February 16, 2011

King Kwong: The China Clipper

As a child, Larry Kwong shared the same dream as most other proud Canadian boys living in the small town of Vernon, British Columbia - to play hockey. He'd play every day as a child, dreaming of playing in the National Hockey League. And Larry was one of the lucky few who were able to one day play in the NHL - mind you it was just for one game.

The one thing that separated Larry from every other hockey loving Canadian was the fact that he was Asian. In fact, Larry Kwong was the very first person of Asian descent to appear in the NHL.

Larry (birth name was Eng Kai Geong) lost his father when he was just 5, and his mother was not supportive of his hockey hobby. However she did allow him to play as he his reward for helping out with the raising of his 14 siblings.  He would go on to play for several local hockey teams - Nanaimo, Trail, Vancouver, even Red Deer, Alberta - but always remained close to home to help his mother.

But that all changed in 1946. A year after returning from military service, Larry was summoned to the bright lights of the big city of New York. The NHL Rangers at the time operated an EHL farm team out of the Madison Square Gardens called the Rovers. Larry was brought into help out that team, and he did an admirable job, scoring 32 goals in 64 games over two seasons in the EHL.

Moving from small town Canada to New York City was quite an adjustment for "The China Clipper."

"Don't forget, I was a young kid from Vernon, British Columbia. I think the town had a population of about 5000 people. Just coming to New York was something," he said.

During the 1947-48 season injuries started taking their toll on the Rangers lineup, and call-ups from the minor league team were frequent. Larry was red hot in the minors and the Rangers took the opportunity to market "King Kwong" as a gate attraction.

Though Kwong was used to playing in the Madison Square Garden, he described his only NHL appearance there as "overwhelming." He wasn't used to the full house of spectators that was almost 4 times as many people as the population of his hometown, and there was much media hullabaloo surrounding his Chinese heritage.

Canada's discrimination against the Chinese in those days is a bad secret that is tried to kept swept under the rug. He had trouble travelling with teams let along finding a barber or finding a job. When he played for the Trail Smoke Eaters, all other players worked at high paying jobs at the local smelter that owned the team. A job was arranged for Kwong, but no at the smelter but rather as a bellhop at a local hotel.

"Being Chinese, you were watched all the time. In those days, where I came from, you were confronted with discrimination. Chinese people were not hired by people to work. It was that kind of discrimination. I felt I had to try to do my best to show everyone we were just as good as them."

Kwong did just that by appearing in the big leagues, though his appearance was short. Kwong doesn't have a great recollection of the game, calling it a blur. He knew it was against the Montreal Canadiens but he couldn't tell a recent magazine reporter the score or the details of the game.

Kwong was sent back to the New York Rovers. The whole team quickly left the EHL and joined the QSHL. Larry would go on to become a top player in the QSHL, with the Valleyfield Braves. In fact in 1951 Kwong was named as the league's MVP.

Kwong played in the Q until late in his career when he would end up toiling in the IHL and EOHL before spending a season over in Britain - where no doubt they made a big deal about the Chinaman hockey player.

Hall of Fame goaltender Chuck Rayner remembered Kwong and described him as having "good skating skills and pretty good stick handling skills. He always gave it that old college try."

And by doing so, Larry Kwong made history.

Click here for links and multimedia concerning Larry "King" Kwong.


Anonymous said...

Another great story about a great man in hockey history.
Thanx for letting a link to know him better!

Anonymous said...

Agreed, great article..thanks for honoring Larry for his impressive accomplishments. Well deserved and an his story needs to be documented. A true hero from the past!!!