During the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Punch Imlach decided to play a joke on his fellow National Hockey League executives.

Bored with the seemingly endless draft, conducted by conference call in those days, Imlach used his Round 11 pick, No. 183 overall, to draft an up-and-coming Japanese hockey star named Taro Tsujimoto.

No one had ever heard of Tsujimoto, who was said to be playing for a team in Tokyo, but Imlach insisted he was a real player who would one day join the Sabres. Not knowing any better, the NHL validated the pick, and Buffalo hockey fans were excited about the prospect of a potential star that Imlach had found overseas.

Weeks went by before Imlach admitted that there was no Taro Tsujimoto and that he had made up the name after browsing through a Buffalo phone book. Even though Tsujimoto was a fictional character, the Sabres embraced the myth and still include his name in the draft history section of their annual media guide.

At the time Imlach played his prank, there were no players of Asian descent in the NHL, and there had been no such player since the late 1940s. Nearly 50 years later, players of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage have had a big impact on hockey, and the prospect of a superstar from Japan would hardly seem outrageous today.

In celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month throughout May, there are many great AAPI hockey players to recognize because the game has come a long way in terms of diversity and inclusion. Some of today’s rising NHL’s stars – a huge part of the league’s future – can trace their ancestry to Asia and the Pacific Islands.

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, we have compiled a list of 10 highly influential players from the NHL’s past and present who make it clear what seemed funny 50 years ago is hardly a joke today.

Who was the first Asian NHL player?

Larry Kwong became the first NHL player of Asian descent when he played one shift for the New York Rangers on March 13, 1948. A native of British Columbia, Kwong was the son of Chinese immigrants. He reached the NHL only three years after World War II ended. Unfortunately, many Americans and Canadians with Asian ancestry were treated as second class citizens in those days, making Kwong’s achievement even more remarkable.

Are there any Asian and Pacific Islander NHL Players?

There are several current NHL players descended from Asians and Pacific Islanders, some of whom you will find on the list below. Today’s NHL includes players who can trace their family roots to China, Japan, the Philippines, and India. The league has also featured players with Korean roots, including one whose name is on the Stanley Cup.

Current Asian NHL Players

Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Montreal’s Nick Suzuki, Edmonton’s Kailer Yamamoto, Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, and Chicago’s Jujhar Khaira are the most prominent players of Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry who played in the NHL during the 2022-23 regular season and ongoing playoffs. Several more now play in the minor and junior leagues.

Celebrating the 10 Most Influential Asian American and Asian hockey players in NHL history

  1. Mike Wong

Position: Center/Left Wing
Years Active: 1 (1975-76)
Teams: Detroit Red Wings
Honors: Member of USA’s 1974 World Junior Championship team

Born and raised in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, Mike Wong had Chinese ancestry on his father’s side and Native American ancestry on his mother’s.

Wong had two passions as a boy – hockey and boxing. He attended Burnsville High School, where he played varsity hockey until his graduation in 1973. He also won a Minnesota Golden Gloves boxing championship.

After high school, Wong joined the Midwest Junior Hockey League’s Minnesota Junior Stars and scored 56 points in 57 games during the 1973-74 season. He then jumped to major junior hockey with the QMJHL’s Montreal Red White and Blue (also known as the Junior Canadiens). His 27 goals and 68 points in 67 QMJHL games drew NHL scouts’ notice, and Wong became a fifth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 1975.

Joining the Wings as a 20-year-old rookie to open the 1975-76 season, Wong made his NHL debut on Oct. 11, 1975, vs. the California Golden Seals. On that day, he became the NHL’s first player of Asian descent in nearly 30 years.

Wong played 22 games as a rookie, scoring one goal and adding an assist. He spent most of his four pro seasons with Detroit’s International Hockey League farm teams in Kalamazoo and Muskegon, Mich. He also played for the AHL’s Rhode Island Reds and the NEHL’s Johnstown Wings.

  1. Jim Paek

Position: Defense
Years Active in NHL: 5 (1991-1995)
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators
Honors: Stanley Cup Champion (1991 and 1992)

Born in Seoul, South Korea, NHL defenseman Jim Paek became the first player of Asian descent to win the Stanley Cup – doing it in back-to-back years with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992.

Paek’s South Korean family moved to Canada when Jim was a baby, and, like many boys in the Toronto area, Paek grew up playing hockey. He was good enough to make the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals roster as a 17-year-old in 1984. After one year in the OHL, Paek was selected by the Penguins in the ninth round of the 1985 NHL Entry Draft.

Paek spent two more years in Oshawa before joining the Pens’ AHL team in Muskegon, Mich. By 1991, he was a full-time NHL player and managed to skate in eight playoff games during the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup run in 1991. The NHL recognized Paek as the first Korean-born player to win the Cup and had his jersey sent to the Hall of Fame.

During the summers, Paek would travel to South Korea to run his own hockey school. In 1994, the Penguins traded Paek to the Los Angeles Kings, where he was briefly a teammate of Wayne Gretzky’s. In 1995, he played his final NHL season with the Ottawa Senators. After several more years in the minor leagues, Paek ended his career by playing three seasons in the United Kingdom.

Paek played a total of 217 NHL games, scoring five goals and 29 assists. He also appeared in 27 playoff games during Pittsburgh’s two Stanley Cup runs.

In 2014, Paek returned to Seoul as head of the Korea Ice Hockey Association. He later coached Korea’s host team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

  1. Richard Park

Position: Center
Years Active in NHL: 14 (1995-1999, 2001-2004, 2005-2012)
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders
Honors: Played for USA in 1994 and 1995 World Junior Championships, AHL All-Star Second Team (1998-99), Played for USA at 2002 World Championships

A second-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1994, Richard Park was born in Seoul, South Korea, just like former Penguins defenseman Jim Paek.

Unlike the Canadian Paek, Park grew up in the United States after moving to Southern California with his family as a 3-year-old. A talented athlete, Park became involved in the Los Angeles’ Kings youth hockey programs. He was so good that by the time he was 13 years old, he and his brother moved to Canada to further their careers.

At age 15, Park, a center, was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League by the Belleville Bulls, who made him the seventh overall pick in 1992. He spent the next three seasons with the Bulls, improving his scoring totals each year. USA Hockey named Park to its 1994 and 1995 World Junior Championship teams, and he totaled 13 points in 14 World Junior games.

On May 3, 1995, Park made his NHL debut in Pittsburgh’s final regular-season game against Florida, registering an assist. He remained with the team for three playoff games and became a regular the following season.

Traded to Anaheim in 1997, Park moved up and down between the NHL and minor leagues for several years. In 2001, he joined the Minnesota Wild, where he averaged 25 points over each of the next three seasons and also earned a spot on Team USA’s 2002 World Championships roster.

Following the NHL lockout season of 2004-05, Park enjoyed the best five years of his hockey career, playing mostly for the New York Islanders, with whom he had a career-high 32 points in 2007-08.

Park went to Europe for the final two years of his career, ending an impressive NHL run that saw him score 102 goals and 241 points in 738 games. He also had three goals and nine points in 40 career playoff games.

After retiring as a player, Park spent several years working with Paek to build the South Korean hockey program and was Paek’s assistant coach at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

  1. Matt Dumba

Position: Defense
Years Active in NHL: 10 (2013-present)
Team: Minnesota Wild
Honors: WHL Rookie of the Year (2011-12), World Championship Gold Medalist with Canada (2016). Bill Masterton Trophy Finalist (2020-21)

Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba drew a lot of attention at the start of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs when he leveled Dallas’ Joe Pavelski with a huge hit that knocked Pavelski out of the postseason’s first round.

At age 28, Dumba is considered one of the league’s tougher defensemen to play against and has been a regular with the Wild since 2014. He scored at least 10 goals in each of his first four NHL seasons and has 79 goals in 598 career regular-season games. He has gone to the playoffs in all but one of his seasons with the Wild, notching five goals and 15 points in 49 games.

Drafted seventh overall by the Wild in 2012, Dumba has a Filipino mother, while his father is of European ancestry. Growing up in Western Canada, Dumba was sometimes bullied over his skin color, and he has made it a priority to fight racism in hockey.

When the Hockey Diversity Alliance formed in 2020, Dumba signed on as an inaugural board member alongside Trevor Daley, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward.  In discussing his decision to join the organization, Dumba recalled his childhood.

"Kids, with my darker skin tone, really kind of threw the book at me, seeing what would stick as far as racial slurs,” he told Minnesota’s KARE-TV. “Seeing my mom come away from the rink ... our family leave in tears. ... I don't believe any kid should have to go through that or bottle that up or hide that from their parents trying to be strong."

  1. Kailer Yamamoto

Position: Right Wing
Years Active in NHL: 6 (2017-present)
Team: Edmonton Oilers
Honors: 2017 First-Round NHL Draft Pick

During an outstanding junior career with his hometown Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, Kailer Yamamoto became the Edmonton Oilers’ first-round pick, No. 22, overall, in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

In the six years since, he has not disappointed, scoring 50 goals and 118 points in 244 NHL regular-season games and playing a key role for the Oilers team currently competing in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Most recently, Yamamoto delivered the series-winning goal for the Oilers in overtime of Game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings on April 29.

Yamamoto grew up just outside of Spokane in Mead, Wash., but left home at age 15 to spend a year in the Los Angeles Kings’ junior program. He came back to finish high school and play for the Chiefs.

Yamamoto wasted no time getting to the NHL. Days after turning 19 and only four months after his draft day, he made his league debut, skating for the Oilers in the Oct. 4, 2017, game vs. Calgary and getting his first point 10 days later against Ottawa. He would finish that season back in Spokane before a couple of years of minor-league seasoning with the Oilers’ AHL team in Bakersfield, Calif. By the start of 2020, he was a full-time NHL regular.

His paternal great-grandfather immigrated to Hawaii from Japan and married a Japanese-American who was living there. The family relocated to Washington State, where Kailer’s grandfather was born and where three generations of his family have lived.

  1. Devin Setoguchi

Position: Right Wing
Years Active in NHL: 9 (2007-2015, 2016-17)
Teams: San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings
Honors: NHL First-Round Draft Pick (2005), WHL East All-Star Second Team (2005-06)

Devin Setoguchi made a name for himself in his second NHL season, scoring 31 goals and 65 points for the San Jose Sharks. His linemate that season was future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton, who would later help Setoguchi overcome one of the greatest challenges of his life.

Growing up on a farm in Alberta, Setoguchi was an outstanding player who found junior hockey stardom as a regular 30-goal scorer with the Saskatoon Blades and Prince George Cougars. His NHL potential was so great that the Sharks used the 2005 No. 8 overall pick to select him ahead of future NHL stars Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, Tuukka Rask, and T.J. Oshie.

Of Japanese descent on his father’s side, Setoguchi’s grandparents spent much of World War II in a Japanese internment camp after being moved from their homes in British Columbia. They were later relocated to Taber, Alberta, where they started their family farm.

Within two years of being drafted, Setoguchi made the Sharks roster and soon found a home on a line with Thornton.  Over three full seasons with San Jose from 2008 to 2011, he registered 73 goals and 142 points. He was eventually traded to Minnesota as a key piece of the 2011 deal that brough defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose.

Setoguchi continued to score for the Wild, but his career was derailed by substance-abuse issues. After spending a relatively productive 2013-14 season in Winnipeg, he signed with his home province’s Calgary Flames as a free agent in 2014, but failed to record a point in only 12 NHL games with the team that season.

He checked into a rehab center in 2015, and it appeared his hockey career was over, even though he still wanted to play. That’s where his old friend Thornton came in, helping him land a roster spot with HC Davos in Switzerland. A strong year overseas enabled Setoguchi to return to the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings in 2016.

Although his NHL career lasted only one more season, Setoguchi’s outstanding performance over his first several years as a pro made him the most prominent Asian heritage player of that period. He has worked as a Sharks broadcaster since his retirement in 2018.

In 516 career NHL games, Setoguchi scored 131 goals and 261 total points. He was a strong playoff performer with 15 goals in 53 games and had seven goals during San Jose’s run to the 2011 Western Conference Finals.

  1. Nick Suzuki

Position: Center
Years Active in NHL: 4 (2019-present)
Team: Montreal Canadiens
Honors: NHL First-Round Draft Pick (2017), Montreal Canadiens Captain

Nick Suzuki is one of the most exciting young players in today’s NHL and one reason Montreal Canadiens fans can look forward to a bright future.

Drafted 13th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Suzuki was Vegas property for only one year before the team traded him to Montreal as part of a deal for Max Pacioretty. That trade has worked out very well for the Canadiens.

Through his first 291 career NHL games, Suzuki has 75 goals and 209 points. In the 2021 playoffs, he helped the Canadiens shock the hockey world by reaching the Stanley Cup Final. He led the team through that postseason run with seven goals and 16 points, giving him 23 points in 32 career playoff games.

Suzuki is so respected within the Canadiens organization, that the team named him captain prior to the 2022-23 season. He was the youngest player ever in the famed franchise’s history to receive that high honor.

Only 23 years old, Suzuki’s best days are ahead of him. His younger brother Ryan, a 2019 first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, has spent the past three years in AHL and is could be an NHL regular by next year.

The Suzuki brothers are one-quarter Japanese and grew up in Ontario as fifth-generation Canadians. Although Nick’s lineage is as much European as it is Japanese, he identifies strongly with his Asian heritage and wants to be a role model for young Asian players hoping to pursue hockey careers. He already has many young fans in Japan.

  1. Jason Robertson

Position: Left Wing
Years Active in NHL: 3 (2020-present)
Team: Dallas Stars
Honors: Calder Trophy Runner-Up (2020-21), NHL All-Star Game (2023), Dallas Stars Leading Scorer (2022-23)

Jason Robertson was already seen as an elite NHL player heading into the 2022-23 season, but he took his game up a notch by scoring 46 goals and 109 points in a full 82 games with the Dallas Stars.

The 23-year-old former Stars second-round pick, who was selected to play in the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, tied for sixth in the league scoring race and was the youngest player in the top 10. He placed seventh in goals.

Robertson has been a major force in the Stars’ current playoff run, averaging over a point per game as the team beat Minnesota in the first round. He is also averaging more than a point per game in his NHL career with 234 in 210 regular-season games.

It’s safe to say that Robertson is already the greatest NHL player of Filipino descent. His mother Mercedes, a native of Manila, immigrated to the United States with family members when she was a toddler. His father, of European descent, was an avid hockey fan who grew up in the Midwest.

As a child in Southern California, Robertson showed so much promise as a youth hockey player that by the time he was 10, his family made the decision to move to Michigan, where he would play against better competition. He spent time in the prestigious Detroit Little Caesars program and chose to play major-junior hockey in Canada rather than take a college scholarship.

Robertson starred for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs from 2015 to 2018. During that time, he was drafted by Dallas and began to set his sights on the NHL. Traded to Niagara during the 2018-19 season, Robertson ended that year as the OHL’s leading scorer with 117 points in 62 games.

He eventually made his NHL debut at Toronto on Feb. 13, 2020, just one month before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the NHL season. Once it was safe to resume play in 2021, Robertson became a Dallas regular. He scored 45 points in 51 games as a rookie to finish second in the voting for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year.

Robertson’s younger brother, Nick, also plays left wing and is a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Nick Robertson made his NHL debut in the 2020 playoffs and has played in 31 career NHL games over the past three years.

Since entering the NHL, the Robertson brothers won over many Asian-American fans. Both Jason and Nick have embraced their chance to be role models for the community.

“It's humbling and, you know, it’s a huge honor,” Robertson told a Washington Post interviewer who asked about the impact he is already having on Asian hockey fans.

  1. Larry Kwong

Position: Center
Years Active in NHL: 1 (1948)
Team: New York Rangers
Honors: First NHL Player of Asian Descent

Back in the days of the Original Six, it wasn’t rare for a minor-league player to dress for an NHL game without actually playing in it. That’s what almost happened to Larry Kwong on the day he made hockey history.

Nicknamed “King”, Kwong was a 24-year-old member of the New York Rangers’ minor-league team, the New York Rovers, in 1948. The Rovers also played their games at Madison Square Garden, and whenever the Rangers needed to fill a roster spot due to injuries, they would call up someone from the Rovers, even if they didn’t let that player get on the ice.

