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Larry Kwong, the youngest son of a small-town grocer, was a small man with a big dream -- to play hockey with the best.

Kwong worked his way through the tough minor leagues for five seasons before he got his break.

On March 13, 1948, he sat in the visitors dressing room at the old Montreal Forum, donning the No. 11 sweater of the New York Rangers.

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He was an oddity, a sideshow attraction in his sport.

"China Clipper Kwong Only Hockey Orientalist," one newspaper headline read. "China, mystic land of shuffling feet and pigtails . . . " the story began.

When the "Chinese puckster," as he was invariably called, was finally promoted to the Rangers that March, every paper on the National Hockey League circuit ran a story.

A rookie had enough worries about his debut without the extra attention to his ancestry.

"Just being called up and all the hype and everything," Kwong recalled, "I was pretty nervous."

On that Saturday night, his new teammates tapped him on the shin pads with their sticks for good luck. Buddy O'Connor, who would win the Hart and Lady Byng trophies that season, told him, "Do your best."

Kwong never got the chance. What happened that night bothers him still. Only now, at age 78, has he come to appreciate what he accomplished on the ice.

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Before Paul Kariya became an NHL superstar, before a goalie such as Dusty Imoo could make a living playing pro hockey in the minors, before Vicky Sunohara skated onto the roster of Canada's national team and Julie Chu earned a spot on the U.S. team, Kwong became the first player of Asian ancestry to crack the NHL.

Fifty-three years later, he is finally earning recognition as a pioneer.

He had dreamed of playing in the NHL since he was a boy listening to radio broadcasts in an apartment above the family's grocery in Vernon, B.C.

The Kwong Hing Lung (Abundant Prosperity) general store was a popular place, crowded not only with shoppers but with the storeowner's children. Thirteen were on hand to greet the arrival of what would be the final son on June 17, 1923. (One more girl was to come.) The boy was named Eng Kai Geong.

The venerable family name Eng was rarely used. All of Vernon knew the grocery family as the Kwongs, after their store. The baby grew up as Larry Kwong.

His father had left a village near Canton to work on the railway in British Columbia in 1885. He later panned for gold. When the ore was exhausted, he walked over the Monashee Mountains and settled in Vernon. He opened the grocery and married a young woman from Victoria.

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Larry was only five when his father died. His mother finally gave in to her son's tearful pleading by ordering a pair of skates. "In those days, we didn't have enough money for hockey gloves or shin pads," Kwong said. Mail-order catalogues offered the only protection from bouncing pucks and wayward sticks.

The neighbourhood boys hiked six miles into the backwoods to a place called Mud Pond, where shinny games would last as long as the sun was in the sky.

The favourite team in the Okanagan was the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose feats were described by Foster Hewitt every Saturday night at supper time.

Larry starred on his midget team, which won the provincial title. A poor student, he had already decided to play professional hockey. At the time, the chances of a B.C.-born player making the NHL were minimal, even without the added handicap of being a pintsize Chinese grocer's son.

Kwong felt he had little choice but to try for the NHL. He was unable to find work in his hometown, where barbers refused to cut Chinese hair.

"You played hockey to make a living," he said. "I couldn't get a job in Vernon because I was Chinese. There was a lot of discrimination in those days against Chinese people, Greek people, Ukrainian people."

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In 1941, a team in Trail, B.C., asked the 18-year-old right winger to a tryout camp. It was a coveted invitation. The Smoke Eaters had an arrangement that the players would work for Cominco, whose smelter gave rise to the colourful nickname.

"Everybody on the team was working at Cominco, up the hill at the smelter," Kwong said.

"I made the team, but they wouldn't give me a job because I was Chinese."

His father had lived in Canada for 43 years until his death and Kwong had been born here, yet he had few rights of citizenship. The right to vote would not be granted his people for another six years.

The Smoke Eaters found him a job at the Crown Point Hotel, where he ate for free in the restaurant and worked as a bellhop.

Kwong was a speedy skater and needed to be for his own survival. At only 5 foot 6, 150 pounds, he was a Theo Fleury-size target for headhunting opponents. Some would use ethnic slurs, but Kwong had heard enough off the ice not to be put off his game.

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He scored nine goals and added 13 assists in 29 games with the Smoke Eaters. He moved to Nanaimo, B.C., the following season, playing for the Clippers of the senior city league at night and building minesweepers in the shipyard by day.

