* Article reproduced, available through Canada's Hockey Hall of Fame, Toronto *
A feature length documentary touching on 150 years of the Chinese diaspora, includes Larry's story, WATCH:
- CBC-TV Alberta & CBC-TV Saskatchewan, August 20th, Saturday, 7 pm, CBC Summer Primetime Series.
Episode 2 - CBC-TV Alberta & CBC-TV Saskatchewan, August 27th, Saturday, 7 pm, CBC Summer Primetime Series.
Theatrical & community releases. Check out: www.lostyears.ca
FIRST STAR IN THE GAME OF LIFE
The Life & Times of Hockey Hero Larry Kwong
by Kenda D. Gee
Calgary & Edmonton
January - February, 1994, page 8-9.
His is not a name you hear repeated often in the weekly televised reminiscences of Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean and Don Cherry—at least, not yet—but, to many, he is a true pioneer in the sport of hockey, and in the game of life.
In spite of the odds, Larry Kwong—Canada's "China Clipper, New York's "King"—learned how to play hockey at an early age on the frozen ponds of Vernon, British Columbia, and while scoring and assisting on goals on his way to the National Hockey League, he did much to shatter the stereotyping of a community for whom history was unkind.
Larry Kwong grew up playing hockey in the 1920s, a time when Chinese were not allowed to vote and were routinely refused work. Restaurants could deny them service or entry. Barbers might not cut their hair. Those were the realities Larry and his contemporaries faced.
"In our days, we (Chinese) were more reserved. We sort of laid back and tried to be 'smart' and not too 'pushy'," he says, many years later. Now, 70-years old, but looking at least twenty years his junior, the first Chinese Canadian of professional hockey reveals the patience and diplomacy of an earlier generation of Chinese Canadian pioneer.
In 1972, following a fifteen-year stay in Europe as a hockey coach and tennis instructor, Larry finally returned to Calgary, where, today, he is a successful businessman, the President of the city's Food Vale store.
His residence, where he lives with his second wife of five years, Janine, is located near a golf course thirty minutes southwest of the city, surrounded by the splendour of Alberta's foothills. As recently as 1989, he started playing golf, but there are few sports left that the former junior track and tennis star has not played well as an athlete. His handicap, he says, is eighteen.
Larry started playing hockey when he was seven years old. His team, the Hydrophones of Vernon, won the B.C. Midget and Juvenile Championships. As a youngster, he experienced first hand the overt discrimination of his time.
When his team travelled by car to get to Nelson in the winter, poor road conditions forced them to cross the U.S. border to get to their destination. But, as Larry recalls, "I hit the border and the American customs would not let me go through—because I was Chinese (even though his birth certificate clearly indicated he was Canadian by birth)."
"So, I had to get out of the car, take a train—by myself—and stayed on the Canadian side of the border. Then, I met the rest of the team, at the other point in Canada. I did that two times when I was playing juvenile hockey." He was only nine years old.
Later, "when I came down to Vancouver to play in a junior tennis tournament—it was the same thing. I was only around ten years old that summer, and I had to get off and take a train by myself (to get to my destination)."
As the youngest son of six children, Larry was part of a family well-known for settling in the Okanagan Valley in the 1860s. Last summer, he attended the reunion they held in Vernon, where sixty-seven members of the pioneer Kwong (Ng) clan turned up.
"My father passed away when I was five," Larry says.
"My mother wasn't too much in favour of me playing hockey. As you know, Chinese people just thought about work. But, I convinced her (that) one day I would make enough money playing hockey to buy her a home."
"Just before the War, my mother moved to Calgary, because we didn't want her working too hard, running the store. I managed to save enough money to build her a small home in Calgary," he says proudly. "She later passed away, when I was in Switzerland."
Most Chinese families in Canada grew up in poverty and Larry recalls his mother buying his first pair of skates, three or fours sizes too big, so that he would still be able to wear them the next year as his feet grew bigger.
"After that, every time I'd wear-out a pair of skates, I would practically cry to my mother and she would finally give in." His short, gentle laugh follows.
