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Kwong, 94, was first NHL player of Asian descent

Larry Kwong’s National Hockey League career began and ended on the same night. He played a single shift, lasting a minute or so, for the New York Rangers against the Canadiens at Montreal on March 13, 1948. He scored no goals, had no assists and received no penalties.

Kwong, a 5-foot-6 center known as the China Clipper for his speed, played in Quebec and Europe after that season. But when he died Thursday in Calgary, Alberta, at 94, he was remembered as an NHL pioneer. A Chinese-Canadian born in British Columbia, he was the league’s first player of Asian descent.

The Rangers discovered Kwong after he played for a Canadian army hockey team in World War II. They signed him in 1946 for their Rovers farm team, with which they shared the Madison Square Garden ice. The unofficial mayor of Chinatown, Shavey Lee, and two showgirls from the China Doll nightclub in midtown Manhattan honored him there one night.

The Rangers called Kwong up from the Rovers in March 1948 with only a few games left in their season. But their coach, Frank Boucher, waited until the Montreal game was nearly over before putting Kwong on the ice.

“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 NHL.’”

But he didn’t dress again for the Rangers, and he despaired of playing for them again.

“I didn’t get a real chance to show what I can do,” he said.

Long afterward, a schoolteacher in Calgary, Alberta, Chad Soon, who was also of Chinese descent and had heard stories of Kwong’s career from his grandfather, campaigned to honor him as an NHL trailblazer.

“So compelling a story, so deserving of recognition,” Soon once told The Globe and Mail of Toronto. “I became determined to do what I could to get him some attention.”

He succeeded. The Calgary Flames honored Kwong at their arena, the Saddledome, in 2008, and the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto obtained a sweater he wore in the early 1940s with the Nanaimo Clippers of British Columbia.

Kwong was interviewed for the 2011 documentary “Lost Years,” telling of the Chinese-Canadian experience, and the British Columbia Sports of Hall of Fame inducted him in 2013.

To mark the Chinese New Year, the Vancouver Canucks honored Kwong before their game with the Boston Bruins on Feb. 17 in a ceremony at which his daughter, Kristina Heintz, dropped a ceremonial first puck.

“Larry made his wing men look good because he was a great passer,” the Canadiens’ Hall of Fame center Jean Beliveau, who played against Kwong in the minors in Quebec, told The Times. “He was doing what a center man is supposed to do.”

Larry Kwong was born Eng Kai Geong on June 17, 1923, in Vernon, British Columbia, the second-youngest of 15 children. His father, who emigrated from the Canton area of China in the 1880s, owned a grocery store named Kwong Hing Lung (commonly translated as Abundant Prosperity). Since customers referred to the family as the Kwongs, the boy took the name Larry Kwong.

Kwong starred for a midget-hockey provincial championship team, then joined a team in Trail, British Columbia, known as the Smoke Eaters, who rewarded their players by getting them well-paying jobs at the local smelter.

“I made the team, but they wouldn’t give me a job because I was Chinese,” Kwong told The Globe and Mail. He settled for work as a bellboy at a local hotel.

After his single shift as a Ranger, Kwong played with the Valleyfield Braves in the Quebec senior league and was named the league’s most valuable player in 1951. He closed out his career in the late 1950s, playing in England and in Switzerland, where he also coached and taught tennis before opening a grocery with a brother in Calgary.

Kwong’s death was confirmed by his daughter, from his marriage to his first wife, Audrey, who died before him, as did his second wife, Janine. He is also survived by two sisters, Betty Chan and Ina Ng, and two granddaughters.

Kwong became a Ranger four months after Wat Misaka, a Japanese-American, appeared at guard in three games for the New York Knicks, becoming the first player of Asian background in the NBA (known then as the Basketball Association of America). More than a dozen players of Asian ancestry have followed Kwong in the NHL, most notably Paul Kariya, a Vancouver native of Japanese descent, who played from 1994 to 2009 and scored 300 goals.

Kwong was reluctant to blame discrimination for his inability to stick with the Rangers or get a chance with any of the other NHL teams in what was then a six-club league.

But, he said in a 2013 interview with the CBC: “You wonder. Who knows?”

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