Humility, it has been said, is the most delicate of human qualities.
Once you realize you have it, you don’t.
That is the common element of the two latest men to be selected to the Maple Leafs’ Legends Row, the gifted, humble Syl Apps and George Armstrong, a gentle man who maximized modest gifts and tempered every honor with humility.
Armstrong won four Stanley Cups and is best remembered for an insurance goal that gave the Leafs their most recent championship. Apps, another longstanding captain, delivered three Cups to the Maple Leafs.
“I saw Syl Apps play once,” Armstrong, 84, remembered. “My Dad took me to Toronto and we stood behind the blues. He would coach me for two years with the Marlies.”
“I remember my first game against Syl Apps,” said longtime Red Wing and Leaf Red Kelly. “I was playing defence and I had been warned, ‘watch out for this guy Syl Apps. He’s really fast.' On the first shift against him I thought I had good position and he just flew right by me. The only thing that saved me was his linemate went offside. I realized right then this was a different type of hockey player.”
Leafs founder Conn Smythe treasured Apps for his on-ice grace and his off-ice temperance. From the beginning Smythe insisted his hockey team would be a premium brand. He wouldn’t even allow a Leafs ad on the back of a taxicab. That wasn’t in keeping with the dignity of the logo.
Apps himself was aware of the poor image early hockey players endured. He hesitated before asking his future father-in-law's permission to marry.
“Hockey players,” Apps said, “weren’t looked upon as the right sort.”
A Baptist who never cursed and was once voted Toronto’s Father of the Year leant immense dignity to a profession largely peopled by ruffians. Smythe understood the selling of the game; he packaged speed and violence but revered personal integrity and upright behavior. In Apps he had all those things, an unassailable talent and a squeaky clean example of the kind of abstinence Smythe - whose life with an alcoholic mother shaped a disgust of alcohol abuse - treasured and exploited through the new medium of radio.
Apps grew even more magnificent in the telling as Foster Hewitt extolled the Leafs from coast to coast.
Tall, handsome and above all modest, Apps competed for Canada as a pole-vaulter at the 1934 Berlin Olympics. Smythe found him on the football field playing for Hamilton’s McMaster University. He became the League’s rookie of the year and remains the only Maple Leafs centreman to be chosen a first team all-star. He retired at 33 after his best NHL season when he tired of the travel and distance from the real world inherent in a hockey career.
Smythe implored Apps to stay long enough to score his 200th goal. Apps agreed, notched a hat trick in his final game to move to 201 and then, true to his word, retired.
He moved into a long career as a Conservative member of provincial parliament. Apps brought white gloves to the dirty business of politics. Politicians of all stripes marveled at Apps’ belief that any troubled young person, introduced to the benefits of sport and useful endeavor, could change their life to the good. A youth centre in Oakville still bears his name.
For a long time, humility graced the DNA of Leaf captains. Armstrong is the son of a hard-rock miner. His First-Nations roots go through his mother and he remains convinced that his background, as much as his vaunted leadership, landed him the C he wore from 1958-1969.
“Smythe was so proud of being a Canadian, I think that played a part in him naming me captain,” Armstrong said. “He saw in me a native Canadian, a true Canadian.”
But Armstrong was a superb captain and an asphyxiating defensive player. A plodding skater, he studied the habits of opposing players and poured over his notes. Like a defensive back too talented to test, Armstrong’s coverage of his man was so thorough he often went unnoticed. “Playing good defence is easy,” he once said. “If you do it right, the puck never comes to you.”
His peers understood Armstrong’s worth. He played in seven NHL all-star games and his legacy as one of the Leafs’ most influential captains remains unchallenged.
“All I can say about George getting this honor,” said Kelly, “is it’s about time.”
Armstrong played the jovial cutup who made life under tyrannical coach Punch Imlach more bearable. Sometimes when Imlach was blistering the dressing room wall with profane rants, Armstrong would sneak behind him and make faces.
The key to a captain, Armstrong said, wrests with his lieutenants.
“I almost never called meetings. The players hate them. But when I did call a meeting, the first thing I would say is 'don’t complain to me about Punch Imlach. We can’t control what Punch does. All we can control is what we in this room decide to do.’”
“Then we’d open up the floor and sure enough, someone would complain about Punch. And Allan Stanley would stand up and say, ‘did you not hear The Chief?’ Someone else would complain and Red Kelly would say ‘come on, you heard The Chief.’ Everyone would fall into line.”
“You can’t do that alone. I looked at myself as a representative for the six or seven captains who were in that dressing room.”
Invariably, whether it be with Apps or with Armstrong, the question of humility returns. In an era of on-camera trash talking, end-zone dancing and players grabbing their team logos or sheathing their sticks like swords after a goal, George Armstrong and Syl Apps were great because they never accepted the idea of their own greatness.
Hockey, Apps believed, was a passport to a more impactful life helping people through politics. Armstrong, inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975, hasn’t set foot in 20 years.
“To this day, I don’t think I belong there,” he said. “I would be embarrassed to stand there beside a Ted Lindsay or Gordie Howe. I wasn’t half as good as they were.”