Many years later, "in Vernon, I was called by the New York Rangers (in 1946) to report to the farm team, and on the letter it said, 'You must have a tie and suit on to keep the image of a professional hockey player'. But, being as poor as we were in those days, I didn't have a suit. So, my mother had to dig up my brother's old suit jacket and I got a pair of new grey flannels. And my brother tied the tie for me, so that I could go on the trip."
In fact, it was his two older brothers, Jack and Jimmy, says Larry, who got him interested in hockey and kept pushing him to be a good player, in spite of the obstacles he would later meet in life.
TRAIL SMOKE EATERS
When he graduated from high school, he tried out for the Trail Smoke Eaters. He made the team. But things did not get any easier for him. The smelter (Cominco, the company which owned the team) was paying all the players, explains Larry.
"And, when I made the team, they tried to get me work at the smelter."
"But they refused me, because I was Chinese. So, they gave me a job in a hotel (at the Crown Point), bellhopping, and also got a good Chinese family who ran a restaruant (to provide) my meals. And the hockey team made up the difference in the wages that the other players were making."
That particular experience, Larry says, had a great impact in his life.
"I would say that hurt. You always remember that . . . You always feel that you don't want to be 'too forward', because you think that everybody is feeling the same way, as that particular company was, against me. And, I think that, more or less, makes you reserved in (your) feelings and actions."
During the Second World War, Larry played with the Nanaimo Clippers and Vancouver St. Regis Hotel teams. History, then, played another of its tricks.
The Chinese were dis-enfranchised provincially on the west coast and were not allowed to vote, nationally. But in Alberta Larry joined and stayed in the army for two years and played with the Red Deer Wheelers and the Wetaskiwin Army teams, before returning to Trail to play another year in the ABC (Alberta/British Columbia) Senior League.
Larry's big break came in 1946, when he was scouted by the New York Rangers and attended their training camp in Winnipeg. He made the team and played with their farm affiliate, the New York Rovers in the Eastern Hockey League. He recalls the time when he had to negotiate his contract with the "Blue Shirts" of the National Hockey League, as though it were yesterday.
"I was just a boy from Vernon, scared out of my boots. When I walked into the room, I saw four big gentlemen: Muzz Patrick, Lynn Patrick, Lester Patrick, and Phil Watson. And they all had their feet up on the table, with big cigars in their mouths. And you had to 'talk contract' in front of all four of them. And that was very scary. I can remember that."
"Not like the players now," Larry notes. "The players now have agents."
Teams offered players a $100 signing bonus and could do what they wanted with them, but Larry did not sign, and was free (later) to sign with other teams.
Hockey season, then, only lasted for only five months, beginning in October and ending in March.
Ironically, Larry's being Chinese may have helped him to earn more than the other players. The average hockey player, Larry believes, was paid $5,000..
"I was getting $6,000, which was good money for senior hockey in those days. I got a little bit more—at least, I think I got a little bit more—because I was Chinese, and they thought that I was more of a drawing (card)."
Although Canadian football fans, came to know the Living Legend of Canadian Football, Normie Kwong (no relation), as the "China Clipper" one decade later, its origin in Canadian sports can be traced to Larry (and the amphibian aircraft which delivered mail).
The reference, at least to Larry, was soon replaced by the nicknaming media in New York, who gave him the more nobler title of "King", after the 1933 Hollywood classic which had been made famous by another Canadian, Fay Wray, born in Cardston, Alberta. In two separate news releases, issued only one month apart by the New York Rangers Hockey Club in 1946, the first refers to "Larry (China Clipper) Kwong", the second, to "Larry (King) Kwong".
Yet, many years later in a 1984 feature article, a headline from Calgary's weekly Mirror still reminds readers: "Larry Kwong: The Original China Clipper".
In his first game as a New York Rover at Madison Square Garden in 1946, Larry was presented with the Key to the New York's Chinatown by the Mayor, Shavey Lee, and two beautiful models from the China Doll Club. During his seasons with the farm team New York Rovers, he was the top scorer, but he was the last player to be asked up to the National Hockey League New York Rangers. He saw action in only one game, against the Montreal Canadiens whose team included Rocket Richard and Boom Boom Geoffrion.
