Inside the NHL

Being a rare player of Asian descent on most of his hockey teams while growing up never gave Brendan Lee much pause.

The Seattle-born, Capitol Hill-raised forward with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League said he wasn’t made to feel different, nor subjected to racist taunts. It wasn’t until joining the Silvertips last season, living with then-teammate Justyn Gurney, who like him is also of Chinese heritage, that both realized what a junior-hockey anomaly they were.

“We always talked about how it was funny that we lived together and there weren’t really any other Asians in the league,” said Lee, 19, whose father, Greg, is of Chinese heritage and his mother, Lisa, of Irish descent.

But other than not appearing the same as most teammates and opponents, Lee said his hockey experience, just like his off-ice life, has been about as ordinary and problem-free as he could imagine. 

“It’s not like a lot of Asians played hockey — there was only maybe one guy per team, if that,” Lee said of 12 years on Seattle Junior Hockey Association youth squads, followed by stints with elite programs in British Columbia and Colorado before last season’s nine-goal, four-assist Silvertips debut campaign. “So it’s pretty rare. But growing up I didn’t really have any difficulty. I was really grateful that I grew up in a diverse city like Seattle, because there’s a really good (Asian) community here. So I think I was fortunate.”

So it jolted him last week, as the Silvertips prepared for the weekend launch of their 24-game season shortened by COVID-19, when eight people were shot to death in Atlanta-area spas — including six women of Asian descent. Authorities are mulling whether to charge the suspect with a federal hate crime. The killings raised calls nationwide for action to counter a surge in anti-Asian harassment and violence since the pandemic began.

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Lee said neither he nor his immediate family have felt targeted, though he’s aware of fears within the broader Asian community. He hopes there’s some role he can play, through hockey, in projecting a positive image of Asian Americans — within that diverse community and beyond.

“It’s horrible what happened,” Lee said. “And with the platform I have, I think I can be an influencer. Maybe have somebody look up to me that’s a kid, who can see an American Asian playing hockey — and that it’s a kid from Seattle.”

Though players of Asian heritage have never been abundant, those such as Lee have made a steadier climb to hockey’s junior and college ranks. Results are showing up at the NHL level. A record eight players of Asian heritage began this season on NHL rosters, including Spokane native Kailer Yamamoto of the Edmonton Oilers, whose paternal grandfather is Japanese.

Everett Silvertips left wing Brendan Lee is one of only a handful of players of Asian descent playing in the Western Hockey League. Lee, 19, a Seattle native raised in Capitol Hill by a father of Chinese heritage and a mother of Irish descent, hopes he can use his hockey platform to promote positive views of Asian Americans amid concerns of harassment and violence targeting that broader community during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Mast / Everett Silvertips)
Everett Silvertips left wing Brendan Lee is one of only a handful of players of Asian descent playing in the Western Hockey League. Lee, 19, a Seattle native raised in Capitol Hill by a father of Chinese heritage and a mother of Irish descent, hopes he can use his hockey platform to promote positive views of Asian Americans amid concerns of harassment and violence targeting that broader community during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Mast / Everett Silvertips)

And the history of players of Asian heritage actually goes back quite a ways within the game. The NHL’s first player of color was Larry Kwong, a Canadian of Chinese heritage who played a game as an injury call-up for the New York Rangers in March 1948 — a decade before Willie O’Ree broke the unofficial NHL “color barrier” as its first Black player.

Kwong, who died in 2018 at age 94, left hockey’s minor professional ranks soon after his lone NHL contest — having been frequently bypassed for further Rangers promotions by similarly skilled teammates. He was paid better money to play semipro senior league hockey and enjoyed a distinguished career against several future Hall of Famers, including an MVP season under legendary coach Toe Blake.

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Once the NHL expanded beyond six teams in 1968, more opportunities for players of Asian heritage beckoned. Still, it took a while, just as it did for Black players, before they overcame decades of ingrained stereotyping.

