’s Wichita Thunder, Topeka Tarantulas, Oklahoma City Blazers and Mississippi RiverKings. He also owned the International Hockey League’s Indianapolis Ice, the East Coast Hockey League’s Columbus Chill, the CFL’s Ottawa Rough Riders (briefly) and several minor league football, baseball, and basketball teams.
Winnipeg Jets forward Devin Setoguchi.
Asian-American and Asian-Canadians have had an impact on the ice as well. Forward Paul Kayria, who’s of Japanese descent, was the first hockey player of Asian descent to captain an NHL team when he was awarded the “C’ by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Defenseman Jim Paek, who’s of Korean heritage,won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s. Seoul-born right wing Richard Park enjoyed a long NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and the Islanders.
Asian players currently in the NHL include Winnipeg Jets forward Devin Setoguchi, who’s Japanese-Canadian, and Carolina Hurricanes forward Manny Malhotra, who’s Indo-Canadian.
Hockey has come a long way since Larry Kwong became the first Chinese-Canadian – and some historians argue the first person of color – to play in the NHL when he skated a single one-minute shift for the New York Rangers in a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum during the 1947-48 season. A decade later, in 1958, Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he skated for the Bruins, ironically, against the Canadiens.
Hockey has come a long way from the days when Larry Kwong, center, played (Photo/Chad Soon).
Larry Kwong, who was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame last September at age 90, isn’t related to Brad Kwong, the two men share a sort of six degrees of separation that causes Brad to chuckle when recalling an episode that happened while he was playing professional hockey in Europe post-Harvard undergrad.
“There was a time in San Moritz, a group of fans came down, said hello, and said they knew my father,” he said. “My father had a reasonable amount of fame in Canada, but I didn’t think it extended to Switzerland. Obviously, it didn’t. They meant Larry, who played hockey in Switzerland at one point in his career. When I was 8-9 years old, he had moved back to Calgary and given that my parents knew him, he offered to teach my older brother and I tennis.”
Brad Kwong believes he’ll have company in the owner’s club in the not-too-distant future as minority players currently in professional hockey get older and transition into the next phase of their careers.
“As the numbers increase you’re going to have more people like me who played the game, who want to stay part of the game, which is my primary motivation, and I would imagine they’d stay involve in some way whether it be coach, general manager, owner, business president, whatever,” he said. “The sport is a fascinating sport. And I think once you’ve been exposed to it, you’re going to get more and more people, regardless of their color, wanting to be a part of it.”