By TOM HAWTHORN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
A man can live nearly a century and yet have his life's travails and triumphs reflected in a single minute of labour.
Larry Kwong, who has died at 94, skated for one shift in a National Hockey League game in 1948, an act seemingly of little consequence at the time that now symbolizes the breaking of a racial barrier in sport.
The fleet forward was returned to a minor-league club the day after his debut with the New York Rangers. He would not get another chance.
"How can you prove yourself in a minute on the ice?" Mr. Kwong asked in 2001, the answer to his question a long-held grievance. "Couldn't even get warmed up."
His great speed on ice earned him the nickname the China Clipper, while his diminutive stature - he stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 150 pounds - led sports writers to jokingly describe him as King Kwong. His ethnic heritage featured in nearly every profile. He was a "Chinese puckster" in English and "le petit Chinois" in French. One newspaper headline read: "China Clipper Kwong only hockey Orientalist."
What made him a novelty on the sports pages also made him a target at the arena.
"The fans like to see a Chinese player as a curiosity.
That's my good luck. But it has its disadvantages," he told Alf Cottrell of the Vancouver Sun in 1944. "There has always been a player or two trying to cut off my head just because I was Chinese. And the bigger the league the bigger the axe they use."
Skill and tenacity afforded him the opportunity to play in the NHL. That he felt he did not get a fair crack at a spot on a roster was not a surprise. At almost every stage of his hockey career, as in life, he faced discrimination.
He was born on June 17, 1923, in Vernon, a city in British Columbia's Okanagan region. His mother, Loo Ying Tow, had been born in Victoria. His father, Eng Shu Kwong, immigrated to Canada from a village outside Canton, China. (An immigration officer registered the new arrival by the given name Kwong instead of his venerable family name of Eng, or Ng.)
He panned for gold at Cherry Creek before buying a hardware store in Vernon, which he turned into the Kwong Hing Lung (Abundant Prosperity) dry goods and grocery store. With his money, he brought a second bride from China to Canada, paying her head tax. It was into this unconventional family that the 14th of what would be 15 children was born. He was named Eng Kai Geong at birth, but the identity card issued to his parents by the federal immigration department named him Lawrence Kwong.
His father died when the boy was 5. The family lived in a large apartment above the store at which they all took turns working. On winter evenings, the boy was enraptured by the voice of Foster Hewitt broadcasting hockey games from Maple Leaf Gardens. He dreamed, too, of some day playing for Toronto and begged his mother for skates. She relented, purchasing a pair much too large so they would not to be replaced for several years. The boy wore numerous socks and he used mail-order catalogues as shin pads for protection from bouncing pucks and wayward sticks.
The Kwong children played shinny on the street in front of the grocery and on a frozen watering hole several miles' trek through the woods called Mud Pond.
He was 16 when he played his first game of organized hockey with the Vernon Hydrophones. It was also the first time he had ever played indoors. The team won two provincial titles, success which earned him, in 1941, an invitation to move to the adjacent Kootenay region to join the famed Trail Smoke Eaters, a senior team that had won the world championship only two seasons earlier. He saw no future in his hometown, where barbers refused to cut his hair.
"You played hockey to make a living," Mr. Kwong once said. "I couldn't get a job in Vernon because I was Chinese. There was a lot of discrimination in those days against Chinese people, Greek people, Ukrainian people."
A spot on the Smoke Eaters roster was a coveted one because it usually brought with it a cushy and well-paying job at the smelter that gave the team its colourful nickname. "Everybody on the team was working at Cominco, up the hill at the smelter," he said. "I made the team, but they wouldn't give me a job because I was Chinese." Instead, the club arranged a job for him as a bellhop at the Crown Point Hotel, at which he boarded.
