By David Salter
You’d think being the son of the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf in history would put pressure on a young hockey player. Not so, according to Syl Apps Jr. “There was never really a hockey presence in my house,” he says. “The emphasis was on education. I didn’t even know my dad played in the NHL until I was around eight years old.”
‘Dad,’ of course, is the late Syl Apps Sr., the legendary Hall of Famer who led the Leafs to three Cups in the 1940s. But the lesser-known Apps, who’s the father of Canadian women’s star Gillian Apps, became an NHL star in his own right in the 1970s.
The New York Rangers took Apps Jr. in the 1964 draft after he starred in midget in Kingston, Ont. But the lanky center decided not to take the standard route to the NHL. “I had no overwhelming desire to play junior (with the Rangers affiliate) in Kitchener,” says Apps Jr., now 65. “I always just expected I would go off to university and get an education and then take a shot at the pros.”
Apps Jr. spent a year playing for Princeton University, which was rare for a prospect at the time. He then played senior hockey, after transferring to Queen’s University in Kingston, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree. Apps Jr. finally cracked the New York roster as a 23-year-old in 1970, but was kept low on the depth chart behind Jean Ratelle, Pete Stemkowski and Walt Tkaczuk. The Rangers later traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second half of his rookie season.
In Pittsburgh, Apps Jr. teamed with Jean Pronovost and Lowell MacDonald to form the ‘Century Line’ and began to escape his father’s shadow. From 1972 to ’77, Apps Jr. averaged 82 points, including a career-best 99 in ’75-76. One of his career highlights was being named MVP of the 1975 All-Star Game at the Montreal Forum.
After narrowly missing 100 points, Apps Jr. saw his career decline when he suffered a high groin pull in 1977 that forced him to roll out of bed each morning. His production dropped in consecutive seasons to 61, 52, 37 and finally 21 points before he retired in 1980. Nine games into 1977-78, the rebuilding Penguins dealt him to the Los Angeles, where he finished his career, though not on a positive note. “L.A. was not a good fit for me,” says Apps Jr., who believes then-Kings GM Jake Milford wasn’t a fan of him.
Apps Jr. admits life after hockey has been a challenge. He spent a couple of years working in real estate in Los Angeles before moving to Toronto for a career in the finance industry. After 16 years working his way up the ranks as a bond broker in Toronto, Apps Jr. joined Scotia MacLeod as a personal finance advisor in Markham, Ont., 13 years ago and remains there today. “No one has an idea how it’ll turn out,” he says. “I knew it probably wasn’t going to involve hockey. I have no regrets. What I’ve done, I’ve been successful at, but it took a lot of work.
“Overnight I went from being a veteran with the Kings making $135,000 to a rookie making $12,500. I was seven or eight years behind my peer group (in the business world). It was a big adjustment.”
Apps Jr. never reached the iconic status of his father – although he did out-point him 606 to 432 and played 727 games compared to his dad’s 423 – but that was never his goal. Looking back on his hockey career, he says he doesn’t feel validated by carving out his own niche as an NHL star and is happy just being the dad of a successful women’s hockey player. “I feel satisfaction that I succeeded in something I liked doing,” he says. “For years I was known as Syl Apps’ son. Now I’m known as Gillian Apps’ father and I’m OK with that.”