The First Player to Break the NHL’s Color Barrier Dies at Age 94

Chinese-Canadian Larry Kwong, the first person of color to play in the NHL, has died peacefully in Calgary, Canada at the age of 94.

Kwong was born on June 17, 1923 in Vernon, British Columbia, Canada. He and his family, like other Chinese-Canadians at the time, faced racial segregation, including being barred from voting. But as a child, that didn’t bother Kwong much — he was just interested in playing hockey on the frozen pond near his home, despite discrimination, and tuned in on the radio every Saturday night to listen to the hockey game.

“I was afraid to tell my family because if I did tell them that, the first thing they would say is, ‘You’re not going anymore,'” Kwong said, according to CBC. “And that means I couldn’t play hockey or sports. I toughed it out, just toughed it out.”

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Toughing it out paid off for Kwong, who would soon join the Vernon Hydrophones and ultimately become the team’s best player. The senior league took notice, and signed him on, promising him a job at a local smelter as payment.

larry kwong

“We were all working for a job in those days. We didn’t get the money that they’re getting now,” Kwong revealed. “They wouldn’t give me a job because I was Chinese.”

Job or not, his talent in hockey was evident, and Kwong was quickly recruited by the New York Rangers’ scout for the New York Rovers, their top Eastern Hockey League farm team. From there, he would make the jump to the NHL in 1948 and debut with the New York Rangers, breaking the color barrier and etching his name in the history books.

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Nicknamed both “China Clipper” and “King Kwong” and beloved by fans and media alike, he would spend only a minute — maybe even less — on the ice before being pulled back to the benches.

“I was disappointed in them because when I made the Rangers, the whole country had my name in the paper that I was playing in the game,” Kwong told CBC News in 2013. “And it turned out, I didn’t get much of a chance.”

Still, that wouldn’t stop Kwong from enjoying a long, lucrative career in hockey; he would return to the minor league for many years and ultimately become a successful coach in both Canada and Switzerland.

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Even though Kwong’s brief moment on the ice felt unsatisfying for such a talented player, it left a monumental impact. A student-teacher pair drew inspiration from Kwong’s remarkable story and fought to get his name into the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

“The more you look into Larry’s story, the more you see an exemplary life and you see how Canada has changed,” teacher Chad Soon agreed. “And it was through the efforts of people like Larry, showing us the way and showing that everybody should be included.”

Their hard work was fruitful, and in 2013, exactly 65 years after Kwong’s barrier-breaking game, he was inducted into the hall of fame.

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“I thought it would be really cool… and once he gets in there, he’ll be there forever,” said then-10-year-old student Gavin Donald.

According to his obituary, “Larry is survived by his daughter, Kristina (Dean) Heintz; granddaughters, Samantha and Madison; sisters, Betty Chan and Ina Ng; sister-in-laws, Janet, Irene, and Georgina; and numerous nieces and nephews. Larry was predeceased by his first wife, Audrey. He later remarried and was predeceased by his wife, Janine Boyer.”

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