Perhaps never has a finer man played in the NHL than Syl Apps. A remarkably skilled hockey player, he was big and strong and possessed one of the best shots in the league. He never drank or smoked, never swore and was as loyal to his boss, Conn Smythe, as to his team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Smythe was alerted to Apps when a friend told the Leafs' owner of a great football player at McMaster University who was studying economics. When he heard the young man's name was Sylvanus Apps, Smythe laughed and said, "Nobody with a name like that could possibly become a pro hockey player." Still, he traveled to Hamilton to watch Apps play football. Smythe was so impressed that he offered Apps a hockey contract right then and there, but Apps declined, saying he did not wish to turn professional as he still had to compete in the pole vault at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Apps had previously won the British Empire championship with a jump of 12½ feet. And those were the days when poles were made of bamboo and players landed on their feet in a sand pit.
In his first NHL season with the Leafs, he won the Calder Trophy, the first Leaf so honoured, and his career continued to flourish. During that first year, many players thought he was too nice and not tough at all. Flash Hollett discovered this belief was mistaken one night when he highsticked Apps, knocking out two teeth. Apps dropped his gloves and pummeled Hollett, but he got into only two other skirmishes in his whole career. In 1941-42, he went the whole season without getting a single penalty and was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for his gentlemanly play. At the end of that season, he led the Leafs to the most improbable Stanley Cup win in NHL history, a series against Detroit that he called his career highlight. The Leafs lost the first three games of the finals to the Red Wings but somehow won the next four in a row to win the Cup, the only time this has happened.
Apps played on a line with Gord Drillon and Bob Davidson, and this unit quickly became the team's best line. He teamed with Harry Watson and Bill Ezinicki after the war, once again forming a powerful offensive unit. Watson and Ezinicki were ideal linemates for Apps because they could score goals and take advantage of Apps' ability to draw players to him before passing the puck.
Apps once crashed into the goal post during the 1942-43 season, breaking his leg. He missed almost half the season, and one day during his time off for his injury, he went into owner Conn Smythe's office with a cheque for $1,000. "He was getting $6,000 for the season," Smythe recalled, "and he came to me and said, 'Conn, I'm making more than I deserve. I want to give you this cheque.' Well, I almost died of heart failure. Of course, I refused his cheque. I felt that anyone who thought in such terms was bound to square off what he thought was a debt the following season." At the end of that season, while in the prime of his career, he left the team to join the Canadian Army. There he stayed for two years until the war was over. When he resumed his career, he put the captain's "C" back on his sweater and promptly picked up where he left off.
In 1947, he was appointed Athletic Commissioner for Sport in Ontario. Later, he became a Conservative member of the Legislature, representing Kingston, Ontario. Apps was chairman of the Select Committee on Youth until appointed Correctional Services minister in 1971. Apps was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. In fact, he is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Amateur Athletics Hall of Fame. In 1993, his number 10 was honoured at Maple Leaf Gardens, and is now retired. In January 2017 as part of the NHL's centennial, Syl Apps was selected as one of the 100 Greatest Players in History.
Syl Apps's legacy extends even further than his on-ice career. His son, Syl Apps Jr., starred in the NHL, and his granddaughter, Gillian Apps, was a member of Team Canada's Olympic gold medal tournaments in 2006, 2010 and 2014. His grandson, Syl Apps III, was a college star at Princeton University and played four seasons of professional hockey.