As a young hockey fan growing up in New York, the Rangers were easily my favorite hockey team. Not only are they a talented group on the ice, but they are a team that constantly gives back to the community, through their Garden of Dreams Foundation, their annual holiday toy drive and their equipment drives throughout the city. The Rangers organization could be described as a class-act, but their disregard for Larry Kwong both in the past and the present appalls me. Until recently, I had never heard of this man, and a quick Google search showed me why.
Hockey is a white man’s sport. In the NHL today, 93 percent of hockey players are white, not because the league is racist, but because of a variety of causes, such as cultural differences, accessibility to a rink and the costs associated with skates, lessons and equipment. The person who broke the color barrier in hockey is not nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson is for doing so in baseball. Former Boston Bruins Willie O’Ree is generally credited to be the first person to break the color barrier in hockey — doing so on Jan. 18, 1958. He would go on to play 44 more games for the Bruins, but despite his important place in history, he isn’t enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
While O’Ree gets the credit for breaking the color barrier in the NHL, this ignores a very important person: Larry Kwong. Born in Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, Kwong immediately faced hardship. His father died when Larry was 5, leaving the family business to his mother. Racism was also rampant in Canada, as the Chinese Immigration Act passed the year Kwong was born.
Like many Canadian children, Kwong begged his mother for skates. After refusing to buy them for him for a very long time, Kwong’s mother finally rewarded him with his first pair of skates, which were several sizes too big so that he could grow into them. His brothers threw water in the empty parking lot next to the family store to form an ice rink.
Kwong joined his first team when he was seven, and led the Vernon Hydrophones to the BC Midget Championship in 1939. Despite his ability as a hockey player, he frequently faced racism. In one instance, his teammates received high paying jobs, while he was only offered a low-paying job as a bellhop. His fortunes would soon reverse, as he received a contract to play with the New York Rangers highest minor league affiliate, the New York Rovers, after catching the eye of Rangers scout Al Ritchie.
Kwong’s time in the spotlight would soon come, or so he thought. On March 13, 1948, almost 10 years before Willie O’Ree would step the ice, Kwong would be called up to the Rangers because of another player’s injuries. Head coach Frank Boucher would bench Kwong for both the first and second periods of the game. In fact, his entire NHL career would be all of one minute during a single shift late in the third period.
Kwong didn’t have the same hype around him as Jeremy Lin did when Linsanity swept New York in 2012. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Kwong’s entire NHL career could be summed up in one line in The New York Times: “The Rangers used Larry Kwong, first Chinese player in the league, only sparingly.” Sparingly would be an overstatement.
It’s a shame that a man who did seemingly so little, but at the same time did so much, goes unrecognized for his historic accomplishments. The Vancouver Canucks plan on honoring Larry Kwong before a game on Feb. 16. As a serious Rangers fan, I can only hope that Kwong gets the recognition he deserves for the game he loves so much.