Syl Apps (1915-1998)

On May 31, 2012, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the County of Brant unveiled a provincial plaque at the Syl Apps Community Centre in Paris, Ontario, to commemorate Syl Apps (1915-1998).

The plaque reads as follows:

SYL APPS (1915-1998)

    Born in Paris, Ontario in 1915, Charles Joseph Sylvanus “Syl” Apps was a professional hockey player, businessman and politician. Throughout his life, Apps displayed remarkable breadth in his abilities and accomplishments. He was a varsity football star and as a pole vaulter won two national championships and competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. During an extraordinary 10-season hockey career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Apps was renowned for his skill and impeccable sportsmanship. He was the Leafs’ captain for six seasons and led them to three Stanley Cups. During the Second World War, Apps left the team for two years to serve in the Canadian Army. After retiring from hockey in 1948, he pursued a successful career in business and was elected member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario for Kingston in 1963 – a seat he held until his retirement in 1974. Apps believed in hard work, respect for others, loyalty, family and faith – and he upheld these values throughout his life.

Historical background

Early life, 1915-1932

Charles Joseph Sylvanus “Syl” Apps was a remarkably talented and versatile person. He was a star amateur athlete, a renowned professional hockey player, and a successful businessman and politician. Yet the manner in which he conducted himself was at least as important, and as admirable, as his numerous and varied accomplishments.

Throughout his life, Apps personified many of the virtues and ideals upheld by Canadian society – such as fairness, strength, modesty, loyalty and devotion to family and faith – and he demonstrated that these ideals were, in fact, practicable. Apps’ values were instilled in him at a young age by his family, his Baptist faith and the broader community of Paris, Ontario – a town that he would later describe as the ideal place to grow up.

Syl Apps was the second of three children born to Mary (née Wrigley) and Ernest Apps in Paris, Ontario, on January 18, 1915. Ernest Apps was a pharmacist and avid baseball player, and Mary had been the organist at the Baptist church in Ayr, Ontario, prior to her marriage. Members of the Apps household were expected to uphold the fundamental values enshrined in their Baptist faith and to accord family the highest importance. The latter principle was reinforced when Apps was forced to cope with the sudden death of his father when Syl was only 16.

Apps’ father had encouraged him to play sports and Apps had quickly emerged as a superb, versatile athlete. By the age of 14, for example, he was playing junior hockey for his hometown and lining up against opponents who were often six years his senior.1 But in the Apps family, education was considered to be the basis on which a career would be built. Apps excelled academically while a student in the local public schools. On graduation, he was class valedictorian and won a provincial scholarship, which he used to attend McMaster University in Hamilton.

A rich experience at McMaster University, 1932-1936

Apps continued to thrive both academically and athletically after enrolling in Political Economy at McMaster in the fall of 1932. He earned good grades, was a member of student council as well as several clubs, and his athletic achievements were extraordinary. While attending McMaster, Apps played for both the varsity hockey and football teams.2 Additionally, as a pole vaulter on McMaster’s track team, he was national champion in 1934 and 1936, won the event for Canada at the British Empire Games in 1934, and finished sixth at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Later in life, Apps would joke about the fact that en route to the Olympics by ship, he was assigned a room with another Olympian – a woman – because it was believed “Sylvanus” was a female name. At the Berlin Games, Apps was present when Hitler chose to leave the stadium rather than shake the hand of Jesse Owens, the African-American gold-medal winner.

In his graduating yearbook, Apps prophetically noted that it was his ambition to obtain “a job in Toronto,” a goal he realized after a legendary sequence of events. Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs (the Leafs) of the National Hockey League (NHL), was forever on the lookout for new talent. He had grown weary, however, of the stream of dubious tips regarding up-and-coming players proffered by his cronies. When one of them had advised Smythe in 1934 to offer McMaster’s star halfback the chance to try out for the Leafs, Smythe allegedly scoffed at the notion that anyone with a name like Sylvanus Apps could ever become a professional hockey player. When Smythe coincidentally watched the McMaster football team play a few weeks later, he was awestruck by Apps’ physical prowess, hastily revised his opinion of Syl’s moniker, and ensured that Apps became a member of the Leafs.

Apps delayed playing professional hockey in order to complete his studies and because he feared that the family of his soon-to-be wife, Mary Josephine “Molly” Marshall, would not view suiting up for the Leafs as a career fit for her future husband. They both knew that jobs were scarce during the Depression, however, and agreed that it was an opportunity Apps should not pass up.3

A stellar professional hockey career, 1936-1948

Apps was precisely what both the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs needed. The league was grappling with on-ice violence – and the often unsavoury characters who were perpetrating it – while the Leafs were floundering. When Apps joined the club for the 1936-37 season, he immediately established himself as a gifted stick-handler and smooth, meteoric skater – winning the 1937 Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. Apps was dubbed “Nijinsky of the ice,” after the famous Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, due to his dexterity while skating. He was also the consummate gentleman both on and off the ice.