The 1943-44 season was spent with a Vancouver team whose players lived in the sponsoring hotel. Kwong then enlisted in the army, which sent him to Red Deer, Alta., for basic training and a spot on the base's hockey team. They fought against an air force team from Edmonton and a navy team in Calgary.

"When I'm asked what I did in the war," Kwong said jokingly, "I always tell the guys, 'I fought the battle of Wetaskiwin.' "

For the start of the 1946 season, Kwong patrolled the front lines for the New York Rovers of the Eastern Hockey League. The Rangers' farm team played Sunday matinee games at Madison Square Garden.

Kwong scored 19 goals in 47 games with the Rovers, becoming a fan favourite for his tricky stickhandling and his quick wrist shot. New Yorkers always cheer for underdogs and here was an undersized player who was made the toast of Chinatown. The reporters dubbed him the China Clipper and King Kwong.

He lived at a hotel across the street from the old Garden, which was a home away from home. The Rovers' players watched Rangers games from a reserved perch at the arena, the same seats where they enjoyed boxing matches, the Ice Capades and concerts by the likes of Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.

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Late in his second season with the Rovers, with the lineup of the parent club riddled with injuries, Kwong was told to report to Montreal. He was joined by fellow rookie Ron Rowe.

The moment he had been waiting for had at long last arrived.

Rangers coach Frank Boucher let the first period pass without giving Kwong a shift.

The second period went by and Kwong still had not been on the ice.

"Waiting and waiting and waiting. Just sitting there waiting. At the end of the bench."

Finally, near the end of the third period, Kwong was tapped for a shift. He was on the ice for about a minute. And then he was back on the bench.

The Canadiens won the game 3-2. And even before Rocket Richard scored four goals in New York the next night to lead Montreal to a 6-3 victory, Kwong had already been returned to the Rovers.

That was it. One minute.

"How can you prove yourself in a minute on the ice?" Kwong said, the answer to his own question a 53-year-old grievance. "Couldn't even get warmed up."

Rowe, who scored fewer points for the Rovers than Kwong, was allowed to stick around for another four games. He scored a single goal.

Jobs in the NHL in those days were scarce and bitterly contested. Kwong was game, but the competition didn't seem fair.

"I just knew I wouldn't get a chance," Kwong said. "No sense in staying with them."

The Valleyfield Braves of the Quebec Senior Hockey League offered Kwong a good salary plus a $5 bill for every point he scored. The Braves also promised a job rolling barrels of alcohol off the train at the Schenley plant.

" Le petit chinois ," as he was called, thrived under hard-driving coach Toe Blake, who had won three Stanley Cups as a player and would later add another eight as coach of the Canadiens.

Kwong scored better than a point a game and in 1950-51 led the team to the senior championship. He won the Vimy Trophy as league MVP.

By then he had opened a restaurant bearing his name, cashing in on his local popularity.

In 1957, Kwong went to Britain to play for the Nottingham Panthers, scoring 55 goals in 55 games. He later played hockey in Switzerland, where he began a long career as a tennis coach. He returned to Calgary in 1972 to help run the family grocery business. Food-Vale was sold six years ago.

Kwong, who has a daughter by his first marriage, married again in 1988. His bride, Janine Boyer, had been a waitress at his Valleyfield restaurant. They renewed their love affair after almost four decades. She died in 1999.

These days, Kwong golfs on the course next to his home in Priddis, Alta. He has five scrapbooks of clippings kept by his brother and a memory that grows dimmer with each passing year.

In some ways, his reputation was eclipsed by another son of Cantonese immigrants. Normie Kwong, who starred in the Canadian Football League, came to be called the China Clipper, while the original holder of the nickname was nearly forgotten. Normie Kwong also managed an accomplishment Larry Kwong never dared dream -- to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup. Normie Kwong was so honoured as a co-owner of the Calgary Flames in 1989.

But belated recognition is coming to Larry Kwong. He had his own entry when the first B.C. Encyclopedia was released last year and a documentary film about his life is being produced.

Kwong's NHL career was so brief, so ephemeral as to almost be a dream, except for the cold facts to be found in the hockey record books: one game played, no goals, no assists, no points, no penalty minutes.

But the slight son of a grocer did make the NHL, however briefly, and he was the first player of Asian ancestry to do so. No one can ever take that away from him.

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