Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
Conn Smythe said he damn near died of heart failure when he heard what his captain had to say. In February 1943, Syl Apps marched into the office of the Toronto Maple Leafs owner carrying a cheque for $1,000. “Conn, I’m making more than I deserve,” Apps said. He thought his $6,000 salary was too much since he’d broken his leg after sliding into a goalpost on Jan. 30 and had to miss the rest of the season. Smythe was floored, and he refused the cheque. Apps had put up 40 points in 29 games and was in the midst of his fifth straight all-star season. The man was a future Hall of Famer, and the way Smythe saw it, Apps would make up for any debt he thought he owed the team on the ice as soon as his leg healed.
Apps was not only one of the most gifted players in Toronto Maple Leafs history, he was also hockey’s consummate gentleman. In an age of multi-million-dollar contracts and lockouts over who deserves what, the man from Paris, Ont., seems like he was pulled out of a fairy tale—too good to be true. The smooth-skating centreman stepped in as a rookie in 1936 to replace Joe Primeau on the Leafs’ No. 1 line, and though there were concerns Apps was “too nice” for the NHL, he was an immediate star. The 22-year-old led the NHL with 29 assists in his rookie season, playing alongside Harvey Jackson and sniper Gordie Drillon, and his 45 points were just one shy of league-leader Sweeney Schriner. That year, Apps won the first-ever Calder Trophy (rookies of the year had been named since ’33, but Frank Calder began handing out his trophy in ’37); it was no contest.
The route Apps took to the NHL is even more mythical. He was a big guy, six-feet tall and 185 lb., studying economics at McMaster University, where he was a standout on both the hockey and football teams. The Leafs president at the time declared there was no way a guy named Sylvanus Apps could possibly become a pro hockey player, but Smythe made the hour-long trip from Toronto to watch Apps in action anyway—on the gridiron—and wasn’t disappointed. As the story goes, Smythe offered Apps a contract to sign with the Leafs after the game without ever actually seeing him on skates. But Apps declined. Not only did he want to finish his degree, the kid was a champion pole vaulter, a gold medallist at the 1934 British Empire Games, and he wanted to keep his amateur status so he could compete for Canada at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. And that he did. Apps finished sixth at the Olympics, then signed to play with the Leafs for the 1936–37 season only after questioning whether hockey was an honourable profession. “Pro athletes were not looked upon as the right sort,” he told a sports writer at the time.
Apps didn’t question the honour of those who play hockey for a living because he was arrogant—far from it. He was incredibly clean-cut. He didn’t drink and he didn’t smoke. Apps didn’t even swear. That gentlemanly demeanour translated to the ice, too; in 10 seasons the career Maple Leaf recorded just 56 penalty minutes. He got through the entire 1941–42 campaign without recording a single infraction, winning the Lady Byng Trophy in the process.
Apps had Hollywood good looks to boot. Flip through old pictures of the Leafs and he stands out—the guy with the full head of dark hair and the broad smile. Though Apps had more than a few reasons to be full of himself, he wasn’t one to talk about his achievements. His granddaughter Gillian, herself an overachieving Apps, daughter of former NHLer Syl Jr. and the owner of two Olympic gold medals as a member of Canada’s national women’s hockey team, never even knew her granddad competed at the Olympics until after he died in 1998. “I guess my family doesn’t talk about things like that,” Gillian says. “He always wanted to know how we were doing in school.”
There are plenty of people out there who will sing Apps’s praises for him, though. Howie Meeker joined the Leafs in 1946, and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Apps the last two seasons of the storied captain’s career. Meeker gushes when he talks about No. 10. “I met a lot of important people: Winston Churchill, the Queen twice. But if anybody in this world had the right to think they were a little bit better than anybody else, Syl Apps did. But he didn’t. He was one of us,” Meeker says. “What a man.”
And what a hockey player. Apps posted more than a point per game during his 10-year NHL career—201 goals and 231 assists, the 12th-most goals in Leafs history and 17th-most points. He was the lead-by-example type on the ice and succeeded Red Horner as captain during the 1940–41 season, a distinction No. 10 held the rest of his days in blue and white. When he missed two seasons to fight in the Second World War, teammate Bob Davidson was given the “C,” but only on loan; it was sewn right back on Apps’s jersey when he returned to the lineup in 1945. “He never played a bad game in his life,” Meeker says. “He was our captain, without question, the man you looked to. He never quit.”
Meeker was part of a young Leafs team in the late ’40s, and remembers the guys hung on Apps’s every word. The captain didn’t speak a lot, but his words had weight. In 1947, Toronto was up 3–2 in the Stanley Cup Final against the favoured Montreal Canadiens, with a chance to complete the upset in game six. It was dead quiet in the locker room before the game and nobody moved until Apps did. Then the captain got up and headed for the door. “By hum, fellas,” Apps said on his way out, “this’d be a great game to win.”
“That was his speech,” Meeker recalls. “That was all he needed to say.” Toronto clinched its first of three straight Stanley Cups with a 2–1 win that night.
The most incredible of Apps’s Cup wins, though, was his first in 1942. The Leafs came back from a 3-0 series deficit to the Red Wings, winning four straight for the greatest comeback in NHL history. It was a hell of a series; Detroit coach Jack Adams was suspended for clocking referee Mel Harwood in the face, and for game seven a record crowd of nearly 17,000—at the time the biggest ever to watch a live hockey game in Canada—filled Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs earned a 3–1 victory and brought the Stanley Cup back to Toronto for the first time in a decade. During that playoff run, Apps led the Leafs in goals and assists; his 14 playoff points tied for best in the league.
In the end, Apps left the game the same way he played it: with class. He didn’t hang up his skates when he started to slow down; Apps retired while still one of hockey’s best. In his last regular season game in 1948, he scored a hat trick and finished the season fifth in the NHL in goals and seventh in points. Then, for the third and final time in his career, Apps led the Leafs to the Stanley Cup—Toronto beat Detroit in four straight. It was a storybook ending to a storybook career. Apps was 33 years old when he retired, though coach Hap Day and Smythe did their best to try and convince the captain to stay. Smythe even mailed Apps a blank contract; Apps never signed or returned it. Hockey’s talented and humble gentleman had decided he was done.
Gillian, who was 16 years old when her granddad passed away, still hears stories about him from fans who grew up watching and idolizing the iconic Maple Leaf. The Apps family has kept his memory alive, too. Her grandfather is the first of four generations of Sylvanuses; the latest is Gillian’s two-year-old nephew. Thanks to the original Syl it’s a name ingrained in hockey lore. And nobody in their right mind would ever tell that kid he doesn’t have the name of an NHLer.