“In the National Hockey League, where most players act as though they were candidates for a job in a slaughter-house,” the iconic Sport magazine astutely noted at the time, “Apps is as out of place as an orchid on a hamburger … [He was a star despite] his reluctance to adopt the illegal holding tactics that have become the hallmark of big-league hockey, and his failure to run butt ends deep into the vulnerable regions of his rivals’ ribs.”4 For his sportsmanship, Apps won the 1942 Lady Byng Trophy.

It was Apps’ eminently sportsmanlike manner that became a defining feature of his 10-season career (1936-43 and 1945-48), all of which he spent with the Leafs. He amassed a mere 56 penalty minutes, and eschewed alcohol, smoking and even swearing. A few of his less insightful opponents mistook his proclivity to rise above the fray as a sign of cowardice, but he corrected their misconception on the exceedingly rare occasions when he dropped the gloves. So profound was Apps’ commitment to upholding noble principles that any aberration from this behaviour made headlines. In late 1937, the papers reported how, during a contest in Detroit, Apps had suffered a nasty slash to the head. When the linesman refused to allow him to take the ensuing face-off before attending to his bleeding wound, Apps uncharacteristically unleashed a string of harsh words towards the official. During the post-game debriefing, the press noted that “every Leaf respects the gentlemanly Syl very highly, but just about every Leaf also likes to kid or rib him a bit.” After they began chiding him about his “cussin” at the linesman, Apps sheepishly admitted that it had consisted of his trademark blasphemies, “By Jimminy” and “By Christmas.”5

In terms of his accomplishments, Apps was one of the NHL's and the Leafs’ all-time greats. In 423 regular season games, he tallied 201 goals and 231 assists. In addition to his Calder and Lady Byng trophies, he was a five-time all-star and captained the Leafs to three Stanley Cups. One year, realizing that a leg injury would cause him to miss roughly half of a season, Apps tellingly went to Smythe and offered to return part of his salary – a magnanimous gesture that the Leafs’ owner refused. Apps’ on-ice demeanour and skill brought to the NHL a sorely needed dose of class and dignity, and his stellar career with the Leafs did much to elevate the team to the level of Canadian cultural institution.6

Notwithstanding Apps’ love of the game, he conceived of it as merely a “stop-gap” – he was raised to appreciate sport as something one did for fun, not as a career. By the late 1940s, this had become a pressing concern, in part because Apps now had four children (a fifth would soon arrive) and he longed both to spend more time with his family and to support them with a more stable and better income. In the 1947-48 season, having declared that he would retire once he reached the 200-goal plateau, it looked as if Apps would be back for another season because he had only 196 goals with two games left in the schedule. But Apps scored five times in those last two contests and led the Leafs to the Stanley Cup. With that, Apps – whom the iconic hockey figure Jack Adams described as “the greatest centre I’ve seen” – hung up his skates.7 He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.

Life after hockey: A business and political career, 1948-1975

Apps transitioned easily into the business world. After taking the University of Western Ontario’s Management Training Program in the summer of 1949, he worked in the retail business before becoming an executive with Milton Brick Company. The Apps family lived in Agincourt, just outside of Toronto, until 1963 when Apps bought Kingston Dunbrik Limited and the family relocated to Eastern Ontario.8

Also in 1963, Apps launched his career as an elected official. He had always been “keen about politics.” He had run – but lost – in the 1940 federal election in his hometown riding of Brant and over the course of 1947 to 1948 he had served as Ontario’s Athletics Commissioner. In 1963, Apps was named the provincial Progressive Conservative candidate for the riding of Kingston and the Islands. He won the election that year, and again in 1967 and 1971.9

During Apps’ 12 years in office, one of his main preoccupations was addressing the problems that were affecting youth. The enormous contingent of baby boomers was coming of age in the 1960s, and Apps formally began delving into the issues they were facing while he served as chairman of Ontario’s Select Committee on Youth (from 1964 to 1967). During its hearings, he defended the new generation and oversaw the crafting of a report that delivered hundreds of progressive recommendations, including a plea to end the practice of locking up young offenders.10 Under Apps’ leadership, the select committee helped establish Ontario’s community college system. After being appointed Minister of Correctional Services in 1971, Apps dramatically improved the efficiency with which the department operated and introduced further reforms. Although his work in this capacity occasionally drew fire from his opponents and the media, most observers ultimately recognized the value of his contributions.11

Politics, like sport, could be a vicious occupation. Apps, however, was always able to transcend the tumult around him. He remained thoughtful and respectful and his “stoic patience” was unwavering. In 1974, Apps decided to exit the political arena and turn his attentions to some of his other passions. He had time to play golf regularly – a sport in which he excelled from an early age – to work with his wife to revitalize a 150-year-old home on Amherst Island, to visit their condo in Florida, and to spend time with his grandchildren.

