Stephen Hume at Vancouver Sun reviews King Kwong, by Paula Johanson

There’s an excellent review by Stephen Hume of Paula Johanson’s fascinating biography of hockey legend Larry Kwong in the August 4 edition of the Vancouver Sun. 

King Kwong, book by Paula Johanson. 

Photograph by: Handout

Mention the China Clipper and football fans think of Calgary-born Normie Kwong, the hall-of-famer who won three consecutive Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos.
But for all his deserved accolades in football, in business and as Alberta’s lieutenant-governor — fellow footballers Peter Lougheed and Don Getty served as premiers — he was still the China Clipper, Second Edition.

The First Edition was Larry Kwong — no relation — born in Vernon and an ace on the ice not the gridiron. Larry’s credited with breaking the colour bar in the National Hockey League a scant 11 months after Jackie Robinson did it for major league baseball.

B.C. writer and self-described lifelong hockey fan Paula Johanson reminds us of the ephemeral nature of sports history in King Kwong, her marvellous little biography of the whirlwind on skates who blew out of the dusty interior 75 years ago.

Johanson even tracks down the source of that now-politically incorrect nickname. It first appears in Vernon newspapers in 1940. And explains its migration across the Rockies to be repurposed for the football player who took the Calgary Stampeders to a Grey Cup in 1948 before being traded to Edmonton where he won three more.

The B.C. nickname was “adopted” by a Calgary broadcaster when two southern Alberta teams joined the West Kootenay Hockey League in which Larry Kwong played.

The broadcaster called play-by-play for both hockey and football, so when another Kwong showed up as the first player of Chinese descent to play pro football in the CFL, he began using the catchy hockey nickname in his football broadcasts.

Interestingly, Johanson reports, in 1884 Kwong’s father came to B.C. aboard a clipper ship — one of those swift three-masters that put up more than a hectare of canvas and with a steady trade wind on the quarter could outrun a steamship, as the famous Thermopylae once did to the cheering passengers of the Empress of China.

Like many a pilgrim to Gold Mountain, Larry’s dad, Ng Shu Kwong, discovered there was wealth in the ground other than nuggets. He went farming at Vernon, worked in the mill, started a grocery business and became prosperous.

Larry was born in 1923, the same year that Canada’s racist Chinese Exclusion Act imposed restrictions on immigration.

But, just as many Canadian kids before and since, Larry discovered the pleasures of playing shinny with a frozen horse apple. One of the most charming hockey photos of the many Johanson unearthed for her book is one of Larry, his sister Betty and a couple of neighbour kids playing shinny outside the Vernon family store.

Like many another hockey kid, he wheedled skates out of his mom with a promise that when he was a real hockey player, he’d buy her a house.

Mom wasn’t convinced. She thought the game too rough. Still, she bought him the skates — one size too big so he could grow into them.

Her son turned out, as they say, to be a phenom. He led the Vernon Hydrophones to B.C. Midget and B.C. Juvenile championships.

In Game 1 of the 1939 Midget championship against Nelson, Larry scored four unassisted goals in the first period. In Game2, he bagged a hat trick. End of series.

In the 1941 Juvenile championship series, he scored four of the Hydrophones’ eight goals in the championship final.

Then he signed with the Trail Smoke Eaters, which had won the Allan Cup — the senior men’s equivalent to the Stanley Cup — in 1938 and a world championship in 1939. And that led to the New York Rovers, farm team for the New York Rangers.

On March 13, 1948, he was called up by the Rangers for a game against Montreal Canadiens. They only played him for one shift — less than a minute — but the China Clipper had ended the era of whites-only hockey in the NHL.

Johanson’s book with Five Rivers Publishing is aimed at young adults but I doubt there’s a hockey fan who will be put off any more than Larry Kwong was by his nickname as he dashed up the ice to score the winning goal for the Smoke Eaters in that long-forgotten B.C. Championship of 1946.

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