Syl Apps ranks as one of the greatest captains in Toronto Maple Leaf history. A team captain from 1940 through 1943 and again from 1945 until his retirement in 1948, Apps was the star of the 1940s dynasty that captured 3 Stanley Cups with him at the helm.
Apps was an artistic a player as have ever played in the National Hockey League. They called him the “Nijinsky of the Ice,” comparing his graceful skating abilities to the happy feet of the great Russian ballet dancer Naslav Nijinsky. Equally as impressive were his puck skills – he had one of the most accurate shots and loved to set up his teammates – particularly Harvey “Busher” Jackson and Gordie Drillon. He could do tricks with the puck as he stickhandled down ice unlike almost any player of any era. Comparisons to modern day superstar Joe Sakic are not without merit. Several of the few old timers who are still with us insist Syl was the greatest player they had ever seen.
Born in Paris, Ontario where his father ran a drug store, Apps was the typical “All Canadian” boy. Not only was he a hockey hero, but an exceptional athlete all around. Apps captained the McMaster University football team to an inter-collegiate title in 1936. A two-time Canadian pole vault champion, Apps was the British Empire champion in 1934 and placed sixth at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
It was hockey that Apps loved most, although it was his performance in a football game that earned him an invite to the National Hockey League. Conn Smythe had heard from a hockey partner about Syl's exploits with the McMaster University hockey team. Smythe was in attendance when the McMaster football team travelled to play the University of Toronto. Smythe was so impressed with the athleticism of Apps that reportedly by half time he had contacted National Hockey League offices to claim Apps on the Leafs protected list.
Apps was reluctant to sign with the Leafs, however. Apps, always conscious of his clean cut image, once told a writer "pro athletes were not looked upon as the right sort," decided jobs were scarce and the Leafs offered more money than any other industry during the Great Depression.
Apps burst on to the NHL scene when he joined the Leafs in 1936-37. He captured the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie as he led the Leafs in scoring, finished second overall in the entire league, just 1 point behind Sweeney Schriner. Apps’ 29 assists led the entire league.
There was no such thing as a sophomore jinx for the lanky star, as he took his game to an even higher level in year two. He again led the league in assists, most of which were on linemate Gordie Drillon’s goals. Drillon led the whole league in scoring, while Apps finished just 2 points behind. Apps was rewarded for his fine play with a Second Team All Star selection.
By 1939-40 defensive specialist Bob Davidson replaced Busher Jackson on the Leafs' top line with Apps and Drillon. Over the next several seasons the "DAD Line" as they were known were the toast of the entire league.
1941-42 was a special season for Apps and for the Leafs. Apps tied Drillon for the team scoring lead with 41 points, but if he had not missed 10 games due to injury he likely could have challenged the New York Rangers Bryan Hextall for the NHL scoring championship. Apps did earn the Lady Byng trophy as he turned in one of the rarest of all hockey feats - a penalty free season.
But that season was memorable for the post season dramatics. The Leafs had advanced to the Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings. For the first three games the Leafs looked overmatched as the Wings took a commanding 3 games to none lead in the series. Apps, who was held pointless in those first three contests, engineered the greatest comeback in Stanley Cup history. Apps scored 7 points, including 3 goals, as the Leafs eliminated the 3-0 deficit and amazingly captured Lord Stanley's Cup in game 7!
He played seven seasons with the Leafs before enlisting in the Canadian Army in 1942. He also played three years after his return from World War II, retiring after the 1947-48 season. He went out in style. In his final regular season game he scored a hat trick to give him a career total of 201 goals in an era when 200 goals was looked upon as highly as 500 goals is in today's game. He posted career highs in both goals and points and was a finalist for both the Hart and Byng Trophies. In the playoffs he orchestrated he led the defending Stanley Cup champions to a rare repeat victory.
Known as a modest, quiet individual who lived his life as cleanly as could possibly be, never smoking, drinking or cursing, Apps was captain of the Leafs for most of his career, which he finished with 201 goals and 432 points in 423 games. He also had 25 goals and 54 points in 59 career playoff games. He only had 56 penalty minutes in his entire 10 year career!
In addition to the Calder Trophy, Apps won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1942 for gentlemanly play. He was twice a first-team all star and three times a second-team all-star center and played on three Stanley Cup champion teams. Apps received the highest honor in all of hockey when he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
Apps also had a keen interest in the political arena. He first ran for public office in 1940, narrowly losing a bid for a federal seat. He was named Ontario Athletic Commissioner in 1946 and for 11 years, 1963-74, Apps was a Conservative member of the provincial parliament and served in Ontario's cabinet as minister of corrections.
Apps was married to Molly and they had five children: Joanne, Robert, Carol, Sylvannus Jr., and Janet. Robert, also known as Bob, played in the Canadian Football League. Syl Jr. had a nine-year NHL career with the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings. A third Syl, Syl Jr.'s son Syl Apps III, would also play hockey, but never at the National Hockey League level. The Princeton University graduate played the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons in the Maple Leafs organization. He played with the Leafs top farm affiliate in St. John's, Newfoundland. Grand-daughter Gillian Apps has emerged as one of the top female hockey players in the world, winning Olympic and World Championship gold.
Syl Apps passed away on Christmas Day, 1998 after a long battle with a neurological disorder that doctors were never able to properly diagnos.
Upon his death, former Leafs remembered Apps as one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.
"He represents what pro athletes should be. He was the Jean Beliveau of English Canada," said former Leaf Jim Dorey.
"Everyone who ever wanted to play for the Leafs looked to Syl as their inspiration. He was a great, great man," said Teeder Kennedy.