Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New York Minute: A Larry Kwong Story

Willie O'Ree. Does that name ring a bell? He played for the Boston Bruins and made his NHL debut on Jan 18, 1958. He is the first African-American (well, Canadian) to play in the NHL and he is also referred to as the Jackie Robinson of hockey because many know of him as the man who broke the NHL's colour barrier. What if I told you this isn't true? What if I told you that there was another player who broke the colour barrier a full ten years earlier? Ladies and gentlemen, Larry Kwong.

It's rather surprising that Larry Kwong's story hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. I haven't even heard of it until a couple of years ago. I was talking to my buddy, Chad (who just happens to be a walking hockey encyclopedia), and the topic at hand was Asian hockey players. There's Richard Park, Jim Paek and Yutaka Fukufuji but that list pretty much ended there. There are also a few who are mixed, notably Paul Kariya, Devin Setoguchi and Jamie Storr but not too many of full Asian descent. So Chad asked if I've heard of Larry Kwong, the Chinese player who broke the NHL's colour barrier. I haven't and frankly, I was shocked to learn of this as I thought Willie O'Ree was. I got home, googled it and is indeed true.

With the Leafs having a week off, I had no idea what I was going to write about until Devin Setoguchi lit up the Rangers on Monday and it made me think of this. I decided to drop Chad a line to see if he would like to contribute to the blog and as always, he has came through for me again. Here's a piece Chad wrote for The Insider's Edge. It may be a bit long but I strongly encourage you to give it a read. It's a truly inspirational story about a man and his dream.

The Longest Shot: Retracing Larry Kwong’s Giant Strides

By Chad Soon

Larry Kwong’s dream must have seemed incredibly far-fetched. A child of the Great Depression, growing up in a hockey backwater, thousands of miles from the nearest NHL arena, Kwong was more than just a long shot to make the big league. No one from his hometown of Vernon, BC – no one from the Okanagan – had ever made it. On top of the geographic disadvantage was an even more daunting obstacle: the colour bar.

Kwong was only days old when the Canadian government marked Canada Day by trotting out the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” Chinese immigration was barred, even to the spouses and children of Canadian residents; and all Chinese-Canadians were required to register with the authorities. Voting rights were a distant dream. For nearly a quarter-century, before the act was repealed, Canada Day was also “Humiliation Day” in Chinatowns across the country.

In the context of such official, mainstream racism, one could say that Larry Kwong had a “Chinaman’s chance” of making it big.

“I did face discrimination,” states Kwong. “You always remember what happened when you were a kid. You go to a certain barber, and they wouldn’t cut your hair because you’re Chinese.”

Convincing his mother, a widow with fifteen children to support, to buy hockey gear was another tall order.

“She didn’t think too much of hockey. She came to see me play one game. She thought it was too rough, and she wouldn’t see another game. She said, ‘Why do you want to play hockey?’ I said, ‘Because I can earn some money,’ and I said, ‘I will build you a house with my hockey money.’”

Kwong did not want to consider the alternative: a life of hard labour on a BC farm. He had come to see hockey as his only chance for a better life.

“When I graduated from high school, I tried to get a job in Vernon. But, the Chinese couldn’t work for Canadian people. All the 500-600 Chinese were farmers. My brother and I had a truck to bring goods from the farms to the packing houses. Nobody would hire us as a clerk. Then, when I made the Trail Smoke Eaters, all the players worked up at the smelter. At first they told me there were no jobs. After, one of the directors told me that the ruling at Cominco was: no Chinese allowed to work there.”
In 1942, it appeared that Larry Kwong’s big break had arrived, when he received an invitation to the Chicago Black Hawks’ training camp.

“I was doing flips,” remembers Kwong. “That’s what I wanted.”

Kwong applied for documentation allowing him to follow his hockey dream in the States. He had been denied entry into the US before. A few years earlier, his midget hockey team was on its way to a game in Nelson, BC:

“The roads were bad, so we had to go through the States. But when the American border guard saw me, he said, ‘You can’t go.’ I had to take a train on the Canadian side by myself, and I met the team at the border. Another time, I went on a tennis trip to Vancouver, and again we had to go through the States. The same thing happened to me.”

In response to Kwong’s request, the Canadian government informed the NHL prospect that he could not leave the country, because he was of conscription age. Kwong was held back, despite the fact that the government had put a ban on Chinese conscription.

“That was a rude disappointment,” laments Kwong.

Two years later, in 1944, Canada instituted the draft for Chinese, who were needed to perform special operations in the Asia-Pacific theaters. Kwong was among the first Chinese-Canadians to be called up.

