Last week, the first Asian Canadian to play in the NHL was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
On March 13, 1948, Larry Kwong was called up by the New York Rangers to play against the Montreal Canadiens — the dream for so many Canadian parents and young hockey players. Although many considered it a publicity stunt, it was not entirely token; Kwong was the leading scorer for the minor-league New York Rovers. If you’ve never heard of him, that’s because he only played for one shift late in the third period. In that moment, the Chinese Canadian kid from Vernon, B.C. made NHL history as the first person of Asian descent — and the first person of colour — to play in the NHL. He never played in another pro game again.
Now 90, Larry Kwong has been immortalized for his pioneering determination to overcome racism and the odds:
After playing the 1945-46 season back in Trail, he was signed by the Rangers to play for their minor-league team, the New York Rovers.
Before a home game with the Rovers, the 5-foot-6, 145-pound Kwong, nicknamed King Kwong by the New York media, was feted at centre ice by the unofficial mayor of New York’s Chinatown and two showgirls from the China Doll nightclub. Late in the 1947-48 season, a campaign in which he collected 33 goals and 86 points in 65 games for the Rovers, Kwong was called up by the injury-plagued Rangers for a March 13 game against the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.
‘It is what I had dreamed about since I was a boy, to play in the NHL.’
He sat on the bench, however, for the first two periods and got only the one shift in the third period. Still, his appearance made headlines across Canada.
You have to live in a hockey city in Canada to get the significance of this. It’s hard to explain how big of a deal playing in the NHL is for Canadians. Larry Kwong is essentially a Canadian Jeremy Lin. Or could have been—had he been given a chance to play. Canada was a different place then; so was hockey. Since there were only six teams in the league, made up of 14-players each, countless talented minor leaguers never got the call.
What many hockey families will know is that this honour isn’t just about Larry Kwong, but about his whole family. Hockey requires parents to give an incredible amount of dedication and sacrifice, and it is one of the most expensive sports to play, even at the youngest levels. Larry’s parents would have had to play a significant role if he was to get into the minors.
What many families in BC will also know is that it is a province with some of the most racist history in Canada. Earlier this week, the City of Vancouver apologized for the motion that triggered the forced confinement of Japanese Canadians in 1942. Even after the war had ended, it was still perfectly acceptable to be openly racist in Canadian society. It’s hard to imagine what Kwong must have endured in hostile locker rooms. With that said, this honour should also be shared with those in Trail and Vernon who supported Kwong’s dream, in a time when racial discrimination towards Chinese Canadians (even by the government) was blatantly overt.
I have some mixed emotions about Kwong’s induction. On the one hand, I am elated that this recognition has finally happened. It means a lot to British Columbians. Vernon teacher Chad Soon, who pushed for the induction, makes British Columbians proud. Of course, what saddens me is that Kwong never got a chance to play in the NHL again. That happens to a lot of players, I know. I’m not saying that it was unfair, just disappointing.
There are more hockey players of colour today. But let’s face it, the image of a visibly-Asian hockey player in a Rangers uniform still challenges most people’s unconscious expectation of what hockey players look like. Perhaps we should dedicate this coming Asian Heritage Month to Kwong?
I hope Kwong’s recognition resonates with all Asian Canadians and hockey fans alike. Personally, I would love to see him immortalized in pop culture as an action figure.