John Horan: The Beijing Olympics is a great opportunity to commemorate Larry Kwong, who broke the color barrier in the NHL

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On January 18, the Boston Bruins retired the jersey of the legendary Willie O’Ree, a Canadian who became the NHL’s first black player in 1958 while playing for the Bruins. With the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics making hockey news, it’s an opportunity to remember another NHL pioneer who, like O’Ree, was a trailblazer.

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In 1948, Canadian hockey star Larry Kwong, a Canadian born to Chinese immigrants, made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers, making him both the first non-white and first player of Asian descent in the NHL.

Born in Vernon in 1923, he was the second youngest of 15 children of Canton-area immigrants who arrived in Cherry Creek during the Gold Rush. Later, Kwong’s father opened a successful family grocery store in Vernon. Young Larry fell in love with hockey at an early age and played as much as he could on Vernon’s frozen ponds. One thing has been constant at all levels of his career: he was the best player on the team and led the team in goals.

The future NHL player faced severe discrimination during his youth and early adulthood. In fact, two weeks before its birth, Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, officially known as the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which would ban Chinese immigrants from entering the country for 24 years. Anti-Chinese sentiment was strong in BC and he was denied various jobs because of his race.

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Known throughout his career as the “China Clipper” or “King Kwong,” he got his first professional experience with the Trail Smoke Eaters, who won the 1938 Allan Cup with Kwong’s astute play. After serving in World War II, he returned to the provincial senior hockey league with the Smoke Eaters, leading in scoring and scoring the Savage Cup-winning goal. He was then signed by the New York Rangers and began playing with the minor league New York Rovers, who shared Madison Square Garden with the Rangers. He led the Rovers as a top scorer in his second season when he was called up to the Rangers to play the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal. Kwong sat on the bench until the last change and played just one minute, without a goal, without an assist and without a penalty. Unfortunately, it was his first and last NHL game.

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Kwong was Rovers’ best player and led them in points, but several less successful players were called up to Rangers before him, some of whom earned a place at the big club. It would be nearly 30 years before another player of Chinese descent stepped onto the ice in the NHL when Mike Wong played 22 games for the Detroit Red Wings in 1975-1976.

With the minor league New York Rovers sharing Madison Square Garden with the Rangers, Kwong was responsible for putting countless fans of Chinese descent in the seats to watch his home games while the Rovers superstar rose to fame in New York’s population became Chinatown.

Despite being a top scorer and MVP in minor leagues and senior leagues, Kwong never got another chance to play in the NHL. In 1958 in the Quebec Senior League, he was the league MVP, beating future NHL stars like Canadian hero Jean Beliveau. Frustrated at being constantly passed over for the NHL, he accepted an offer as a player/coach in England, scoring 55 goals in 55 games for the Nottingham Panthers and gaining promotion to the Swiss league.

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On February 17, 2018, just a month before he died in Calgary at the age of 94, the Vancouver Canucks paid tribute to the famous China Clipper on Chinese New Year. He could only participate via video – his daughter and two granddaughters proudly represented him in the ceremonial opening throw of the puck. Now would be a spectacular time to bring Larry Kwong’s compelling and amazing legacy to the fore – at both the Beijing and Canada Games – given the discrimination he faced and overcame, both on and was off the ice and made him an eternal Canadian hero.

John Horan is a public relations strategist at Cranbrook Strategies in Avon, Connecticut

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