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Larry Kwong and the NHL’s color barrier

A hockey story.

El Railway Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Just over one year ago, Larry Kwong passed away at the age of 94. Kwong, born Eng Kai Geong, caught the attention of the New York Rangers while playing hockey for the Canadian army during World War II. Not long after that, against all the odds, the Chinese-Canadian forward made history.

On March 13, 1948, Kwong became the first person of color to play in the NHL when he made his debut with the Rangers. Less than a year before, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unlike Robinson, Kwong did not stay in the show after proving himself more than worthy in the farm league. The “China Clipper” had a brief stint in New York — his NHL career lasted just a single shift.

Many believe that Kwong’s single shift with the Rangers was something of a publicity stunt. His name was in the headlines of Canada’s papers leading up to the game, but Rangers’ head coach Frank Boucher sent him on the ice for a single 60-second shift against a bad Montréal Canadiens team. But the young forward had earned so much more than a one minute taste of his childhood dream.

The season before his NHL debut, Kwong notched 37 points in 47 games for the New York Rovers of the Eastern Hockey League, which was the Rangers’ farm team at the time. Only two players on the Rovers finished the 1946-47 season with more points than Kwong. When the Rovers moved to the Quebec Senior Hockey League the following season, he led the team with 57 points in 48 games.

Clearly, Kwong deserved more than a single 60-second shift to show what he could do in NHL. He was under 150 pounds and stood just 5-foot-6, but there’s little doubt that race was what kept him off of NHL ice after March 13, 1948. Frustrated by his brief taste of NHL action, he moved on to the Quebec Senior Hockey where he received more pay to play with the Valleyfield Braves. In 1951, he was named the league’s MVP.

Kwong continued his hockey career in Canada and in Europe. In 1958 he became the first person of Chinese heritage to coach a professional team in Switzerland where he contributed to the growth of the sport that he loved in a land far from his home.

That Kwong reached the heights that he did in the world of hockey is nothing short of remarkable. As a young man in Canada, he was denied basic rights, including the right to vote, because of his heritage. He experienced bigotry on and off the ice, but his ability and love of the game helped him earn a unique place in hockey’s history.

His is a life worthy of celebration.

You can hear “King Kwong” share his amazing story in this CBC broadcast from 2013.

There are a lot of amazing moments in that CBC program, and at least one profoundly disappointing statement: “In 65 years Larry Kwong has never heard another word from the New York Rangers ...”

It’s hard to understand why the Rangers failed to reach out to Kwong between his debut in 1948 and the filming of that CBC feature. For an organization that prides itself on tradition, the omission of Kwong and his story seems almost indefensible. The Rangers don’t need to retire his number to honor his legacy, but they should consider embracing Kwong’s place in history and the jersey that he wore when he made it.

Regardless of whether or not his shift was a publicity stunt, Kwong never saw himself as a gimmick — he saw himself as a hockey player. That is exactly how the Rangers and the Hockey Hall of Fame should remember him. After all, his story is first and foremost a hockey story.

Each March, we should take a moment to reflect on Kwong and his place in the sport’s history. Hockey has never been more diverse than it is today, but that should never stop us from acknowledging its lack of diversity compared to other team sports and its own history. Pioneers like Larry Kwong and Willie O’Ree not only deserve to be celebrated, they need to be celebrated.