As a teen in Vernon, BC, Larry Kwong had to beg his mother to let him keep playing the sport he loved. Hockey was too violent for her liking, and she simply could not see it as a worthwhile pursuit in the lean years of the Great Depression. Larry was less than enthused about the job prospects for Chinese Canadians he saw outside the rink. And so he chose the dream of so many other Canadian boys.
The NHL action that he religiously listened to was thousands of miles away from Vernon’s Chinatown. Only the well-connected Patrick brothers, Lynn and Muzz, had come out of BC to land in the big league. Compounding the near-impossible odds for Larry Kwong was the colour barrier. This was the era of Chinese Exclusion. He could not get a haircut at the local barbershop.
A tearful promise to his mother then: “I will buy you a house with my hockey money.” With that, Loo Ying Tow, a widow with fifteen children to support, let her youngest son carve out his own path.
In BC hockey towns, fans came to see the speedy puck carrier known as “The China Clipper.” A prodigious scorer, Kwong powered his midget and juvenile teams to provincial titles. At 18, he was signed by the world-famous Trail Smoke Eaters. Trail’s smoke-belching smelter was not as accepting: “No Chinese allowed.” While his teammates worked high-paying jobs at Cominco, Kwong was employed as a hotel bellhop.
Drafted by the Canadian Army in 1944, he turned heads in the Alberta Garrison League. After the war, New York Rangers GM Lester Patrick scouted Kwong and was impressed. With a new contract to start with the Rangers’ farm team, Kwong made good on his promise to his mother and built her a house in Calgary.
With the New York Rovers, “King” Kwong was a fan favourite at Madison Square Garden, where he was presented with the Keys to New York’s Chinatown in 1946. The next season, the Rovers’ leading scorer watched as player after player was promoted to big league. When the big club finally called, coach Fred Metcalfe confided: “Larry, you should’ve been up there a long time ago.”
On March 13, 1948, Larry Kwong suited up for the Rangers at the Montreal Forum. Less than a year after Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, Larry Kwong broke hockey’s colour barrier. But, after a token shift, the door was again shut to Kwong and he was sent back down to the farm. “I was very disappointed I didn’t get a better chance to prove myself,” Kwong lamented.
“There was no justice for Larry Kwong,” maintained Stan Fischler in The New York Times. “He deserved better.”
Kwong went on to become a legend in the Quebec Senior League, competing against up-and-coming greats such as Jean Béliveau, Dickie Moore, and Jacques Plante. In 1951 Kwong took MVP honours and led the Valleyfield Braves to a Canadian championship. He later broke barriers in the top British and Swiss leagues as a player and a coach.
“He was a very smooth player,” remembered Jean Béliveau, “very skilled, with a beautiful style.” Dickie Moore agreed: “Larry was a heck of a hockey player. He was a good skater, a good puck handler. He could score goals. What more do they want?”
In 1972 Kwong returned to Calgary with his wife Audrey and daughter Kristina to manage Food-Vale Supermarket. Also active for decades in the Rotary Club, Kwong was honoured in 2002 with the Asian Heritage Month Award as “a role model for Chinese Canadians and Calgarians.” The hockey trailblazer was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016.