Larry's recollection of the past is gracious, pointing out that his size, and the fact that there were only six teams in the National Hockey League (then dominated by the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs), with only fourteen players on each team, may have been contributing factors as to why he was overlooked.
Yet, today, Larry's comments seem all the more charitable, if only given the presence of smaller, talented players, like Cliff Ronning (5-8", 175lbs.), Theoren Fleury (5'6", 160 lbs.) and Corey Millen (5-7", 168 lbs.) who have been given a fair opportunity to make their mark in the National Hockey League.
In his time, Larry played with hockey legends, the likes of Jean Beliveau, (Maurice, the "Rocket") Richard, Doug Harvey, Gordie Howe, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley, Buddy O'Connor, Edgar Laprade, Max Cowley, Max Bentley and Reg Bentley.
BYNG OF VIMY
After failing to come to terms with the Rangers management, Larry eventually left the New York Rovers to play for the Valleyfield Braves in the Quebec Senior Hockey League coached by the great "Toe" Blake.
In 1951, as the team's assistant captain, he led the Valleyfield Braves to the Canadian Senior Amateur Championship Alexander Cup. That season, he also received the Byng of Vimy Trophy, an award given to the player who best combines effective play with clean sportsmanship. He earned 85 points (34 goals and 51 assists), finishing second only to the leader, Jean Beliveau, (then) of the Quebec Aces, in the league's scoring race.
That year, Montreal Gazette's Red Fisher, a budding sportswriter and future voice of Canada's national pastime, wrote of Larry, in an article reprising the title of "China Clipper": "The slim 27-year-old native of Vernon, B.C. . . . is one of the most respected and feared players in the (Quebec Senior Hockey) league . . . a heady gentleman on skates".
While playing hockey, Larry says he never had any problems being accepted by his fellow players or his own fans:
"The sports people treated me pretty good, actually. The hockey players were very good. Very good friends."
"(The fans) treated me fairly well. Fairly supportive. Except, for the opposing fans. If you scored a goal on them, they would call you different names. But that't to be expected."
"When I played in the Montreal Forum, I think the people really appreciated me . . . being Chinese, and playing as well as I did. The Quebec fans are very good, actually."
The feeling, to this day, seems to be mutual, as the Quebec newspapers remember Larry as one of the celebrity athletes on their birthdays list.
Of his mentors in hockey, Larry remembers three very fondly: Ab Cronnie, a member of the World Championship Trail Smoke Eaters who taught Larry how to become a "finese" player; New York Rovers coach, Freddie Metcalfe, who taught him about position and shooting; and, the great (later NHL) coach, "Toe" Blake, at Valleyfield.
A pioneer and ambassador for the game of hockey, Larry accepted an offer to play and coach hockey in England and, later, in Lausanne, Switzerland, before it even became fashionable to play in Europe. His expected year there turned into a stay of fifteen.
"I went there to coach ice hockey and then after six years of coaching, I decided to start teaching tennis as a tennis pro."
Eventually, he was asked by his brother, Jack, to come back to Canada, to join the family business which his brother started over 50 years ago.
"We have a very nice business. It's a family type of business," Larry says, happily.
"And (we have) loyal customers and I'm thoroughly enjoying my life as a store owner. And, eventually—I hope—I will retire."
Does he ever foresee the day that more Chinese will play professional hockey?
"I'm sure it will happen, again. My own nephew is playing (very soon)," he notes and hopes some day he will make it.
And, what does he think of all the support he received from the Chinese community back then?
"Great! I had a lot of following. And I was very popular with them. And, as you know, hockey players had lots of girlfriends."
He pauses to laugh.
"I don't know what else to tell you . . . except that I had a lot of friends," he concludes, smiling.
To an entire generation, and more, that much seems obvious.
Note: A feature length documentary touching on 150 years of the Chinese diaspora:
Episode 1 - LOST YEARS (World Premiere), CBC-TV Alberta & CBC-TV Saskatchewan, August 20th, Saturday, 7 pm, CBC Summer Primetime Series.
Episode 2 - August 27th, Saturday, 7 pm