Larry Kwong wearing a New York Rangers jersey in 1923.

2021/’22 Hockey Season

With the cooler weather setting in, hockey season is only just around the corner. The 2021/’22 National Hockey League season begins on October 12 between this year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The NHL has a long history, dating back to 1917 when it replaced the National Hockey Association. But it was not until 1948 that the league saw its first non-white player; the player who broke the colour barrier was named Larry Kwong, and he was born right here in Vernon.

 

One of Fifteen

Larry Kwong (1923-2018) was the second youngest of fifteen children. His father, Ng Shu Kwong, had immigrated to Canada from China in 1884, eventually setting up a store in Vernon called the Kwong Hing Lung Grocery.

Like many young boys, Larry grew up listening to hockey games on CBC radio. His passion for the sport was obvious even from the age of five, and two of his older brothers, Jack and Jimmy, encouraged Larry to start playing hockey himself. When the weather was cold enough, Jack and Jimmy would pour water into a vacant lot near the family store, creating a rink for Larry to practice. Larry and some of his friends also liked to frequent a nearby local pond to play their games and sharpen their skills.

 

A first hockey Team

When Larry was 16, he joined his first hockey team, the Vernon Hydrophones. His natural talent gained him instant attention, and his career took off from there. This is not to say that he did not face significant racial barriers along the way; in fact, in 1942, he was invited to the training camp of the Chicago Black Hawks, but the Canadian Government never processed the paperwork that would allow him to leave and return to Canada.

 

Joining the NHL

It wasn’t until after his enfranchisement as a result of serving in the Canadian Army during World War Two that Larry was able to accept an invitation into the NHL. He made his debut with the New York Rangers on March 13, 1948. However, Larry decided to leave the team after only one season; although he was the Rangers’ top scorer, he received very little ice time.

 

A long Career

He went on to have a long and successful career in senior leagues across Canada and the United States, and coached both hockey and tennis in England and Switzerland. He also helped to run his family’s grocery business, which had migrated to Calgary.

In 2011, Larry Kwong was inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, and two years later, in 2013, into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. This remarkable man passed away in Calgary on March 15, 2018. 

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

Honorary “Granny” to many

May 10, 2021

She was a mother to seven of her own children, and honorary “Granny” to dozens of others.

Darn Good Citizen

In 1960, Mary Neilson was presented Vernon’s Good Citizen award for her years of mending sweaters and darning socks for young hockey players.

A Love of Music

Mary Neilson was born in Kirkmichel, a village in Southern Scotland. From a young age, she had a love for music, winning first place at a music festival when she was nine years old for her rendition of a Scottish ballad titled “Caller ‘Ou.” 

 

Portrait of Mary Neilson, seated, with her husband Andrew and seven children in 1955

 

She continued this trend as a young woman, singing in church choirs and entertaining veterans, as well as performing Scottish songs on her own radio show on CKY-FM Winnipeg between 1924 and 1928. Her show, “Burns Nicht,” was on the air during radio’s infancy, making Mrs. Neilson a pioneer in this form of entertainment. 

A Love of Children

In 1939, Mary, her husband Andrew, and their seven children moved to Vernon. While here, Mrs. Neilson truly began to cultivate another of her life’s passions: the nurturing of children, regardless of if they were her own or not.

Mary had a close relationship with her six daughters and one son; in a 1956 Vernon News article, she described her children as marvelous people. But she also cared deeply for the well-being of other children. When asked about her commitment to creating and repairing clothing for Vernon’s young hockey players, she simply said “I like darning.”

A “Granny” to Many

Despite her evident modesty, Mary’s efforts did not go unnoticed by the city’s youngsters, who gave her the affectionate nickname of “Granny.” She was also asked, on two occasions, to pitch the opening ball at the start of the local lacrosse season. The young players autographed one of the balls and presented it to Mary, who displayed it proudly on her mantelpiece.

Mary’s Scottish roots had a profound effect on her approach to life. She was very kindhearted, but also had a no-nonsense demeanor. “I had a strict upbringing,” she said. “I gave my own children a strict upbringing. My grandchildren are getting a strict upbringing. We’re all in good health. You can’t get away from the good old Scotch way.”

Mary Neilson passed away on February 4, 1966. During her funeral service, Reverend Pritchard said “we can grieve only at our loss. She blessed the world with her presence and it is a better place for her being here.”

Gwyn Evans