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NHL (National Hockey League)

Larry Kwong, NHL trailblazer and Asian pioneer who battled racism, dies in Canada at 94

The son of Chinese immigrants, the diminutive right wing played for the New York Rangers, becoming the first player to break down ice hockey’s colour barrier

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 10:33pm

Larry Kwong, the pioneering ice hockey player who broke down colour barriers by becoming the first Chinese-Canadian to play in the National Hockey League, has died in Calgary. He was 94.

According to media reports, he died peacefully at home on March 15.

Born in Vernon, British Columbia on June 17, 1923, Kwong was the second youngest of 15 children, and was born Eng Kai Geong. The son of Chinese immigrants of Cantonese extraction, his father came to Canada in 1884 and eventually settled in Vernon, where he opened a grocery store.

Watch: My Home Town – Larry Kwong, first Asian in the NHL

Kwong picked up skating at the age of seven after begging his mother to buy him a pair a skates.

The skates were at first too big for him but he grew into him, developing his skills as an ice hockey player, dominating from junior to senior level and eventually becoming the first Asian-Canadian and first hockey player born in Vernon to play in the NHL.

Kwong played a single shift with the New York Rangers – just one minute of ice time – against the Montreal Canadiens on March 13, 1948.

The brief NHL stint came after he joined the New York Rovers, a Rangers farm team. He led the team in scoring in the 1947-1948 season. Diminutive in size but a powerful right wing, he later earned the nickname “China Clipper” and “King Kwong”.

As he didn’t have enough playing opportunities to prove his worth to team bosses, Kwong never played in an NHL game again.

“I didn’t get a real chance to show what I could do,” he remarked to The New York Times in 2013.

He later told the Multicultural History Society of Ontario in 2009: “Just a minute. So what can you do in a minute? Unless you’re a real magician, what can you do in a minute?”

Before his claim to fame, Kwong played with his hometown Hydrophones before moving up to the senior ranks at 18 with the Trail Smoke Eaters, who competed in the Alberta – British Columbia Hockey League and who had won the 1939 World Ice Hockey Championship. Kwong scored nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points in 29 games for the Trail Smoke Eaters between 1941 and 1942.

Kwong experienced racism from a young boy growing up in Vernon right up to adult life. As a young man, he was offered a job as a hotel bellboy while his teammates were given well-paid jobs at the local smelter.

“I made the team, but they wouldn’t give me a job because I was Chinese,” Kwong told The Globe and Mail.

But less than a year after Jackie Robinson shattered the baseball colour line, Kwong broke the barrier in hockey.

After his stint with Rangers, Kwong spent several seasons in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. He later played in England and Switzerland, where he also coached. Kwong was inducted into British Columbia’s sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

He was drafted into the Canadian army during the second world war. He was not assigned overseas but rather played in the Central Alberta Garrison Hockey League. He eventually settled in Calgary where he managed the Food Vale grocery stores with his brother. He later joined the Calgary Rotary Club, where his community-minded spirit came to the fore. He served the Calgary Rotary Club for many years and despite failing health, made his final appearance for the annual Larry Kwong Lunar New Year dinner in February.

Kwong picked up numerous awards for his community work, among them Calgary’s Asian Heritage Month Award in 2002.

Slowed down by a stroke suffered last year, Kwong died in his Calgary home and is survived by his daughter, Kristina. His family said a funeral will be held on Friday at First Alliance Church.

Additional reporting Associated Press