The golden years, 1975-1998

Apps remained active during the first decade of his retirement, and by this time he was already being showered with accolades for his extraordinary and varied accomplishments. He continued to devote his attention to a number of charitable causes, most significantly the Kingston General Hospital (KGH). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Amateur Athletic Hall of Fame. He is the only member of all three halls of fame. Other honours bestowed on him included appointment as a member of the Order of Canada (1977) and honorary degrees from York University and McMaster University. In addition, the KGH named its new research centre after Apps and his wife, and his name graces the Ontario government’s institution in Oakville that deals with troubled youth. In 1980, Apps’ health began a slow decline. He passed away on Christmas Eve in 1998.12


Many have entered the pantheon of Canadian sports heroes, but arguably none has upheld moral and professional standards – both inside and outside the game – like Syl Apps. This is particularly impressive given the many battles, in various arenas, that his professions compelled him to fight. Apps believed in hard work, respect for others, loyalty, family and faith, and he upheld these values throughout his life. Apps lived a wonderfully full life and, with characteristic insight and modesty, considered himself fortunate to have the ability to pursue his many interests.

“Figure out what game you are playing; learn the rules; hone your skills and play it well.”13 This was the motto he applied to his many endeavours and passed on to his children and grandchildren. The ability to do just that took Apps from the schools, rinks and fields of Paris, Ontario, to the Berlin Olympic Games, Maple Leaf Gardens, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, then back again, as his life is commemorated with a provincial plaque in Paris, Ontario.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Mark Kuhlberg in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2012

1 Michael Ulmer, Captains: Nine Great Toronto Maple Leafs (Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1995), Ch. 2; Sport, March 1948.

2 AO, F2134-2-1-2, C.J.S. Apps, ca. 1973, “Biographical Sketch”; The Globe, July 16 and August 7, 1934; ibid., August 28, 1936.

3 Sport Magazine, March 1948; McMaster Divinity College Archives, “C.J.S. Apps” [clippings]; Hockey Hall of Fame, Doc Seaman’s Research Centre, Syl Apps [hereafter HHOF, Apps], undated article from The Toronto Star by Alison Gordon; D. Diamond, ed., Forever Rivals: Montreal Canadiens – Toronto Maple Leafs (Toronto: Dan Diamond and Associates, Inc., 1996), 43 and 98-100.

4 Sport Magazine, March 1948; Brian McFarlane, One Hundred Years of Hockey (Toronto: Summerhill Press Ltd., 1990), Chs. 4 and 5; Diamond, 43-45 and 100-101.

5 Sport Magazine, March 1948; The Globe and Mail, November 22 and December 28, 1937, and January 1 and 24, 1938; Interview with Howie Meeker, November 19, 2011.

6 Hockey Hall of Fame, Doc Seaman’s Research Centre, “Toronto Maple Leafs – 1945-46 Roster, Page 17”; ibid., unidentified newspaper, September 9, 1943, “Syl Apps Enlists in Active Army”; ibid., September 13, 1945, “Syl Apps to Rejoin Leafs”; Toronto Daily Star, January 3, 1946; McFarlane, 34.

7 The Globe and Mail, November 23, 1939; Interview with Howie Meeker, November 19, 2011; Interview with Syl Apps Jr., November 25, 2011; McFarlane, 52; Hockey Hall of Fame, Doc Seaman’s Research Centre, “Toronto Maple Leafs – 1945-46 Roster, Page 17”.

8 The Globe and Mail, September 17, 1948; Batten, Ch. 2; Ulmer, Ch. 5; AO, F2134-2-1-2, C.J.S. Apps, ca. 1973, “Biographical Sketch”.

9 AO, F2134-2-1-2, C.J.S. Apps, ca. 1973, “Biographical Sketch”; The Globe and Mail, March 10, 1939 and March 28, 1940; Sport Magazine, March 1948; The Globe and Mail, April 29, 1947; ibid., September 22, 1964; ibid., February 15, 1967.

10 RG49, Select Committees, Series 150, Select Committee on Youth, Box B235890, Proceedings of the Select Committee … November 24, 1964, 4; ibid., Orange Brief present[ed] to The Select Committee on Youth … March 1965; ibid., File 56, Proceedings of the Select Committee … August 4, 1965; ibid., Correspondence, #19 (Costi Centre).

11 HHOF, Apps, Clipping, unknown newspaper, February 21, 1974; The Toronto Star, February 26, 1974; The Toronto Sun, January 4, 1972; Batten, 55.

12 HHOF, Apps, especially September 26, 1984, R.K. McGeorge to J. Ziegler; McMaster News, September 1981 and September 1983; The Globe and Mail, July 11, 1995.

13 This quote, as well as other information that has informed this historical background paper, is from a document containing reminiscences by Apps’ children and given to the Ontario Heritage Trust by his daughter, Joanne Flint.