He sat patiently on the bench, waiting for head coach Frank Boucher to call his name or tap him on the shoulder.
First period, there was no call, no tap. Same in the second period. The third period was dwindling away.
Then came history.
Boucher, head coach of the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers, told Larry Kwong to get out on the ice late in a game at the fabled Montreal Forum against the Canadiens. Kwong, a Chinese Canadian born and raised in Vernon, became the first player of Asian descent to play in the NHL.
His one-minute shift in that 3-2 loss to the Habs came 75 years ago today, March 13, 1948. It was his only shift in the NHL.
In the stands that night to witness history was fellow Vernonite, the late John Baumbrough.
“We were up in the bleachers,” said Baumbrough in a 2014 Morning Star interview. “I was playing on a junior hockey team in Quebec and they gave us free passes to the game but we had to go up to the standing-room-only bleachers. It was in the third period and I couldn’t believe it because they didn’t announce him at all. I looked down and geez, there was Larry. He looked so small.”
Born in Vernon in 1923, Kwong spent many hours of his youth skating and playing shinny at local outdoor rinks, including walking from his home in what was known as Chinatown (Coldstream Avenue and 33rd Street area), to Goose Lake in the Blue Jay subdivision above Swan Lake.
The five-foot-six forward helped the Vernon Hydrophones win provincial midget and juvenile hockey championships in 1939 and 1941, respectively.
Kwong’s play in senior hockey with the Trail Smoke Eaters caught the eye of New York Rangers scouts and he was signed to the New York Rovers, their farm team. In his first year in New York, he scored 19 goals and 37 points in 47 regular-season games, and seven goals and 10 points in nine playoff tilts.
In 1947-48, while Kwong was putting together an MVP season with the Rovers, averaging more than a point-per-game, the Rangers ran into to injury trouble and had to recall players on an emergency basis ahead of their game against the Montreal Canadiens in mid-March.
They summoned Kwong to Montreal for that 1948 contest.
He was sent back to the Rovers following his historic appearance, where he would finish the season with 86 points through 65 regular-season games, leading the team in scoring.
Kwong then joined the Valleyfield Braves in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que., the following season, where he would end up playing for the next seven years, a rival with Canadiens’ hall of famer Jean Beliveau,who starred in the league with the Quebec Aces.
The forward continued to open doors in hockey, heading over to Europe long before it was a normal path for North American players. He joined the Nottingham Panthers in 1957-58, scoring an incredible 55 goals in 55 games that year.
He moved to Switzerland after that season in Nottingham, where he once again made history with HC Ambrì-Piotta as a player-coach, becoming the first person of Asian descent to coach in a top European league. He helped to develop the sport in Europe, coaching five Swiss teams over 10 years and starring in exhibitions of hockey against the Soviet and Czechoslovakian national teams.
Kwong and his family moved back to Canada and settled in Calgary.
Vernon teacher and Kwong family friend Chad Soon has been spearheading a drive to get Kwong into the Hockey Hall of Fame. A petition at change.org has more than 8,600 signatures, and Soon is getting international help to have Kwong enshrined in Toronto. The deadline for the next hall of fame submissions is Wednesday, March 15.
“A lesser-known part of Larry’s story is that he helped develop and popularize hockey in Europe,” said Soon. “The Swiss Ice Hockey Federation is supporting Larry’s nomination, calling him a ‘great ambassador and builder of hockey.’”
Soon has had a pair of meetings with the New York Rangers and the NHL club has told him they will be doing something to honour Larry though nothing has been set as of yet.
Legendary Hall of Fame reporter Stan Fischler, who covered the Rangers for decades and now writes for nhl.com, penned a tribute to Kwong last week. In a Twitter note to Soon, Fischler champions for Kwong’s enshrinement.
“Larry belongs in the Hall of Fame,” said Fischler. “What bugs me is that I never heard a reason why the Rangers did not give him more of a chance. I watched Larry for two years. He was an ace.”
In January 2023, the NHL’s Calgary Flames honoured Kwong before the team’s Lunar New Year game against the Columbus Blue Jackets (who are coached by Vernon’s Brad Larsen). The Flames presented Kwong’s family with a Lunar New Year team jersey worn in warmups by the Flames.
Kwong has been the subjectof two documentaries, Lost Years, and The Shift, and Soon has written a junior biography of Kwong called The Longest Shot: How Larry Kwong Changed The Face of Hockey. Orca Books will publish Soon’s story later this year or early in 2024.
The federal government recognized Kwong and four other trail-blazing hockey players in December 2022, announcing the designation of Breaking Racial Barriers in the National Hockey League as an event of national historic significance under Parks Canada’s National Program of Historical Commemoration.
The designation honours the achievements of five hockey players – Kwong, Indigenous players Paul Jacobs, Henry (Elmer) Maracle and Fred Sasakamoose, and Willie O’Ree, hockey’s first black player. All five, at different points, broke through longstanding prejudice that prevented Chinese Canadian, Indigenous, black and other racialized players from playing in pro hockey.
Kwong died in 2018 at the age of 94. His 100th birthday would have been June 17, 2023.
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