I t was a Sunday afternoon tradition. When he was seven years old, already a young hockey devotee, Stan Fischler and his father began journeying from Brooklyn to Madison Square Garden every weekend to take in the games.
Back then, the Garden didn’t tower over the streets of New York like it does now. It wasn’t yet that well-known drum burning bright in the heart of Manhattan, gleaming walls speckled with reflections of the city lights. No, in the ’30s, on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th, the arena sat stoic and unassuming, the curling splendour of its illuminated marquee the only outward hint of the glamour that would be tied to its name.
But within its walls, the stakes were as they are now: Upon its ice skated the city’s kings, and New Yorkers from all corners flocked to the stands to watch them do their thing. For a young Fischler, then decades away from becoming one of hockey’s most respected historians, the team of choice wasn’t the NHL’s Rangers, but the club’s farm team, the New York Rovers.
“The reason why we went to the Rovers games was twofold,” Fischler, now 91, explains. “First of all, it was cheap and we were in the middle of the Great Depression, we were poor. And [second], the games were on Sunday afternoon. … And they were fantastic games.”
The itinerary for those afternoon adventures consisted of an on-ice doubleheader: a game from the local Metropolitan League early in the afternoon, followed by one from the Rovers. And seven years into his run as a Garden regular, in the back half of that twin-bill, Fischler first laid his eyes on a young phenom named Larry Kwong.
“It was ’46-47,” he remembers. “This was a relatively new bunch — usually six or seven guys stayed around the previous year, and then new guys came in. Well, all of a sudden we got this Chinese-Canadian guy on the Rovers. … I could tell pretty quickly that this guy was special.”
It wasn’t just the obvious that set Kwong apart — his unique place as the only Asian player to reach that level in the sport at the time. It was what he did out on the ice, his era-bending approach to the game.
“If I would describe his style in one word, it was ‘slippery,’” Fischler says. “He was cerebral, played a very, very smart game. He was unselfish. And on the Rovers, he was a player’s player — they all loved him because of the totality of his personality and the totality of his skill. He wasn’t the guy who was going around being an ice cop or anything like that, because that’s not what he was, any more than Mitch Marner is on the Leafs. He had his specialty, which was creative offence.
“He was slippery, he was an excellent skater, he was elusive. … I picture him bobbing and weaving his way through the enemy defences.”
It didn’t take long for the Vernon, B.C. native’s name to bob and weave its way up and down Eighth Avenue and spread from 50th Street to 51st and beyond.
“The season started in the middle of October. By the middle of November, Larry Kwong was what I would call a mini-personality,” Fischler says. “You know, New York wasn’t a crazy hockey town the way it is now, but it was a big deal. The Rovers, of course, were not in the NHL, but this was a phenomenal thing. You got a Chinese-Canadian — the first ever — you got a good hockey player, and he’s on this pretty fun team to watch. The Rovers played wonderful hockey.”
By Kwong’s second year among the Garden crowd, his stock was soaring even higher.
“Larry is there, he’s an integral part of the team, one of the best players on the team. And it was just fun hockey to watch, because the war was over and now all the good players had come back, so you had a higher quality of game in the post-war Eastern League. Larry was good enough to be invited back for the second year — and the second year, he was even better,” Fischler says. “I don’t remember if the Rovers had an MVP award, like they have the Hart Trophy in the NHL, but in his second year with the Rovers, he was the team’s most valuable player.
“And the fans loved him. There was everything to love about Larry Kwong. First of all, he was a very good player. Second of all, he was unique. And third of all, he was a very appealing type of guy — he was always smiling. He was just a sweetheart, you know?
“What we called The People’s Choice.”
Those who’ve heard Kwong’s name before know what happened next. How that meteoric second season with the Rovers culminated in a call to the big leagues. How he joined the New York Rangers under the legendary lights of the Montreal Forum. How he was granted one shift on the ice that night, a lone minute of NHL glory that altered history, Kwong breaking the league’s colour barrier and becoming the first Asian player to ever touch NHL ice.