“We had basic training in Red Deer. Some of those boys went overseas and got killed. Luckily for me, they kept me to play hockey to entertain the troops.”

During the war, Kwong attacked opposition lines on an Army team with New York Ranger stars like the Colville brothers, Charlie Rayner, and “Sugar” Jim Henry. The Ranger brass took notice, securing his services for their farm club, the New York Rovers.

In 1946, before a Rovers game, Larry Kwong was presented with the Keys to New York’s Chinatown. The community had found a source of pride in this import hockey player, at a time when the predominant Chinese icon in Western pop culture was Charlie Chan – a fictional character portrayed by a white actor.
Kwong was now sporting a new nickname, which identified him, however ironically, with a fictional giant ape who had terrorized the Big Apple. For the Chinese fans, it must have been a thrill to watch “King” Kwong break out of his shackles, or, rather, bust a few racial stereotypes.

Still, Kwong downplays his impact on the city’s Chinese community.

“There were Chinese people that came to see me play. I don’t know that I was a hero or not. I think it was more curiosity than anything, because I was Chinese. They wanted to see me skate.”

The following year, Kwong led the Rovers in scoring, putting up more points (86 in 65 games) than any Rover had in close to a decade. Near the end of the season, an official with the New York Rangers located the small-town grocer’s son in Madison Square Garden. “King” Kwong was going to get his big chance.

“I was telling myself, ‘I finally made it.’ This is what I had dreamed about since I was a little kid.”

However, at the time, Kwong had more than just a hockey game on his mind. His mentor for the past two years was gravely ill.

“My coach with the Rovers, Fred Metcalfe, said he wished he had had a shot like mine. He thought I had one of the fastest releases. He had a heart attack during one of our games against Quebec. When I made the NHL team, the Rangers, I went to see him in the hospital, and he said to me, ‘Larry, they finally brought you up. You should’ve been up there a long time ago.’ That’s what he told me. And I trust his word, because he was one of my best coaches, along with Toe Blake.”

Kwong’s was no ordinary call-up; his promotion would make international headlines.

“I was very nervous, because we had lots of publicity on it – being the first Chinese to play in the NHL.”

On March 13, 1948, Larry Kwong suited up for the New York Rangers in the Montreal Forum. That night he broke the NHL's colour barrier.

More than sixty years have passed since Larry Kwong made hockey history, and he still has not come to terms with his achievement or with the crushing disappointment.

When asked about his NHL debut, his genial disposition drops; his face and frame tense. He struggles to find the words, which come deliberately, in a voice that is now quiet and constrained.

“I’m still not happy. It’s a very ticklish time with me – to play that short amount of time….”
That night in Montreal, Kwong would not be given a fair shot to prove himself. He was a spectator, warming the players’ bench, until coach Boucher finally called his name late in the third period. After one turn on the ice – a token shift – his NHL try-out was over. Kwong was sent back down to the farm team.

“I was very disappointed I didn’t get a better chance to prove myself.”

Larry Kwong’s anguish was compounded a few days later, when Fred Metcalfe, the coach who knew his star player belonged in the NHL, passed away.

During that season, 1947-48, four other Rover forwards received longer looks with the Rangers than Kwong, despite his being the team’s top scorer.

Kwong had seen enough.
“I immediately contacted Valleyfield, because we played against them and their manager, Mr. Vinet, had said, ‘Anytime you want a job, you give me a call. We want you here.’ As soon as I knew I wouldn’t get a chance with the Rangers, I phoned right away to Valleyfield and they gave me a better contract.”

The Valleyfield Braves’ investment in Larry Kwong would be repaid in spades, as he led the team to an Alexander Cup title, the Canadian major senior championship, in 1951. That season, Kwong was named the MVP of the Quebec League, which would launch future stars like Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, and Jacques Plante. Even so, Larry Kwong would not get another shot at the big league.

“When I won the Vimy (MVP) Trophy, our team photographer, Mr. Beauchamp, made a cartoon – he drew it himself. It was congratulations on winning the Vimy, and he had me in iron chains, saying that my adversaries wanted to see me tied up,” laughs Kwong.

Although “King” Kwong was ultimately prevented from realizing his great promise in his sport, he did make good on his promise to his mother. With the money he earned playing hockey, the youngest son built his mom a house.

Larry is now being considered for the BC Hockey Hall of Fame. The 2010 class will be announced in January.

I believe Chad has another follow up piece on the way and I will gladly post it once he has completed it.

In the mean time, join the Larry Kwong Appreciation Society

and check out his mini-documentary (Part 1) (Part 2)