May 14, 2006

Syl Apps Jr.

Syl Apps was one of top athletes in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s. He was captain of his collegiate football team and was a two time Canadian pole vaulting champion who competed in the 1936 Olympics. But he is best known as the premier center for the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to and following World War II. The hockey hall of famer was Canada's answer to Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth.

On August 1st, 1947 the Apps family gave birth to a son. They named him Syl Jr. Little did they know he too would embark on a lengthy and impressive hockey career 25 years later.

"My father never pushed me in hockey," said Syl Jr. "The only placed he pushed me was in school. He always threatened to make me quit hockey if my marks slipped below 70. But I never did find out if he ever meant it."

But did he ever feel the pressure because of his name?

"I used to feel pressures when I was growing up," he admitted. "From kids' hockey right through my upper junior days the fans would say that the only reason I was playing was because of my father's name. But you reach a point where, if you're not good enough, a name isn't going to win you a job. You have to do it on your own ability."

Drafted 21st overall in the 1964 entry draft, Apps - who attended two of North America's highly thought of post secondary institutions in Princeton and Queen's - would leave the junior and senior ranks in 1968 to play in the Rangers farm system. In two games in the AHL he impressed the Rangers enough to play him with their top farm team the following season - the Omaha Rangers in 1969-70. He scored 16 goals and 38 assists for 53 points in 68 games. During the 1970 CHL playoffs scored a league leading 10 goals and 9 assists for 19 points in just 12 contests. When Omaha's season ended, the Rangers other farm team in Buffalo was still in playoff action. Apps bolstered the Bisons lineup and added 2 goals and 5 points in 7 games.

One scouting report on Apps during his first professional season summed up his play like this: Apps, Jr. is a splendid skater, a good puck handler and playmaker, just like his father."

That is the highest compliment anyone could ever give Syl Jr.

After such a fine season in the minors, the Rangers promoted him to the big team in 1970-71. However he was sparingly used, only seeing a few minutes of action in the 31 games he did appear in. He had only 1 goal and 2 assists. It was the lowest point of his hockey career and he even allegedly so discouraged that he told teammate Brad Park he was thinking of quitting hockey.

"At the time, the Rangers were fighting for first place and they didn't have much confidence in me. In that situation even one goal could make a difference and it was tough for them to use an inexperienced man."

The Rangers solved the problem on January 26, 1971 when they traded him to Pittsburgh for hustling forward Glen Sather. Sather was a popular worker in Pittsburgh, but Syl immediately stepped in became a star in the Steel City.

"That was the best trade I ever made," proclaimed the architect of the deal - Red Kelly, then the coach and GM of the Penguins.

"He just didn't get enough ice time in New York," advised Syl Sr. "I was pleased when he was traded to Pittsburgh because Red Kelly, in my estimation, is one of the outstanding NHL coaches and Syl is play a lot of hockey."

Syl Sr. and Kelly had great respect for each other because they were both stars who faced off against each other back in the 1940s. Red agreed that Syl Jr. had a lot in common with his old man.

"Young Syl's dad was a great guy and a great player. He went so fast I looked like a post on the ice by comparison. His son shows similar qualities. He's strong and he hits and he has a good fake. This is something that has to be born in a hockey player. It comes from breeding. Young Syl has the breeding and I've always said that bloodlines are a wonderful thing."

Kelly added: Syl doesn't skate as fast as his dad. Busting out of his own end, he could really hunchi his shoulders and go. But I think maybe he handles the puck a bit better. Physically, he's just as strong."

In the final 31 games for Pittsburgh that season, Syl collected 9 goals and 16 assists for 25 points. That was just a sign of things to come. The following season he scored 15 goals and 44 assists for 59 points. But Syl Jr. erupted into one of the game's best playmakers in his 3rd full season in the league. Playing most often with Greg Polis and Jean Pronovost, he scored 29 goals and 56 assists for 85 points. The following year, 1973-74, he duplicated the 85 points based on 24 goals and 61 assists.

Syl's 79 point season in 79 games in 1974-75 was secondary to his performance at that year's All Star Game. Playing in his only mid-season classic, Syl was named as the game's Most Valuable Player after scoring 2 goals in a 7-1 Wales Conference romp in Montreal.

Syl's finest offensive season came in 1975-76. In a full 80 games, Syl scored a career high 32 goals, 67 assists and 99 points.

However in 1976-77 Syl's production tailed off dramatically. He fell 38 points down to 61, including 18 goals. After Syl went scoreless in the Pens first 9 games in 1977-78 (he did have 7 assists), the Pens decided to move him while they could still get something for him. They traded him for Dave "Hammer" Schultz, Gene Carre and a draft pick.

Apps rounded out his career with 3 solid season in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him, playoff success never followed him to the west coast either. That was probably the one thing separating Syl from elite status like many other top centers of the 1970s. Only once did the team he played for make it past the 1st round, and half the time they didn't make the playoffs at all.

Despite his lack of fortune in the spring, Syl Jr. carved out a nice career for himself. In 727 NHL games he scored 183 goals and 423 assists for 606 points.

The Apps family continues to be involved in the hockey scene today. Syl Apps III was a star at Princeton University in the late 1990s. He has spent the last couple of years playing at the AHL and ECHL level as a checker, but never came closer to making the NHL.

The Apps have another third generation star to brag about as well. Gillian Apps is one of the top players on the women's hockey scene. She helped Canada win the 2006 gold medal at the Torino Olympics.

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