But that moment of glory wasn’t all that it seemed. Like the famed arena he tore up in his New York days, with its understated façade masking the weight of all that went on within, there’s more to Kwong’s story. Look deeper into the journey that carried the young phenom from Vernon to New York and eventually overseas, and you find the story of a trailblazer who rose to historic heights in the game despite that signature big-league moment, not because of it. Now, as a group of hockey historians and community leaders push to have Kwong inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a Builder, their message is a simple one: it wasn’t that one-minute shift, but rather everything that came before and after it, that makes Larry Kwong worthy of that title.
C had Soon first heard Kwong’s story from his grandfather.
“My grandpa was encyclopedic about hockey,” says the Vernon elementary school teacher, who played a crucial role in first unearthing Kwong’s story 15 years ago. “He grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. He was born just a few years after Larry, in 1927, but the same generation, you know? He went through the Exclusion Act and grew up with that, and was born in Canada, too.”
For Soon’s grandfather, Kwong’s rise through the hockey world was a hero’s journey like nothing he’d ever seen. It wasn’t simply their shared heritage, or the novel sight of a Chinese-Canadian player going toe-to-toe with some of the game’s biggest stars. More than all of that, it was the shared experience of their generation, the shared understanding of what it meant to make that kind of seemingly impossible ascent in the heavy shadow of the Exclusion Act — an act of parliament passed two weeks after Kwong was born in 1923, banning nearly all forms of Chinese immigration to Canada, and stoking anti-Asian sentiment in the country.
By the time the younger Soon came along, Asian players were beginning to make their names in the sport. But his grandfather had stories of another time, of the one who came first.
“He told me about Larry when I was a hockey-crazy kid. I remember looking for him,” Soon says. “But you just could not find any information about him. So, you just kind of give up at that point, right? You’re like, ‘Well, if he’s not in my hockey books, he must not have been much of a player.’”
It was another of hockey’s barrier-breaking trailblazers who reignited Soon’s interest in Kwong. “Years and years later, I was a student-teacher in Toronto, and I connected with Herb Carnegie,” he says. Eventually becoming a mentor for the young hockey lover, Carnegie told Soon his own stories of Kwong, the two having played against each other for years after Kwong’s run in New York. Still, though, the renewed interest only took Soon so far. “At that time, there was nothing on the internet about Larry, you know? No Wikipedia, nothing had happened for the 50th anniversary [of his NHL debut] in ’98. So it was a case of wondering if we could finally get his story out there.”
First he needed to figure out what exactly that story was, and it seemed there was only one place he’d be able to find it: in 2007, Soon reached out to Kwong himself, the former pro then in his mid-80s and living in Calgary. And eventually, he was able to speak with his grandfather’s hero in person. “My family was moving back to B.C. in 2008, so I talked to Larry and asked him if it would be okay if I could come over and meet him as we were driving across. He graciously said yes. And, you know, after meeting him, I was hooked. He showed my dad and me his scrapbooks over Chinese tea and cookies. He was just telling us all of the stories from his past.”
They struck up the beginning of an enduring friendship. And by the time he and his father left that house and finished their journey west, Soon found himself only further convinced of the need to spread Kwong’s story far and wide.
“When I got to Vernon, I was so excited, knowing that Larry, not only had he broken the colour barrier as the first Asian-Canadian player, but he was the first player from Vernon to make the NHL, too. The first from the whole Okanagan,” Soon says. “I figured, Vernon being a really hockey-mad town, people would know that. And I was really shocked. I would ask, ‘Hey, you know about Larry Kwong?’ and the hockey fans, just like me growing up, they had no idea, no idea at all.
“So, then it became, I guess, a kind of personal mission.”
Each year, Kwong shared more of his story with Soon, uncoiling the journey that led him to the Garden, to the Forum, to that one-minute shift.
“He would share things about growing up,” Soon remembers. “Not being able to get a haircut in his own hometown because they didn’t cut Chinese hair. Being born here, feeling like you’re Canadian, but not daring to say it because others didn’t look at you that way. Not being able to cross the border with his hockey team because of them not letting Chinese into the States. Being a hockey hero in town after winning two provincial championships for his hometown, but still not being able to get a job here.
