Larry Kwong: An NHL Pioneer

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Larry Kwong, who was the first man of Chinese descent to play in the NHL, shared the ice with hockey greats like Jacques Plante during his career. (Harry Cabluck/AP)
Larry Kwong, the first man of Chinese descent to play in the NHL, shared the ice with hockey greats like Jacques Plante (above) while playing on farm-league teams in Canada. (Harry Cabluck/AP)

During the 1947-48 NHL season, Larry Kwong played in one game for the New York Rangers. More specifically, he played one shift in one game, but those few minutes on the ice made history. Kwong became the first man of Chinese decent to appear in the NHL. Reporter David Davis detailed Larry Kwong’s story in an article for the New York Times this week. Davis and Kwong joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: Larry, you were born in Canada in 1923 and grew up in Vernon, a town in British Columbia. Tell us how you first began playing hockey as a boy.

LK: Well, when winter would start to come we would head for the hills and try to find ponds which were frozen, and I would listen to Foster Hewitt every Saturday because he was broadcasting for [the] Toronto Maple Leafs. At that time we didn’t know anything about the Canadiens or any other team.

BL: David, while working on your story, what did you learn about the challenges that Larry and other people of Chinese heritage faced in Canada in the first half of the 20th century?

"It was quite a thrill for me to be up in the NHL. And I said to myself, I finally made it. But I was disappointed because they gave me one shift and that was it."

Larry Kwong, former NHL player

DD: A lot of Chinese immigrated to Canada in the 19th century. They were building railroads, but they were also chasing gold. In the early ‘20s, the Canadian government passed the Exclusion Act and basically stripped people of Chinese ancestry of their rights, voting rights, etc.

BL: Larry, I understand you were in the Canadian Army during World War II. That’s when a scout for the New York Rangers spotted you during an exhibition hockey game. Did you get a lot of attention when you started playing for the Rangers’ farm team – the Rovers – in New York?

LK: Yes, I would say so. When I [went] to visiting teams, I would be called different type of names, but I would just let it go, that’s all. The mayor of Chinatown came with two China doll girls from the China Doll nightclub, and they gave me the key to the Chinatown of New York.

BL: After the Rangers called you up from the minors, you made the trip for a game in Montreal against the Canadiens on March 13, 1948. Tell us about your memories of that game and the shift you played in the NHL.

LK: It was quite a thrill for me to be up in the NHL. And I said to myself, I finally made it. But I was disappointed because they gave me one shift and that was it.

BL: David, in your story you cite the Toronto Globe and Mail and the New York Times as some of the newspapers that included Larry in their hockey coverage while he was a player. Since he got attention then, did it surprise you to learn that his story was overlooked for many years?

DD: It did, and I don’t know if it was just because Larry only played the one game and the one shift or, you know, if it was just sort of lost to history.

BL: Larry, although you never did get into another NHL game, your hockey career lasted for a long time, many years, took you overseas to Europe, and I understand you faced future NHL greats like Jean Beliveau and Jacques Plante. I want you to tell me that you went right through the five hole on Jacques Plante.

[sidebar title="Honouring Bud Fowler, An African-American Baseball Pioneer"]Before Jackie Robinson, there was Bud Fowler. Fowler became the first African-American to play professional baseball in 1878.[/sidebar]

LK: Well, I played against Jacques Plante in senior amateur Montreal Royals. I got a couple of goals on him. I remember playing against Jean Beliveau, he was with the Quebec Aces. I thought he was a terrific hockey player.

BL: David, as you note, Larry became the first player of Chinese ancestry to appear in an NHL game less than a year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line and a decade before Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player. Looking back, how significant was Larry’s accomplishment?

DD: I think it’s very significant. Obviously it didn’t have the impact of a Jackie Robinson or anything like that. I think a lot of the impact of his career is also about perseverance. Beyond just breaking a barrier, I mean Larry’s whole life was about overcoming obstacles. I mean he’s the youngest of 15 kids. He’s born in an era when people of Chinese ancestry aren’t allowed to have full Civil Rights. He comes to the NHL when it’s an all white league, and only six teams, only about 100 players in the whole league. He overcomes all of that, and to this day he’s overcoming obstacles. He’s a double amputee, I mean he’s in the gym three times a week, and he has a full social life. That really in a sense is his legacy as much as breaking through the racial barrier of the era.

BL: Larry with this full schedule, I’ve got to wonder if you’ve still got time to follow hockey?

LK: I do. I watch on TV because a lot of these rinks have quite high steps, and if you don’t have a box, a private box, it’s hard for me to go to a game.

This segment aired on February 23, 2013.


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