The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Larry Kwong was the first person of color to play in the NHL. He was on the ice for a minute.

The only thing Larry Kwong wanted to do seemed impossible.

As a boy, the Chinese Canadian dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League at a time when he couldn’t even get a job as a smelter because of his ethnicity.

Kwong, who died on Thursday at 94, finally achieved his dream in 1948, but in doing so, he became almost emblematic of that old cliche of the journey being better than the destination.

Kwong grew up in Vernon, a small city on the west coast of Canada, in the 1920s and 1930s. He spent his childhood chasing hockey pucks across parking lots. He and his brothers would pour water over the surface and wait for it to freeze, creating a homemade rink.

Hockey was his escape from the town’s segregation. As a Chinese Canadian, he wasn’t allowed basic rights. He couldn’t even go to most barber shops, he recalled in a 2011 interview. They wouldn’t “take me because I was Chinese. It didn’t make me feel good.”

He joined a few amateur teams. When not on the ice, most players found work at a nearby plant. But Kwong was denied work because of his ethnic background, he said.

Finally, he joined the army, where he played on the Canadian hockey team — a form of entertainment for the troops taking respite from fighting in World War II. The New York Rangers discovered him during the war and afterward signed him to their farm team, the Rovers, in 1946, according to the Toronto Star.

It wasn’t the NHL, but it was a step in the right direction. The team dubbed Kwong as both the “China Clipper” and “King Kwong” for his speed and prowess on the ice.

At that point, no person of color had ever suited up as an NHL player. Professional sports, at least outwardly, appeared to show signs of  diversifying. By 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play Major League Baseball.

Kwong’s NHL moment finally came on March 13, 1948. He was called up to play for the Rangers against the Montreal Canadiens. The move made headlines in the United States and Canada. As Kwong put it, “the whole country had my name in the paper that I was playing in the game.”

Most importantly, his dream was finally realized.

“When I had a chance to become a Ranger I was really excited,” Kwong told the New York Times in 2013. “I said to myself: ‘That’s what I wanted to be since I was a young boy. I wanted to play in the N.H.L.’”

He anxiously sat on the bench throughout the first two periods, as the Rangers began slipping behind. Finally, in the third and final period, he was put in the game — for all of 60 seconds or so.

“Just a minute,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. “So what can you do in a minute? Unless you’re a real magician, what can you do in a minute?”

Kwong’s one minute of playtime was later described as a publicity stunt, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Even as late as 2013, his feelings on the incident were simple: “It was frustrating, you know,” he said.

Kwong never dressed for an NHL game again. He quit after that season and went on to finish his hockey career in European and Canadian leagues.

During the following decades, life dealt Kwong a series of blows. He married twice, and both of his wives died of cancer. In the mid-2000s, doctors were forced to amputate his legs because of poor circulation.

“The doctor told me, ‘If you want to live long enough to see your granddaughters go to school, I have to take your leg off,’” he told the Times in 2013. “I tell you, that hit me like a rock. It wasn’t a good sight. But I’m all right now. I just had to go through that.”

After the operation, he wore prosthetic legs and still worked out three times a week.

Meanwhile, he was all but forgotten by the sports media. Much ink was spilled when the Canada-born Willie O’Ree became the first black player to take the ice in an NHL game in 1958. The media soon dubbed O’Ree the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey.” Val James made headlines in 1982, when he became the first U.S.-born black player to skate with a professional team.

Kwong was barely acknowledged, toiling in obscurity until an intrepid schoolteacher and his young pupil got involved.

Chad Soon, a documentarian and teacher in British Columbia, taken by Kwong’s “exemplary life,” tried for years to get him officially honored in some capacity. Soon’s 10-year-old student, Gavin Donald, finished the job by starting a petition eventually signed by Trevor Linden, a legendary player who is now president of the Vancouver Canucks.

“I thought, it would be really cool if he got into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame,” Donald told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in 2013. “And once he gets in there, he’ll be there forever.”

It worked. That year — 65 years after Kwong’s trailblazing minute on the ice — Kwong, then 90, was inducted.

When asked about his abbreviated stint with the Rangers in 2013, Kwong refused to play the role of victim.

“It’s possible that I’ve been overlooked,” he told the Times. “Who knows? I felt that I did my share for the team.”

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