“It’s just that frustration that he had. Wanting to prove himself as Canadian and just struggling for that identity. Being proud of his heritage, yes, but also wanting to be equal. You’re growing up and you can’t vote, you’ve got to carry this little identity card around that says you’re a ‘legal alien.’ All of these things really, really bothered him.”
Kwong’s daughter, Kristina Heintz, heard the stories of those difficult days from her dad, too. Stories of how he pressed on through the storm to get where he wanted to be — sometimes quite literally.
“There’s one story that he told. He was young — I think he might have been about 12, 13 — and his team was heading to Vancouver for a tournament,” Heintz says. “The weather was bad, and the team had to cross into the United States to bypass the storm, to get into Vancouver for the tournament. They wouldn’t let my dad cross the border because he was Chinese. So at that young age, he stayed on this side of the border and found his own way to Vancouver to join the rest of his team, to play in this tournament. And I just think, how many people would do that, you know? He was just determined. He was just driven. He was committed to his team and he just wanted to play hockey.
“He really just wanted to be accepted like everybody else. And hockey being Canada’s sport, maybe that’s where you gravitate to be accepted. His teammates accepted him. Other opposing players? Not so much. Fans? Maybe not so much. But he just wanted to be like everybody else. So he was going to do whatever he had to do to get there.”
That determination carried Kwong through his younger days, a tumultuous childhood in which, even as the second-youngest of 15 children, even under the weight of the Exclusion Act, even in a city in which he wasn’t allowed to work because of where his parents came from, he found a way to be exceptional. His undeniable skill on the ice eventually took him out of Vernon to Trail, B.C., to play senior hockey for the Trail Smoke Eaters. But there, he found another barrier — while part of the allure of playing for the Smoke Eaters was a coveted job working for the local smelter, Kwong arrived to find they wouldn’t hire him because he was Chinese.
He simply pushed on. He put a up a point a game for Trail, earning an offer out of town to attend his first NHL training camp in Chicago. A new opportunity, and still, a new barrier — he was denied permission to leave the country, and soon after, in ’44, as World War II raged on, he was drafted into military service. Once again, he pushed on. He earned his place on the Canadian Army’s hockey team, playing alongside a number of big-league stars who’d paused their careers to enlist. And there, after proving himself among that crop of bona fide talent, Kwong was finally scouted for the pros.
In ’46, after the war had come to an end, after another successful spin in Trail, he made his way to Manhattan and began his big-city journey, a young Fischler in the stands. And yet, somehow, still, after it all, more barriers.
“He gets his big break and goes to New York, and this is the greatest frustration,” Soon says. “There were articles in the New York press that Larry, based on his early reviews when he started playing with the Rovers — he scored in the first game and had speed and skill, and he was already starting to bring people, people are starting to pack MSG to see him — that he was going to be called up based on that. Not just for some sort of publicity stunt, but because he showed real NHL talent.”
No call-up came.
“He leads the team in goals in the playoffs after not getting called up, and watching other players [get the call],” Soon says. “The second year … from wire to wire, he’s the leading scorer on the Rovers, and watches as, again, player after player [is called up] — in some cases, players with half the points that he’s putting up, and not real great prospects. He still keeps being ignored and snubbed — it’s almost the end of the season before he finally gets called up.”
His on-ice domination, and status as a box-office draw, finally earned him his shot. On March 13, 1948, a 24-year-old Kwong took a six-hour train ride to Montreal to meet the Rangers and make his NHL debut. He was ready to show them what he could do, to finally have his long-deserved moment. He barely got the chance.
“You know, it’s the one minute. It’s waiting on the bench,” Soon says. “They never told him that he needed to improve his game in any way whatsoever. When they sent him back down after that one game, they brought up a 34-year-old forward, who was basically on the verge of retirement, to take his place.”