The following season, he moved to Vancouver Island where he built minesweepers in the shipyard by day and scored goals at the arena for the Nanaimo Clippers by night. In 1943, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, which assigned him to Red Deer, Alta., for basic training and a spot on the base's hockey team, which was engaged in a ferocious conflict with an air-force team from Edmonton and a navy team from Calgary. All three teams had players who had traded their hockey sweaters for military uniforms. Years later, when asked what he did in the war, Mr. Kwong quipped he had fought the Battle of Wetaskiwin, midway between Edmonton and Red Deer.
Another successful season with the Smoke Eaters earned Mr. Kwong an invitation to a tryout camp being held by the Rangers in Winnipeg. The Rangers signed him and 16 others to contracts. Mr. Kwong, the brightest of the prospects, was assigned to the New York Rovers, who shared Madison Square Garden in Manhattan with the Rangers. One night, Mr. Kwong was honoured at a ceremony at centre ice officiated by the unofficial mayor of the city's Chinatown, flanked by a pair of showgirls from a nightclub.
By his second season, Mr. Kwong was scoring better than a point a game. He chaffed as other, lesser teammates got a chance to skate for the Rangers. At last, a series of injuries led the parent club to call up Mr. Kwong to join the team in Montreal for a Saturday night game against the Canadiens.
In later years, the event faded from Mr. Kwong's memory, but in 2001, he gave this newspaper a detailed accounting of March 13, 1948. He remembered sitting uneasily in the visitors dressing room at the old Forum.
"Just being called up and all the hype and everything," he said. "I was pretty nervous." Just before it was time to go on the ice, new teammates filed past, tapping him on his shin pads with their sticks for good luck. Buddy O'Connor told him, "Do your best."
He sat at the end of the Rangers bench waiting for a nod from head coach Frank Boucher. He spent the entire first period on the bench, and then second. It was late in the third period when he finally got a chance. He had the puck briefly, made a pass and then just as quickly was back on the bench. He did not score a goal, or get an assist, or register a shot or a penalty. Although he did not yet know it, his NHL career was over. He played a game for the Rovers the very next day.
At the end of the season, Mr. Kwong signed to play senior hockey in Quebec with the Valleyfield Braves.
He was done with the Rangers and the NHL.
"I just knew I wouldn't get a chance," he said. "No sense in staying with them."
The player flourished in Valleyfield, scoring more than a point a game with 34 goals and a league-leading 51 assists in 60 games in 1950-51. He won the Byng of Vimy Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
"I would not trade Larry Kwong under any circumstances," said Valleyfield coach Toe Blake, who won the Stanley Cup as a player and would win several more behind the bench of the Canadiens.
A fan favourite, Mr. Kwong opened a popular eponymous restaurant serving Chinese and Canadian food across the street from City Hall.
After seven seasons in Valleyfield, he spent two with the Troy Bruins in Ohio before moving to England, where he was a playing coach for the Nottingham Panthers in 1957-58. He then took a job as a coach in Switzerland for several seasons, during which he also worked as a tennis professional.
He returned to Canada in the mid-sixties to join the family grocery business, which had since moved to Calgary and been named FoodVale. He retired in 1996.
In recent years, Chad Soon, a Vernon school teacher who had first learned of the player's exploits from his grandfather, launched a campaign to get the former player more recognition. In 2010, the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame created the Pioneer Award for Mr.
Kwong to acknowledge his trailblazing role. Mr. Kwong has been inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame in his hometown of Vernon (2011) and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver (2013).
In February, the NHL's Vancouver Canucks honoured Mr. Kwong with a pregame ceremony. The player was unable to attend and his daughter, flanked by his two granddaughters, dropped the puck at centre ice.
Mr. Kwong died at home in Calgary on March 15.
He leaves a daughter, Kristina Heintz; two granddaughters; and two sisters. He was predeceased by two wives.
His death came just two days after the 70th anniversary of the game in which Mr. Kwong became the first player of Asian ancestry to skate in the NHL.
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Jokingly referred to by some sports writers as 'King Kwong,' Larry Kwong was 16 when he played his first game of organized hockey with the Vernon Hydrophones, but saw no future in a hometown where barbers refused to cut his hair.
LUCAS OLENIUK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL