With his hockey skates strapped on and big pads in place, Kevin Du ’07 looks like any speedy Crimson player, flashing a stick and making the puck dance.
But the anonymity of the uniform hides a story of family travail and triumph that few Harvard students can claim.
Du’s father, Luong, an ethnic Chinese who grew up in Vietnam, escaped from his home in Saigon at age 17. After a stop in a Malaysian refugee camp, in 1979 he ended up — of all places — in windswept and remote Tomahawk, Alberta, Canada.
He worked on an Edmond-area dairy farm, in a movie theater, and as a laborer for a utility company. For most of the time, Luong had all three jobs at once — since the teenager had to earn enough to bring eight family members: his mother, two brothers, and five sisters — to a place of freedom and peace.
But rural Alberta in those days was also a place of periodic racism; there were few other Chinese. Luong had to take his share of taunts.
When Kevin was born, his father decided that the best way to acclimate his son to Canadian culture was to get the boy into skates and onto a hockey rink. (Kevin’s younger brother, Jonathan, also started playing at a young age.) By 1984, Luong and his wife Phuong — and the rest of Canada — were in the middle of a hockey decade dominated by the Edmonton Oilers, who won five Stanley Cups in seven years.
The saying is that a boy on ice is never in hot water. And hockey helped Kevin Du stay on a straight path to discipline, good grades, and — increasingly — triumph on the rink. He strapped on his first skates at 4, and started organized play at 6 in his hometown of Spruce Grove, Alberta, a community of 19,000 that’s a 10-minute drive side to side.
“Really early, hockey was part of my identity,” he said. “Everybody knew me as the Chinese hockey player.”
The young forward decided early on a path to the pros. His plan was to get there by good play, by good grades — and by getting through college first. Unlike in the past, said the Dunster House senior, “college is the more direct route” to the pros.
When Du arrived for his freshman year, thousands of miles from home, he admits being so homesick that he was ready to call the family for a plane ticket back. “Then I got on the ice,” he said, “and I felt like I was home.”
For the Crimson, Du got varsity ice time right away. He scored 10 points as a freshman, 20 as a sophomore, and a team-high 33 points as a junior — including a rare hat trick that year in an overtime win against Princeton.
Junior year was the high point of his college hockey career, said Du. The season won him a place on the All Ivy League and All New England teams.
In 2006-07, he was still the team’s high-scoring player, though with only 25 points in a disappointing season (14-17-2). But by the last game Du had made a little Harvard ice hockey history, tying for third all-time in number of games played (135).
His style of play is gritty, aggressive, and fast — good qualities for an ice artist who is not the biggest guy out there (5 feet 9 inches, 175 pounds)
After graduation, Du will use the same pluck his father showed in Tomahawk, Alberta, decades ago — and train over the summer to get ready for a professional hockey tryout with the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League). It’s a binational farm team system a notch below the American Hockey League, with team names like the Idaho Steelheads and the Dayton Bombers.
From there? “All players growing up want to be in the NHL as soon as they step on the ice,” said Du.
While trying out for the pros, the economics concentrator (and ECAC Hockey League All-Academic Scholar) will use his free time to get ready for the Graduate Management Admission Test and the Law School Admission Test. Said Du, “There’s a lot of downtime in professional play.”