“It was unbelievable,” remembers Fischler. “He’s sitting on the bench through two periods and into the third. They finally put him on for a one-minute shift, and that’s the end of his NHL career. It was borderline tragic, when you think about it.”
While decades later the hockey world would celebrate that lone shift for its big-picture impact, and fans would cherish it for how it opened the door for Asians to be seen as hockey players by those in big-league circles, for Kwong himself, there was little cause for celebration.
“He was disappointed,” Heintz says. “He said, ‘I sat there cold on the bench for almost three periods.’
“He said, ‘I didn’t even have a chance to prove what I could do for them.’”
Despite the blow, Kwong simply did what he’d always done: he pushed on, refusing to let his ascent be halted by those who wished to hold him back. Though he was still a draw with the Rovers at the Garden, a role it seemed the organization wanted to keep him in, Kwong moved on, signing with the Valleyfield Braves of the illustrious Quebec Senior Hockey League.
“He becomes a massive star in Quebec after that,” Soon says. “He’s winning an MVP award and he’s going toe-to-toe with Dickie Moore and Jean Béliveau, and they’re saying that he’s a great player and has everything that you could want in a hockey player. Toe Blake [head coach of Valleyfield, and of eight Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens teams] said that he would never trade him under any circumstances, that he was untouchable.”
The great Béliveau himself — he of NHL scoring titles and MVP awards, he of 10 Cup rings, the second-most of anyone to ever play the game — spoke of Kwong’s greatness as if it was obvious, a simple matter of fact. “What makes a great hockey player is when you have a certain talent for the game, you use it well, you work hard — that’s what makes you in a class [above],” the Canadiens great said in a 2014 documentary about Kwong by filmmaker Chester Sit.
“That’s where he was. … He was playing hockey the way it should be played.”
U ntil Soon went searching for it, Kwong’s story remained buried in the annals of hockey history, gathering dust. Even some who had known the legend for decades had no idea he’d played in the NHL, that he’d made history. “Chad really is responsible for getting my dad’s story out there, keeping my dad’s story out there,” Heintz says. “It really wasn’t until Chad came into our lives that my dad [felt], you know, ‘Somebody outside the family is interested in my story.’”
Soon’s spent years mulling the question of why Kwong’s story has been overlooked, why it’s never been celebrated like those of other hockey trailblazers. Maybe it’s the one-minute shift, falling below the threshold of some arbitrary cut-off for who deserves praise. Maybe it’s something wider-reaching, like the sports world’s history of failing to adequately appreciate, let alone celebrate, Asian athletes. For Soon, it’s those, but it’s also something more specific, more familiar.
“There are a lot of reasons, one being just his humility. He didn’t brag. He didn’t talk,” Soon says. “That was just the generation, the traditional Chinese upbringing — you didn’t boast about yourself. ‘Be seen, not heard. Don’t draw attention.’ So there was that.
“Also, the people that he was the biggest hero to, my grandpa and people like that, they didn’t really maybe want to revisit some of those darker years. … Larry and my grandpa and grandma, that generation, they didn’t like to talk about the racism and discrimination they faced growing up.
“It was always about just assimilating, it was about just the future, it was about your kids and grandchildren, and not dredging up the past — and not complaining.”
“He was basically raised to just keep his head down, work hard,” Heintz says. “All of them — keep their heads down, work hard.”
But it’s precisely for that generation, Soon says, that he’s pushing so fervently for Kwong to get the respect he’s due. For all those who adored Kwong quietly, who saw in him someone seemingly able to rise above the things they all endured together, who’d waited for him to get his due.
“I just wanted people to try to understand what a hero Larry was, what that one minute that he played [meant],” he says. “Yes, he wasn’t given a fair chance. But just that one minute was such a huge, important milestone for the Chinese-Canadian community. To show that it was possible. That, you know, you could make it to the very top in this country. Before that, what could you point to?
“He really wanted to show that a Chinese-Canadian could do anything. … It can’t be overstated how much he helped to change people’s minds about who could play.”