Kwong was the Rovers’ leading scorer in 1947-48, so the Rangers decided to call him up for a March 13 game at Montreal. He sat on the bench for most of the game until Rangers head coach Frank Boucher tapped his shoulder and told him to get on the ice in the middle of the third period. Kwong skated for only one shift, no longer than one minute of icetime, but it was an important one.

Prior to Kwong, no player of Asian descent had ever played in the NHL over the league’s first 30 years. Kwong broke the barrier at a time when racism against Asians was still quite overt in North America. Nearly 30 more years would pass before another player of Asian descent got to follow his lead.

Raised in Vernon, British Columbia, Kwong was the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a local grocery story. Despite his major commitment to working in the store, particularly after his father died at a young age, Larry found time to pursue his first love – hockey. During World War II, when many men’s league teams were shorthanded, Larry had a unique opportunity to play in front of NHL scouts.

The Rangers liked what they saw in the 5-foot-6, 150-pounder, and offered him a chance to join the Rovers. Kwong, who passed away at age 94 in 2018, went on to spend two full seasons in New York and eight more in Quebec before retiring from hockey and returning to Canada to work in the family’s grocery business.

  1. Paul Kariya

Position: Left Wing
Years Active in NHL: 15 (1995-2010)
Teams: Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues
Honors: Hobey Baker Award (1992-93), NHL All-Rookie Team (1995), Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (1995-96, 1996-97), NHL All-Star First Team (1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99), NHL All-Star second Team (1999-00, 2002-03), NHL All-Star Game (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003), Olympic Gold Medal (2002), Olympic Silver Medal (1994), Hockey Hall of Fame (2017)

Only one NHL player of Asian descent can be found in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and few players of any ethnicity are as deserving of that honor as Paul Kariya.

The first player drafted by the expansion Mighty ducks of Anaheim (now Anaheim Ducks) franchise in 1993, Kariya was a superstar in junior hockey, college, and the NHL. He also won medals at two Olympics, including a gold with Canada in 2002.

Kariya’s father was a Japanese-Canadian math teacher born in a World War II internment camp. His mother was of European descent. Together, the couple raised four children in Vancouver, British Columbia, and sports was a big part of the family’s life. Both of Paul’s younger brothers, Steve and Martin, also played hockey at a high level, with Steve enjoying a brief NHL career.

Paul was a prodigy. As a 17-year-old in 1991-92, he scored 132 points in 46 games with the British Columbia Junior Hockey League’s Penticton Panthers. That earned him a scholarship to the University of Maine, where he shattered NCAA scoring records as a freshman in 1992-93

In his lone full season at Maine, Kariya set NCAA freshman records with 75 assists and 100 points in just 39 games and became the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player -- leading Maine to a 42-1-2 record and the national championship. His next stop was the 1994 Olympics, where he won a silver medal with Canada. Later that year, he began his NHL career.

What a career it was. In 989 regular-season games, Kariya averaged exactly one point per game, finishing with 402 goals and 587 assists. In 46 playoff games, Kariya had 16 goals and 23 assists. He came closest to a Stanley Cup championship in 2003, losing in Game 7 of the Cup Final to New Jersey.

The Cup was the only championship Kariya could not win. He retired from hockey in 2010 with an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA title, and two World Championship golds.

Kariya was idolized by hockey fans in Japan, although he unfortunately missed two opportunities to play in that country during the 1997-98 season. In the first case, he was engaged in a contract dispute and did not join teammates for the team’s opener in Tokyo. In the second, he was unable to play for Canada at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano due to an injury.

Numerous firsts are associated with Kariya’s Asian heritage. He was the first player of Asian descent to be drafted in the NHL’s first round, the first to make an NHL All-Star Team, and the first to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. His legacy has inspired many Asian hockey fans to pursue their own dreams.

Parameters for Ranking

In making this list of the 10 most influential NHL players of Asian descent, numerous factors were considered. Among these were the player’s pioneering role, the player’s awards and honors, and the player’s commitment to helping make the NHL a more culturally diverse league.

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