Mike Wong, an American of Chinese descent, played 22 games for Detroit in the mid-1970s. In 1991, Korean-born defenseman Jim Paek became the first Asian player to win the Stanley Cup, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, alongside current Kraken general manager Ron Francis. 

By 1995 the NHL had its first star player of Asian descent, when Canadian-born Paul Kariya — of Japanese and Scottish heritage — joined the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Theories abound about the recent NHL influx, including Kariya serving as a role model for future players of Asian descent. But an equally likely explanation is continued NHL expansion to nontraditional hockey markets, many with strong Asian communities.

It makes sense that people of Asian heritage, their families living and working in these U.S. cities for generations, would only now be playing in much bigger numbers after the NHL and accompanying grassroots hockey programs finally came to them.

In contrast, Kwong, the NHL’s first player of Asian descent, was born in British Columbia nearly a century ago, and Asians have played hockey there a long time. One player was Silvertips forward Lee’s father, born and raised in Vancouver before coming to Seattle in 1984 to join its blossoming technology industry. 

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The Chinese side of Lee’s family traces its North American roots back more than 100 years to a great-great grandfather arriving in Victoria, British Columbia. A great-grandfather, Key Y. Lock, arrived from China in the 1920s and served in the U.S. Army during World War II — in December being one of thousands of Chinese veterans posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for earning heroic service citations overseas despite discrimination back home. Lock later settled in Seattle, choosing a Capitol Hill residence Lee’s father visited frequently from Canada and eventually moved close to.

Everett Silvertips forward Brendan Lee (second from right) with his father, Greg, mother, Lisa, and older brother Sean. (Photo courtesy of the Lee family)
Everett Silvertips forward Brendan Lee (second from right) with his father, Greg, mother, Lisa, and older brother Sean. (Photo courtesy of the Lee family)

Lee’s father had played recreationally and taught hockey to his son, who he agrees had a relatively carefree upbringing in the sport. The only teasing was good-natured ribbing by Lee’s local friends over being the lone hockey player in their sports-minded group.

Indeed, Lee may be even more of a rarity as a Seattle native in the WHL than as a player of Asian heritage. Both could become less rare with the Kraken’s pending debut expected to prompt an explosion in local youth hockey participation.

Lee’s dad agreed his immediate family, though “angry and concerned” about recent anti-Asian sentiment, hasn’t felt targeted during the pandemic.

“But we also haven’t been living a normal life,” Greg Lee said. “Most of it’s been quarantined and not going out that often.”

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He worries about more elderly local Asian residents, and his mother and older sister back in Vancouver.

“Things are happening everywhere,” he said. “Even in Vancouver and in Canada. And of course, here.”

To help such people — and “give back” to the Asian community — Greg Lee has volunteered twice a week during the pandemic delivering groceries to elderly International District residents. Last month, on his 19th birthday, Lee accompanied his father on one such daylong run.

Everett Silvertips forward Brendan Lee delivers groceries last month to elderly residents of Seattle’s International District kept homebound by COVID-19 concerns. (Photo courtesy of the Lee family)
Everett Silvertips forward Brendan Lee delivers groceries last month to elderly residents of Seattle’s International District kept homebound by COVID-19 concerns. (Photo courtesy of the Lee family)

Like his dad, Lee is also proud of his Chinese heritage and not afraid to show it.

But he’s also a hockey player like any other, dreaming of being drafted or landing a professional contract within the next two years. The Silvertips, off to a 2-0 start, are self-quarantining all season for COVID-19 precautionary reasons in dormitories at Everett Community College — leaving only for practices and games.

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So Lee, who had two assists the first two games, spends his free time playing pingpong in a dormitory courtyard. After a year of the WHL being paused, he’s thrilled to be hanging around teammates again. And he knows that, no matter what’s happening elsewhere, they’ll never single him out.

“I’ve always felt a part of the team,” Lee said. “I’ve never felt weird compared to other guys because of my race. But I’m definitely proud of who I am. If it wasn’t for who I am, I wouldn’t be me.”

And that’s something he hopes to keep showing others, both inside and outside the Asian community, for as long as the sport will have him.