On March 15, 2018, two days after the 70th anniversary of his lone NHL shift, Kwong passed away at the age of 94. In the years after that loss, Soon and Christopher Woo — a fellow fan of Kwong’s, who’s similarly worked to share stories of Asian hockey greats — began discussing a petition to have the Garden legend inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. They were soon joined by Sit, as well as Hockey 4 Youth’s Moezine Hasham and Dan Harbridge. The group of five submitted their nomination for Kwong to the Hall this past March, hoping he could follow in the footsteps of Carnegie and Willie O’Ree, both of whom have been inducted as Builders.
The effort has continued to pick up steam, their petition bearing 10,600 signatures and counting. But even now, the group still sees detractors dismiss Kwong’s legacy based on the brevity of his time in the NHL. To shrink all Kwong accomplished down to those 60 seconds, though, is to ignore his true impact on the game.
“It wasn’t just one shift,” says Hasham. “When he played for the Rovers, selling out Madison Square Garden, you had the Chinese community coming en masse to watch him play.”
“Through ’46, ’47, ’48, you can find so many articles that talk about him being that drawing card, going from attendance of 2,500 to 15,000 at MSG,” Soon says. “Basically getting as many people as the Rangers were drawing, for the Rovers’ matinee game.”
“I mean, that doesn’t just happen,” Hasham continues. “He was a superstar. The way that we classify superstars nowadays.”
The context of Kwong’s ascent is crucial to understanding his true importance to the game, Fischler says. And he would know — he was there.
“The Rovers were an integral part of New York City hockey,” the historian says. “Larry Kwong didn’t have a press agent running around saying, you know, ‘Put an item about him in the papers.’ This was all a function of him being a naturally popular and skilled guy.”
That he wound up earning a shot with the Rangers at all, however brief and overdue, was no small feat. “He was gifted. And it was a six-team league then — it’s not like now, where you got 32 teams.”
As for Kwong’s decision to move on from the Garden and head for Quebec, the choice was far from a demotion, or a sign he couldn’t cut it in the NHL, Fischler says. “He had a family, he had a living to make. And there was big dough in the Quebec league in those days. That’s why Herbie Carnegie didn’t go to the Rangers’ farm team. … That’s why Jean Béliveau didn’t come to the Canadiens right away. He was making big dough in Quebec with the Aces, even before that, with the junior team. So, Larry did what was the right thing for Larry.”
And then there’s the bigger picture: Kwong’s rise can’t be viewed only for what it meant to hockey in those days — that he earned that call to the big leagues at the time he did is significant too, the historian says, because his moment didn’t arrive in a vacuum. It was part of a larger wave of progress that was pivotal to reshaping North American sports.
“I come from Brooklyn, okay? I was born in 1932, I’m 91 years old. And I remember vividly … in the summertime, we went to see the best semi-pro team in America, called The Bushwicks — they played on the borderline of Brooklyn and Queens,” Fischler says. “It was great baseball. The difference was, when my father took me to see The Bushwicks, we would see the best Black teams in America. We would see Josh Gibson with the Homestead Grays. We’d see Satchel Paige — I saw Satchel Paige pitch both ends of a double-header, nine innings and nine innings, one Sunday afternoon. We’d see these guys — Roy Campanella with the Baltimore Giants. And, you know, I’m sitting there with my father in ’42, ’43 and ’44, watching all these great guys, and wondering, ‘What the — why isn’t Satchel pitching in the American League, in the majors?’ And then, of course, being a Brooklynite, I was there watching Jackie Robinson make his debut.
“What I’m saying is that the appearance of a Chinese-Canadian hockey player was part of this whole gradual, very slow — too slow — acceptance of, or inclusion of, players [of colour]. … This was progress. Too slow, but it was progress.”
