Supporters of the first person of colour to play in the NHL are spearheading a movement to get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame

The late Larry Kwong called Calgary home for much of his life before he died at 94

By Krista Sylvester | October 6, 2022 |5:00 am

Larry Kwong was a centre who was the first non-white and player of Asian descent to play in the NHL.

Photo: Submitted

It’s a petition near and dear to their hearts. 

Family and friends of the late hockey player Larry Kwong are spearheading a campaign to get the former NHL player inducted posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder category.

An NHL breakthrough was made on March 13, 1948, when Kwong, a Chinese Canadian hockey player, became the first person of Asian descent to play in the NHL.

As the leading scorer for the New York Rangers’ minor-league team, Kwong was called up to the big leagues, though he only played one minute of ice time. Those 60 seconds made hockey history as Kwong became the first person of colour to play in the NHL.

Kwong then spent much of his career playing in Quebec’s professional hockey league before he moved to Switzerland to help start a hockey camp for kids with other NHL players. 

Calling Calgary home 

While Kwong was born in Vernon, BC, he called Calgary home for much of his life. After his hockey career was over, he came back to the city where he owned and operated the Food-Vale supermarket on Elbow Drive for many years before retiring. He died in 2018 at the age of 94. 

Those spearheading the movement say 2023 would be the perfect year to induct Kwong into the hall as it will be exactly 75 years after his historic game — and his 100th birthday. 

“Larry’s story is one of inspiration to many, not just our family,” his daughter, Kristina Kwong-Heintz, tells Calgary Citizen, adding that as a second-generation Chinese Canadian, he was discriminated against throughout his hockey career. 

“For example, not able to change in the same dressing room as his teammates, forced to take lesser paying employment. Despite the challenges, his dream was to play professional hockey. And he silently put up with all this just to play a game he loved.” 

A pioneer during a difficult time 

Kwong-Heintz explains that in the year her father was born, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which essentially barred the Chinese from immigration. 

“My dad never dreamed he would be recognized for his playing career. Nor was it his reason for playing hockey. He just loved the sport.”

That’s what makes his hockey accomplishments even more monumental, says Kwong’s niece, Dale Lee Kwong. 

“His shift in the NHL was groundbreaking and needs to be remembered. He wasn’t a flash in the pan; he was a gifted athlete who was denied the real opportunity to play amongst his peers,” she says. 

“He recognized this and took his gifts elsewhere. He was an ambassador for Canada and hockey and his Chinese heritage, and has been appreciated for this around the world.” 

Those behind the campaign think the NHL “needs to acknowledge the racism in the league by recognizing Larry’s achievement of being invited to play with the Rangers.”

“It was all the more remarkable considering there were only six teams in the league at the time, and during rampant discrimination against Chinese,” Lee Kwong adds. 

Spearheading a campaign 

The petition was created by non-family members; Chad Soon, a BC school teacher who has written numerous articles about Kwong and runs the Larry Kwong Appreciation page on Facebook. 

The others include Chris Woo, a collector of Asian hockey cards from California; Chester Sit, who has produced a documentary about Kwong called The Shift; and Moezemine Hasham from Hockey 4 Youth. 

“When I learned of Larry’s story a few years ago, I was immediately intrigued, especially since he was virtually unknown and unheralded by the NHL,” Woo tells Calgary Citizen.

“I felt his story needed to be known by all fans, especially when you see his impressive stats in the minors. You’re left to wonder if race was a factor in his not being called up, as well as the little recognition he receives to this day.” 

Almost there 

Woo says the response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“In less than three weeks with no funding, this grassroots campaign has garnered over 7,700 signatures with very touching comments of support from fans of all colours,” Woo says. 

“I want Larry to be honoured by the Hockey Hall of Fame as the first player of Asian heritage and who broke the colour barrier. He was one of the several pioneers who showed that hockey is for everyone, regardless of race.”

While there is no guarantee the campaign will prompt the hall to induct Kwong, his supporters are seeing it through. The petition has a goal of 10,000 signatures and has around 8,000 currently.

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Krista Sylvester

Managing Editor at Calgary Citizen

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