Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A hockey trailblazer emerges from obscurity

Larry Kwong, the China Clipper, played for the New York Rovers before being called up to the parent New York Rangers. BELOW: Larry Kwong met former Vancouver Canucks captain Trevor Linden at a recent ceremony at Penticton, B.C. Photograph courtesy Zoe Soon.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 4, 2010


After he retired from hockey, Larry Kwong raised a family and built a business in Calgary.

He rarely spoke about his exploits on the ice, in part because few ever asked.

He had played but a single game in the National Hockey League, his turn on the ice so brief as to seem more a dream with each passing year.

He did not make a fuss over being ignored.

Time passed. His children grew up, had children of their own. He mourned one wife, then a second, the seeming blessing of a long life cursed by the loss of those you love.

A fine athlete who played professional hockey for 12 seasons in four countries and later became a tennis instructor, he came to be betrayed by his own body.

Diabetes claimed his left leg. A year later, he lost his right. An athlete whose dipsy-doodles on the ice once caused grief for defencemen and goaltenders now wore artificial legs, needing crutches, or a wheelchair, to move from room to room in his own apartment.

He once confessed to me a wish to be done with the rigors of living. He did not seriously contemplate the end, though, as he felt a duty to his family, especially his grandchildren, to be a part of their lives.

Mr. Kwong is 87 now, slowed by damnable infirmity, but still sharp of mind and blessed with a dry sense of humour. He has needed it.

Chad Soon, a 38-year-old elementary school teacher in Vernon, is campaigning to gain for the old player long overdue recognition. Mr. Kwong broke the colour barrier in the NHL as the first player of Asian descent to skate in the league.

Why do so few know his story?

“Here’s a guy raised not to speak out. Not to draw attention to himself. To be seen and not be heard. Sort of the traditional Chinese upbringing,” Mr. Soon said.

Mr. Soon, a third-generation Canadian whose Chinese side of the family has been in this country longer than his British side, first learned of Mr. Kwong from his grandfather, a contemporary who had followed the exploits of a player known as the China Clipper.

When moving cross-Canada to take a job in Mr. Kwong’s hometown, Mr. Soon made a pilgrimage to the player’s home, where he heard his life story and examined his hockey memorabilia. It was a moment never to be forgotten.

“People have never heard of him,” he said. “Such a compelling story. So deserving of recognition.

“I became determined to do what I could to get him some attention,” he said.

Mr. Kwong was the 14th of 15 children born to an immigrant grocer with the venerable name Eng. The family became known as Kwong from their grocery store Kwong Hing Lung (Abundant Prosperity). He lost his father at age five. Like so many boys, he spent cold winter evenings during the Depression listening to Foster Hewitt broadcast hockey games on the radio.

He played the game himself on borrowed skates with makeshift equipment on the frozen ponds of the Okanagan. From so humble a beginning, his great skill as a skater and sharpshooter earned him a spot with the Smoke Eaters in Trail, where he was barred from taking a well-paying job at the smelter like his teammates because of his ethnic heritage. Instead, he worked as a bellboy, a servile job. He played more senior hockey in Nanaimo and Vancouver before enlisting in the army during the Second World War. In 1946, at age 23, the fleet forward joined the New York Rovers, an amateur team that played at Madison Square Garden.

The Manhattan sportswriters called him King Kwong, a teasing nickname for a man who stood just 5-foot-6, weighed just 150 pounds.

He finally got a call up by the parent New York Rangers for a game at the Montreal Forum. Near the end of the game, he was finally allowed on the ice for the briefest of shifts. His career was limited to a New York minute and he was never again to be given the opportunity.

After the snub, he signed with the Valleyfield Braves, where he was a top scorer and a most-valuable player in the senior Quebec league. He later played in England and Switzerland, where he also coached, before returning to Canada, where he built a grocery business in Calgary and lived in anonymity, his trailblazing forgotten, or ignored.

That anonymity is coming to a happy end.

Two years ago, Mr. Kwong and his daughter traveled to Vernon to speak to Mr. Soon’s Grades 5 and 6 class at Mission Hill Elementary. The walls of the classroom were lined by the pupils’ posters.

On the same visit, Mr. Kwong was pushed onto the ice before a Vernon Vipers junior hockey game to drop the puck for a ceremonial opening face-off. Mr. Soon remembers the crowd offering polite applause until the public-address announcer introduced him as the first player from the Okanagan to play in the NHL. Mr. Kwong received a standing ovation lasting more than two minutes.

More recently, the province’s hockey establishment, as well as local politicians, gathered in Penticton for an induction dinner for the new members of the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame. A special pioneer award was presented to Mr. Kwong.

Afterwards, in a column for his constituents, Stockwell Day (C — Okanagan Coquihalla) confessed he joined many in attendance in never having heard of the player.

“He had truly blazed the way and taken the hits so that my grandkids and yours will never have to face the painful barriers that kept him from every young kid’s dream,” Mr. Day wrote.

Many came by to pay tribute, including former Vancouver Canucks captain Trevor Linden.

Now, Mr. Soon is preparing a submission to be presented to the selection board of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

As well, the irrepressible Todd Wong, who, as Toddish McWong, marries Robbie Burns Day with Chinese New Year in a celebration he calls Gung Haggis Fat Choy, is seeking an Order of British Columbia for Mr. Kwong.

All these years later, Mr. Kwong is at last receiving his due.

He has also come to the realization that perhaps he was a hero, just like the schoolchildren insist. Not that you’ll ever hear him say that.