Larry Kwong, Gifted Athlete Who Broke NHL’s Color Barrier, Dies at 94

Kwong, the first athlete of Asian heritage to play in an NHL game, battled racism and discrimination as he made a name for himself on the ice

Larry Kwong
Larry Kwong in the 1940s Public Domain

Larry Kwong’s stint as a player for the National Hockey League (NHL) lasted less than a minute, but marked a defining moment in hockey history. In 1948, Kwong became the first athlete of Asian heritage to skate for the NHL when he played a very brief shift for the New York Rangers in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. As Tom Hawthorne reports for the Globe and Mail, Kwong died on March 15 at the age of 94—just two days after the 70th anniversary of his first and only NHL game.

In recent years, Kwong gained new recognition as a hockey pioneer, but he harbored complex feelings about his short tenure with the NHL. A swift and skilled player who was forced to battle prejudice throughout his career, he had to contend with the fact that his major league legacy was prematurely stunted.

“I didn’t get a real chance to show what I can do,” as he put it in a 2013 interview, according to Richard Goldstein of the New York Times.

Kwong was born in Vernon, British Columbia, in 1923, and grew up at a time when Chinese-Canadians were barred from voting, Rachel Ward of CBC News writes. His mother, Loo Ying Tow, was a native of B.C. His father, Eng Shu Kwong, had immigrated to the country, and later brought over a second bride from China. Kwong was the 14th of 15 children in the family. His parents named him Eng Kai Geong, but according to Hawthorne of the Globe, the federal immigration department issued him an identity card bearing the name Lawrence Kwong.

As a child, Kwong loved listening to radio broadcasts of Canadian hockey and dreamed of joining the NHL. At the age of 16, he started playing for a local Vernon Hydrophones, and later joined a senior team in B.C. known as the Trail Smoke Eaters. Typically, players were compensated with a well-paying job at a smelter, but Kwong was instead sent to work as a bellhop at a hotel.

“I made the team, but they wouldn't give me a job because I was Chinese,” he once said, according to Hawthorne.

Kwong subsequently played for another B.C. team, the Nanaimo Clippers. In 1943, during the heat of WWII, he enlisted in the Canadian Army. Kwong was sent to a base in Alberta, where he played for the base’s hockey team, which was “engaged in a ferocious conflict” with players from Canadian air force and navy teams, writes Hawthorne.

After the war, Kwong was invited to try out for the New York Rangers and was signed to its farm team, the New York Rovers, in 1946. The Rangers and Rovers shared the ice at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and Kwong was once honored at the arena with a ceremony hosted by the unofficial mayor of Chinatown

Kwong was called up to the Rangers in 1948. On March 13 of that year, he sat on the bench throughout the first, second and most of the third periods of the Rangers' game against the Canadiens. When the game was nearly over, the Rangers’ coach put Kwong on the ice. He made one pass with the puck before he was summoned back to the bench.

“Some people ask me, ‘Was it because you’re Chinese?’” Kwong told Global News in 2011. “Maybe. I don’t know,” he said.

Though Kwong would never again play for the NHL, his hockey career continued throughout the 1950s. He joined a senior team in Quebec, and was named the team’s "Most Valuable Player" in 1951. He also played and coached hockey in England and Switzerland. According to Kwong’s obituary page, as a playing coach, he “helped develop European ice hockey” during his time spent overseas.

Kwong was a popular player who was given a number of nicknames, all of which referenced his heritage: “China Clipper,” “King Kwong,” “Chinese Puckster.” From the earliest days in his career, Kwong was keenly aware of the complex role race played in his public image.

“The fans like to see a Chinese player as a curiosity,” he told Alf Cottrell of the Vancouver Sun in 1944, according to Hawthorne. “That’s my good luck. But it has its disadvantages. 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.”

Decades after Kwong made NHL history, Chad Soon, a school teacher in Kwong’s native Vernon, began pushing for Kwong to receive official recognition for his contributions. Thanks to Soon’s efforts, Kwong was inducted into B.C.’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. A sweater that he wore while playing for B.C.’s Nanaimo Clippers in the 1940s now hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. And as recently as February of this year, the Vancouver Canucks honored Kwong during a pregame ceremony marking the Chinese New Year.

Kwong told Global News in 2011 that he hopes a new generation of hockey players will continue his legacy. “There’s not enough [athletes of Asian heritage] that are playing,” he said. “I hope there’s going to be more.”

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