For Soon, the most important facet of Kwong’s impact on the game might not even be his place within that historic wave, nor his spin at the Forum, his nights at the Garden. For him, it was everything that came after, when — having led the Vernon Hydrophones to two championships, the Trail Smoke Eaters to a championship, the Valleyfield Braves to pair of championships; having earned an MVP nod and First All-Star Team honours in a Quebec league that featured the likes of Béliveau, Jacques Plante and Dickie Moore; having paced his Valleyfield team in points, and finished just behind Béliveau in the league’s scoring race — Kwong left North America for Europe in the late-’50s.
“In Europe, oh my gosh, he takes it to another level,” Soon says. “If you read the stories about him in the press in Switzerland when he goes there, in German and Italian and French, it’s like he’s been dropped from the hockey gods. They had never seen anyone like him. The language is like he’s the most incredible hockey player one can imagine. He’s teaching them the game. He’s not only teaching the Swiss the game, he puts together a team called the Swiss Canadians with some Canadian ex-pats, none of whom had played the NHL. … And they’re beating the Soviet national team, they’re beating the Czech national team. They were the standard.
“That’s part of the story that really gets lost. Everyone is so focused on that one minute that they don’t realize, not only was he a huge builder in terms of diversifying the game and changing that, but [also] just as a builder of hockey as a world sport. … He’s got so many claims to that Builder title. It was the diversity, but it was also spreading the game throughout Europe, starting in England, where he was a superstar, and then going to Switzerland and playing through all those countries and tournaments. The Swiss Ice Hockey Federation sent a letter of support calling him a great ambassador and builder of hockey.”
The fact that Kwong’s story has been overlooked for so long is a key reason it needs to be raised up, says Hasham.
“It’s important for us to share these stories … because hockey’s more than just what we talk about. It’s more than just men that play, it’s more than just white men that play, it’s more than the NHL. Hockey is a sport that belongs to all of us in this country. And we’ve got to start recognizing people that fought through the barriers to get to the top level, but also that have given back to the game, the way Larry did.”
“The stereotypes persist,” Soon adds. “We still think of hockey as a white person’s game, or a man’s game — it’s the same thing with female hockey. It’s that fighting for your place in the game that you love. And by doing that, there’s that broader social fighting for your place. Because hockey was a loophole for Larry. He could not, by law, get a job as a lawyer, a pharmacist — all the professions were cut off to him. Hockey offered him this chance to not only follow his dream, not just participate in society, but to be a star.
“To play Canada’s game and actually be seen as not just an equal, a Canadian, [but] as a role model, as someone to look up to, as a hero.”
Near the end of his life, Kwong wasn’t heralded as a hockey hero. As was his way, he didn’t chase that title, either. He simply pushed on, shifting his focus to heroics closer to home.
“He was a very giving, caring, supportive person. … He had a relationship with nieces, nephews, great-nieces. We have five generations now in our family, and he had a relationship with his brothers, his sisters, his in-laws, their children. He was encouraging to all of them, no matter what they wanted to do,” Heintz says. “He’d always be everybody’s biggest cheerleader. … Both my girls, they’re young adults now, but in their young life they both danced. And he was at every performance that they had. Even if his eyesight wasn’t that great, and he couldn’t tell which one they were on stage, he was still there supporting them and giving them words of encouragement.”
For Hasham, Kwong’s greatness is defined by something else, too: His ability to push on, with unending positivity, even after seeing a lifetime of historic accomplishments go largely unnoticed. His ability to pour as much into his second act — building a family — as he did into building the game. It isn’t just the records or the titles or the things he built overseas that made him one of the greats — it’s all he survived, all he outlasted, too.
“When I think about Larry’s story, I think about everything he would have had to face,” Hasham says. “He just did it. He just went out and did it. Yeah, we can boil it down to statistics and, you know, ‘Is he worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame?’ There are going to be naysayers out there, there are naysayers out there. But at the end of the day, what would have happened if you were in Larry’s shoes? Would you have been able to accomplish everything that he accomplished in the game?”
The answer is clear. Or, at least, it should be. Because for all the greats who came before and after, there are none who did what Larry Kwong did. None who faced what he faced, and still charted a path strewn with as many first-evers and never-befores. For that one minute, for everything that led up to it and everything that followed, there was no one else.