First NHL player of Asian descent beat long odds

VICTORIA — Special to The Globe and Mail; tomhawthorn@gmail.com

The hockey stick Larry Kwong once held in his able hands has been replaced by a cane.

The legs on which he once dazzled opposing defenceman have been replaced by artificial limbs.

"They're pretty heavy," he said, "and they're tight."

The loss of a limb is never easy, the cruelty all the greater for a former athlete. Mr. Kwong once skittered on the ice like a doodlebug on skates, a slight, shifty forward whose well-being depended on his ability to avoid a bodycheck.

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The sportswriters called him King Kwong, a cheap pun and a subtle dig at a diminutive scorer who could stretch along the red goal line and still leave plenty of room for a puck to squirt in at either end.

In his playing days, he stood 5 foot 6 (in skates, on tiptoe), and weighed just 150 pounds (after a heavy meal).

Of course, he says, he is shorter now. The loss of both legs below the knee will do that.

He remembers when the doctor gave him the bad news. Poor circulation in the left leg - the one he had used for so many years to power sharp turns to the right - meant it had to go.

"I'm telling you, I cried like a baby," Mr. Kwong said. "That hit me so hard."

He spent 14 weeks recuperating in hospital. He returned the following year. The right leg had to go.

For the past two years, a man who played hockey in four countries and in three provinces and on two continents has been teaching himself to walk.

He vows to be using but a single cane by the end of the year. The goal he has set for himself is as simple as it is daunting. Mr. Kwong has beaten long odds all his life.

Sixty year ago, on March 13, 1948, in the cramped visitors dressing room at the old Montreal Forum, he slipped a blue sweater over his thin frame, the number 11 on its back, the letters RANGERS spilling across the chest.

Little Larry Kwong, who had been born in Vernon, B.C., one of 15 children, who fell in love with hockey by listening to the radio in the apartment above the family's grocery store, who, in fact, carried the name of the store - Kwong Hing Lung (Abundant Prosperity) - rather than the venerable family name of Eng, was about to make his National Hockey League debut.

He spent the entire first period at the end of the bench.

He spent the entire second period at the end of the bench.

He spent most of the third period at the end of the bench.

Finally, coach Frank Boucher gave the signal. Mr. Kwong leaped over the boards. His shift lasted about a minute. He returned to the bench.

The first player of Asian ancestry to skate in the National Hockey League had launched - and, though he did not yet know it, ended - his major league career.

He never got another chance, not even to sit on the bench.

Last weekend, he watched on television as Willie O'Ree was honoured on the 50th anniversary of his becoming the first black player in the NHL.

Mr. O'Ree endured sticks and elbows from his rivals, as well as taunts from opposing fans. His recognition is welcome and overdue.

"They're doing a lot for [minor leaguer Herb]Carnegie and O'Ree," Mr. Kwong said. "I guess they're in the limelight. There's lots of reporters down east. "I'm known here in Calgary, but not for my hockey. Only the old, old people remember me with the Trail Smoke Eaters."

He qualified for the Smokies prior to the 1941-42 season. The players were unpaid, though the great reward of making the team was a guaranteed job at the smelter that gave the team its name. As it turned out, there was no position for a player named Kwong.

"They wouldn't let me work. They didn't want Chinese."

The club found him a post as a hotel bellhop, a position not only servile but paying far less than the industrial wage to be had beneath the smokestack.

He then joined the Nanaimo Clippers, who lured him to Vancouver Island with the promise of a shipyard paycheque. "I was a labourer. It was a really tough job because it was cold as heck by the ocean. It was really, really cold. You freeze yourself all day and then you had to play hockey all night."

He enlisted in the army. Asked what he did during the war and he will reply that he "fought the battle of Wetaskiwin," the Alberta camp where the little corporal shot pucks, not bullets.

Another season at Trail, in which he helped win the Savage Cup as provincial champions, led to an invitation to a tryout camp for amateurs held in Winnipeg. The Rangers signed him. From dingy rinks in industrial towns, he graduated to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan as a prospect with the New York Rovers, a Rangers farm team.

After he was snubbed, he left the Rangers organization to sign with the Valleyfield Braves in Quebec.

The Braves were a talented team, winning a championship in 1950-51 under the tutelage of coach Toe Blake. Mr. Kwong won the Byng of Vimy trophy as most valuable player.

Mr. Kwong played for a season in England with the Nottingham Panthers, which led to a job as a playing coach in Switzerland, where his club played at an open-air arena in the Alps. He eventually joined his brother in operating the Food-Vale grocery store in Calgary.

At 84, his days are filled with exercise, lunches with cronies and events at the Rotary Club. He continues to work on his walking, a frustrating challenge for someone who was once so smooth on the ice.

He played 16 years of senior and minor pro hockey. Unlike a scoring record, his legacy as the first NHL player of Asian ancestry can never be broken, bettered or taken away. It can only be ignored.

As the 60th anniversary of his debut - and his swan song - nears, he has yet to hear from his old team the Rangers, nor from the Calgary Flames in the city in which he lives, nor from the Vancouver Canucks in the province of his birth and in which he got his start.

Like the long night when he waited expectantly on a bench at the Forum, he again waits for a call that may never come.

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