Article as published in the Calgary Herald March 13th, 2008

'China Clipper' starred in NHL Laura Locke, For Neighbours Published: Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sixty years ago today an eager young man, wearing a No. 11 New York Rangers jersey, skated onto the ice in the old Montreal Forum.

In that historic moment, 24-year-old Larry Kwong became the first person of Asian descent to play in the National Hockey League. It was literally a dream come true for Kwong, whose life story reads like a piece of classic fiction.

Kwong was born in Vernon, B.C. in 1923, one of 15 children. It was in the cramped apartment above the family's grocery store where young Larry Kwong's infatuation with hockey began, listening to Hockey Night in Canada on the radio.

"We were crazy about hockey," says Kwong, 84. "We'd skate on the road or wherever there was ice.

"I was the only Chinese boy to play in juvenile or midget hockey in Vernon, but I loved it," Kwong says.

Due to his speed and style, Kwong jumped straight to senior hockey and soon won a spot on the Trail Smoke Eaters in 1941. Though unpaid, the players were rewarded with a much-prized job at the smelter in Trail. All, that is, except Kwong.

"They said no Chinese," says Kwong. "That was a kick in the pants, but I had to swallow my pride and keep quiet. They gave me a job as a bellhop in the hotel."

Even at five foot six inches, his outstanding skating ability led to invitations from teams in Nanaimo and Vancouver. He later played hockey in Alberta during a stint in the army. Then, at a tryout camp in Winnipeg in 1946, Kwong was signed by the New York Rangers. There were only six teams in the NHL at the time.

"I played for their farm team, the New York Rovers," says Kwong. "We played in Madison Square Gardens when the Rangers were on the road, and we lived in a hotel. It was a big thrill for a young kid from Vernon."

Finally Kwong was called up to play with the Rangers in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, but he spent the first two periods on the bench. When at last the coach gave him the nod, Kwong played one shift -- about a minute and a half long -- and was back on the bench for the rest of the night. He never played another game in the NHL.

A year later Kwong left the Rangers organization, disappointed but determined to carry on with the game he loved.

After an exceptional 11 years in Quebec's senior league, he was invited to play hockey in England, where he met his first wife.

He later coached both hockey and tennis in Switzerland for 15 years, and in 1972 returned to Canada and joined his brother in operating the Food Vale grocery store in Calgary.

Kwong retired nine years ago when the store was sold. Both his first and second wives have died of cancer, and recently, due to poor circulation, he has had both legs amputated.

With his usual courage and dogged determination, Kwong plans to walk again with one cane by the end of 2008. Exercising at the gym, having lunch with old friends and his involvement in the Rotary Club keeps him busy.

Kwong's historic NHL breakthrough made him a role model for many Canadians, especially in the Chinese community.

One of his admirers was a young Calgary teenager named Normie Kwong. Now Alberta's lieutenant-governor, he was the first Asian to play football in the Canadian Football League, when he joined the roster of the Calgary Stampeders. The two men, though not related, shared the "China Clipper" moniker and have been friends for almost 40 years.

"Being a pioneer isn't always easy," observes Lt.-Gov. Kwong, "and it can be intimidating to be the first one to break through a cultural barrier. Unlike me, Larry did his pioneering work in the NHL without the benefit of playing in front of his hometown fans. I'm certainly proud to have shared a nickname with Larry, although I've always thought of myself as the taller and perhaps slightly more handsome China Clipper."

Ken King, president and chief executive officer of the Calgary Flames, is another fan.

"The NHL has produced many stories of individuals with determination to break down barriers and with perseverance to overcome obstacles," says King, "but Larry Kwong's story is such a tremendous example of those qualities."

The Calgary Flames plan to pay special tribute to Kwong at one of their final home games this season

.

"Mr. Kwong has the qualities and character that force open eyes and doors, resulting in a better sport and a better world," says King. "I am very proud that he has called Alberta his home for the past 40 years, and I'm really thankful for his contributions to the game of hockey."

If you would like to nominate an outstanding community contributor for Calgary Builder recognition, e-mail Neighbours Editor Claire Young at clyoung@theherald.canwest.com or call 235-7564.     1