A pioneer in the truest sense, Larry Kwong (1923 – 2018) was not only the first NHL player of Asian descent, but also the first NHL player of colour when he stepped on the ice at the Montreal Forum for the New York Rangers in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on March 13, 1948.
Kwong was born in Vernon, British Columbia to a second-generation Chinese-Canadian mother and a father who immigrated from Guangzhou in southern China. He grew up with 14 siblings, all of whom would help in the grocery store their family owned, Kwong Hing Lung. He starred for the local Vernon Hydrophones junior team, helping them win the provincial junior title in 1941.
Kwong then joined the senior-level Trail Smoke Eaters. Due to his Chinese heritage, he was barred from joining the rest of the players who were employed at a smelter, and instead was a bellboy at a local hotel. He later played for the Nanaimo Clippers before enlisting in the Second World War. Du where he rose to the rank of Corporal and was assigned to army bases in Red Deer and Wetaskiwin, Alberta, where he played on the local hockey team, the Red Deer Wheelers.
After being discharged, Kwong returned to Trail Smoke, scoring over a point-per-game as the team won the Savage Cup as the top senior hockey team in British Columbia. Leading the team in scoring in the final, Kwong was recruited by the New York Rangers and was signed to their top farm team, the New York Rovers.
Kwong excelled with the Rovers, leading the team in scoring in the 1947-48 season season with 86 points in 65 games. This resulted in his record-setting callup, although not before a few of his less-accomplished teammates. In the Original Six era, it was exponentially harder to make a NHL roster than it is today, and the fact he was even called up all despite the discrimination and challenges he faced was a testament to his playing ability.
“When I had a chance to become a Ranger I was really excited…I said to myself: ‘That’s what I wanted to be since I was a young boy. I wanted to play in the NHL.’ ”Larry Kwong, 2013 to The New York Times
In the March 13, 1948 game against Montreal, Kwong played just a single shift at the end of the third period, lasting around a minute. In a interview with Global News in 2001, Kwong said, “Some people ask me, ‘Was it because you’re Chinese?’ Maybe. I don’t know…I didn’t get a real chance to show what I can do.”
After leaving the Rangers organization after the 1948 season, Kwong spent 8 years in the Quebec Senior League, primarily for the Valleyfield Braves. In 1951, Kwong was named MVP in 1951 and lead his team to the Alexander Cup, as the Braves won the Canadian senior championship.
Playing against future NHL stars, Kwong averaged over a point-per-game, finishing his career in the Quebec senior league with 384 points in 347 games. After a brief stint with the Trois-Rivières Lions in 1955, he then played parts of two seasons with the Troy Bruins in the International Hockey League, a minor league senior circuit, and the Cornwall Chevies in the Ontario senior league.
Kwong finished his career as a player-coach in Europe with the Nottingham Panthers in England and HC Ambrì-Piotta in Switzerland, retiring in 1959. In his retirement, he coached both hockey and tennis in Switzerland before returning to Canada in 1972 to run a supermarket chain in Calgary.
Largely pushed to the margins of history for most of his life, Kwong finally started being recognized for his tremendous accomplishments in the 21st century. Kwong was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016.
“There’s not enough [athletes of Asian heritage] that are playing..I hope there’s going to be more.”Larry Kwong, 2011 to Global News