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100 Greatest Players

Syl Apps: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Legendary Maple Leafs center idolized for character, athleticism

by Stu Hackel / Special to

Had legendary Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe been able to design the perfect man to personify his franchise in the 1930s and '40s, he could not have improved on Syl Apps.

"Apps had more to do with the image the Leafs in the 1940s as Canada's team - the good guys, the very good guys - than any other player," author Jack Batten wrote in his book "The Leafs in Autumn." "He looked so dashing on the ice, all that speed and skill. And off the ice, he was the last word in pure vessels, a teetotaler, a non-smoker, a Baptist steeped in moral propriety, the model team captain."


Video: Syl Apps won Stanley Cup three times with Maple Leafs


Apart from his unusual name, Charles Joseph Sylvanus Apps seemed made to order, a virtuous and handsome real-life Canadian version of the fictional Frank Merriwell, the pulp magazine and American radio serial hero, a dreamed-up multi-sport collegiate athlete who lived an upright life and, in his spare time, solved mysteries and righted wrongs. Apps was no part-time sleuth, but his decades of public service, combined with his on-ice and off-ice behavior, made him a paragon of sportsmanship and citizenship. Smythe would, in fact, introduce him at gatherings as "Syl Apps, our captain, who does not smoke or drink."

Smythe also called Apps "the greatest player ever to wear a Leafs uniform."

Others added their superlatives.


Games: 423 | Goals: 201 | Assists: 231 | Points: 432


"He's a Rembrandt on the ice, a Nijinsky at the goalmouth," Vince Lunny wrote in "Sport Magazine." "He plays with such grace and precision, you get the impression that every move is the execution of a mental image conceived long before he goes through the motions."

Red Wings coach/general manager Jack Adams called him, "the greatest center I have ever seen."

Teammate Howie Meeker contended, "He never played a bad game in his life." 

His successor as Leafs captain, Teeder Kennedy, went further, calling Apps "as fine a man as ever lived."

His teammates universally saluted the strong and dedicated leadership of No. 10 while Leafs fans idolized him for his character and athleticism. The Apps hockey resume provided countless reasons for their admiration.

He captained Toronto for six seasons and to three Stanley Cup championships. He won the inaugural Calder Trophy in 1936-37 and led the NHL in assists with 29 in each of his first two seasons. He was runner-up in Hart Trophy voting three times and in the top three for five consecutive seasons, and was a First Team or Second Team All-Star selection five times.

In a time when roughhouse hockey was de rigueur, Apps played hard but exceedingly clean, using his stick not for evil, but for sharp passes, deft puck-handling and powerful shots. A regular contender for the Lady Byng Trophy, Apps won it in 1941-42 after going the entire season without being penalized.

Apps was a six-time 20-goal scorer, including each of his last four NHL seasons, three of which came after he returned from two years of military service. He was runner-up in the NHL scoring race three times, and his player panel would certainly read even more impressively had injuries not intervened, a consequence of his relentless play in high-traffic areas. He played a full schedule (48 games) just once, in his rookie season.

Although scoring titles and Hart Trophies eluded him, Apps' consistency when healthy tells the full story. In his first seven seasons, 1936-37 until he entered military service after 1942-43, only he and Boston Bruins center Bill Cowley among NHL regulars averaged a point-per-game or better, both with a 1.06 average.

And among NHL players who played simultaneous with Apps' full career until 1948, only Cowley's 1.06 ppg. surpassed his 1.02, and Cowley benefited from playing while Apps was in the Army, when the 1943 rule change that permitted forward passes to the red line unlocked NHL offenses.

Apps was a big man, 6-feet tall and 185 pounds, but he'd fall victim to torn shoulder muscles, a broken collarbone and an injured knee, each sidelining him for chunks of time. He missed a month with the knee issue in 1940-41, yet still finished tied for second in scoring.

With the Leafs battling for first place in January 1943 and gunning for a second consecutive Stanley Cup, Apps seemed headed for his best season yet, with 23 goals and 40 points in only 29 games, but in that 29th game, as Leafs broadcaster Foster Hewitt recalled in his book "Hockey Night in Canada," "Apps tried to swoop around a goalpost but instead crashed into it and broke the main bone in his right leg. He never played again that season and his absence likely destroyed the chances of the club to head the league or win the Stanley Cup."

After each injury Apps bounced back, and perhaps no skater was more pleasing to watch. He was exceptionally swift and fluid, although he never took any special lessons or drills as a youth. "It just came naturally," he told Batten in the book "The Leafs in Autumn."

