Hockey was in Larry Kwong’s blood from as long as he can remember.
When Kwong was a young boy growing up in Vernon, in the early winter he and his friends climbed up into the hills and looked for frozen ponds to play shinny on. Later, he listened to Foster Hewitt on the radio and dreamed of hearing his name called amongst those of his heroes battling at cathedrals of hockey like the Montreal Forum.
Overcoming the racial discrimination of the time, one day that undersized, determined young boy from the Okanagan would be among them as the first Asian-Canadian to play in the National Hockey League. Today, he remains one of only a handful of Asian-Canadians whose skates have carved NHL ice.
Kwong’s career began with the Vernon Hydrophones, where as the team’s star player he won the 1939 BC midget championship and 1941 BC juvenile championship.
Drafted into the army in 1944, hockey probably saved his life. Stationed at Wetaskiwin, many of his buddies shipped out and never returned. Kwong was instructed to stay and play hockey to entertain the troops alongside NHLers Neil Colville and Sugar Jim Henry.
After the war, Kwong played two seasons with the Trail Smoke Eaters, powering them to the 1946 Savage Cup, emblematic of BC Senior A champions. Promised a good job like the rest of the players, the town’s smelter refused to employ him because he was Chinese. He was given a bellhop job at the Crown Point Hotel instead.
His strong play with Trail caught the attention of a New York Rangers scout who invited him to try-out with the NHL club. The Rangers liked what they saw of the 5’6” 145-lb center and assigned him to their top farm team in the Eastern Hockey League, the New York Rovers, who also played in Madison Square Garden.
What Kwong lacked in size, he made up for in sizzling speed and slippery stickhandling. He quickly became the toast of New York’s Chinatown. Before one Rovers game, Kwong, by this point nicknamed “The China Clipper” and “King Kwong,” was honoured at center ice by Chinatown’s unofficial mayor Shavey Lee and two showgirls from the China Doll nightclub.
On March 13, 1948, Kwong finally got his chance at the NHL, taking to the ice for the Rangers at Montreal’s revered Forum against the Canadiens led by ‘Rocket’ Richard. Rangers coach Frank Boucher held Kwong on the bench until the third period of the one-goal game, when, raring to go, he finally hit the ice for a single shift and made history. Months before Jackie Robinson and years before Willie O’Ree, Kwong broke the NHL’s colour barrier. He also stands as the first player from the Okanagan to reach the NHL and only the fourth born-and-raised in BC to crack an NHL line-up.
Although never again given the opportunity to play at the game’s highest level, he later established himself as one of the Quebec Senior professional league’s top players over an eight-year period, battling a young Jean Beliveau for the league scoring title, while leading the Valleyfield Braves to the Canadian senior championship and winning the league’s MVP award in 1951.
Kwong later played for the Nottingham Panthers in England scoring 55 goals in 55 games. He moved on to Ambri Piotta in Switzerland, where he played and coached for fifteen years before returning home.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.