Apps was born in Paris, Ontario, on Jan. 18, 1915, the son of a pharmacist who gladly flooded an indentation on his property to give his three kids, of which Syl was the middle child, a place to skate each winter. Nearly all of his skating was on natural ice except for Saturdays, when the local kids congregated at the Paris Arena, paid a dime each and played for an hour. He played little organized hockey until joining the Paris junior team at 15. But, as he told Batten, "For three months, from the end of February or early March, I was on skates every day."

Apps excelled in numerous sports and played hockey and football at McMaster University. A friend alerted Smythe about Apps but he scoffed, "Sylvanus Apps - that's no name for a hockey player." Then Smythe saw him play football in 1934 and was impressed.

"I still didn't know how good a hockey player Apps was," Smythe said in his autobiography, "but he was showing me he was a great athlete."

Smythe immediately contacted the NHL to place Apps on the Leafs' negotiation list. He remained listed for two years while completing his education and competing for Canada as a pole vaulter in the 1934 British Empire Games (winning gold) and the 1936 Berlin Olympics (finishing 6th).

After signing with the Maple Leafs, Apps quickly demonstrated he could make NHL players around him better. Coach Dick Irvin inserted him at center on the former Kid Line, where retired star Joe Primeau had skated between Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson. The wingers were no longer kids, but Apps rejuvenated Jackson into a First Team All-Star. And after Conacher's early-season wrist injury, Gordie Drillon moved in, beginning a productive six-season partnership that saw Drillon score 127 goals and Apps 103.

Quietly intense and hugely competitive, Apps had already perfected his own, hard-to-defend plays, including speeding down the wing, cutting behind the net and laying a perfect pass in front to a charging linemate.

While he played a gentleman's style, Apps refused to be pushed around. When Boston's Flash Hollett high-sticked Apps, knocking out two teeth, Apps punched him to the ice, one of only three NHL fights he'd have. More frequently, Apps would vent his frustrations with a sanitized form of swearing, as he demonstrated in 1937 when a referee failed to penalize a Red Wings player who had slashed Apps in the head. Apps unleashed a string of, for him, harsh words, consisting of "Jiminy Christmas!" and "By Hum!" - much to his teammates' amusement.

The Leafs named Apps captain for the 1940-41 season and a season later he helped spearhead what remains the most remarkable comeback in Stanley Cup Finals history. Down 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings, Apps sparked the turnaround in Game 4, scoring the tying goal and setting up the winner, then getting two goals and three assists in 9-3 win in Game 5. Momentum having swung, Toronto rallied to win the Cup and Apps led all postseason scorers with nine assists and 14 points in 13 games.

It was that next season when Apps broke his leg, and a few weeks later the honorable captain made his way into Smythe's office with a $1,000 check, intent on returning part of his $6,000 salary. "Conn, I'm making more than I deserve," he said. A flabbergasted Smythe recalled, "I almost died of heart failure. Of course, I refused his check."

Apps returned from the Army for the 1945-46 season needing to adjust to a faster, more offensive NHL, telling Batten, "I'd hardly been on skates in two years and I had a terrible time settling down." Apps still scored 24 goals, a career high. He'd score 25, then 26 in his final two seasons.

Teamed with Harry Watson and Bill Ezinicki, Apps led the rebuilt Leafs to two consecutive Stanley Cups. In 1947 against the favored Montreal Canadiens, Apps played an inspired Game 4 and scored the winning goal at 16:36 of overtime to put Toronto up 3-1 in games. After the Leafs lost Game 5, Toronto won Game 6 2-1.

Apps considered retirement that year, then pledged to first reach the 200-goal plateau. With 196 career goals heading into the last weekend of 1947-48, he scored five goals in two games, finishing with 201. He again led the Leafs to the Cup, scoring key goals in the first and fourth games as Toronto swept Detroit. Smythe urged him to rejoin the club the following autumn, but Apps stuck by his decision.

He went on to careers in business and government. He also raised a hockey-playing namesake son who he watched win the 1975 NHL All-Star Game MVP. Apps, who died on Dec. 24, 1998, told Batten, "I can't think of a bigger thrill."

Years later, author Michael Ullmer interviewed the unassuming Apps for his book "Captains" and wrote, "When asked how he would like to be remembered, Syl Apps, politician, Olympian and professional sports star, says, 'As a pretty good hockey player.' "

That he was.


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