SPORT

HOCKEY'S GREATEST?

The question embarrasses Apps, who thinks it's the bunk. Here is the story of a unique figure in Canadian sport

H. H. ROXBOROUGH February 1 1940
SPORT

HOCKEY'S GREATEST?

The question embarrasses Apps, who thinks it's the bunk. Here is the story of a unique figure in Canadian sport

H. H. ROXBOROUGH February 1 1940

HOCKEY'S GREATEST?

SPORT

The question embarrasses Apps, who thinks it's the bunk. Here is the story of a unique figure in Canadian sport

H. H. ROXBOROUGH

IN MID-AUGUST of 1936, four Canadian sportsmen, returning on the Duchess of Atholl from the Olympic Games in Berlin, squeamishly eyed the rolling panorama of ocean, horizon and sky, and forced themselves to talk, in a tragic endeavor to forget they had stomachs.

Most subjects had been worn to the bone, when a Manitoba half-miler enquired of an Ontario pole vaulter, “What are you going to do when you get home, Syl?”

“I don’t know,” answered the fellow Olympian. “I have a chance to play hockey with Toronto Maple Leafs, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. What do you fellows think of it?”

“Don’t do it,” advised one tablemate. “I have seen too many professional hockey players wind up with a lot of injuries and no money. They haven’t saved their dough, and they haven’t learned any trade or business. They’re through, when other chaps who start slower are getting settled in a career that lasts a lifetime.”

“That opinion certainly isn’t mine.” insisted another companion. “Professional hockey environment has changed in recent years. Today salaries are big and players are thrifty. I know one fellow who has his hockey earnings so well invested that he has an assured income of $3,000 a year for life.

"Besides, good jobs are scarce right now. Why not try a couple of years of professional hockey? By that time economic conditions will have improved. If you like the game, you can continue; if you don’t like it, you’ll still be only twenty-three years old and you should have a better chance of picking up something more to your liking. Anyway, talk it over with Conny Smythe; you’ll find him a square shooter.”

Meanwhile, Sylvanus Apps, the recipient of all this free advice, became so absorbed in the discussion that he unwittingly refused a fourth helping of his favorite vanilla ice cream.

The pro hockey debate was such a tasty morsel that it was enjoyed at many meals. There was much to be said on both sides, for the gifted Paris, Ontario, youth was not just another athlete. Indeed, he had as many facets as a diamond. and most of them were equally as brilliant.

At that moment, Apps was the Canadian champion pole vaulter. and was returning from the Olympic Games where he had cleared 13 feet 1>2 inches, and earned a sixth place in world competition.

To compete “olympically” in any one sport usually satisfies the ambition of a normal athlete. But Syl had also been an outstanding halfback on a team that won the Canadian intermediate intercollegiate football title, and he was tagged for delivery to Hamilton Tigers in the Interprovincial Union. Additionally, he was a stellar thirdbaseman with Paris in the Inter-County Baseball League, and, without having taken a lesson, could tour a golf course in the seventies. Moreover, he was the sensation of the Ontario Hockey Association, the brightest puckchaser in a province where stars on ice are as numerous almost as those in the heavens.

While his fame had been established in terms of touchdowns, goals and home runs, he had other assets not usually associated with sport heroes; his horizon wasn’t entirely bounded by cinder tracks, whitewashed touchlines and serried waves of cheering fans.

For instance, “Appsy” was so disciplined that he did not drink, smoke or verbally explode in terms more dangerous than an occasional “By Jiminy.” He was modest, so modest that he never referred to his personal exploits except in response to a direct question. He was so scholarly that he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree from McMaster University at the age of twenty-one.

And Syl had ideals. Here was one youth who, apart from monetary reward or personal gain, definitely desired to find a niche in human affairs where he could render useful public service.

Naturally, with such debatable material available, the ebb and flow of argument lasted till the Duchess docked in Montreal. Only then did the pole vaulter express his intention to consult Mr. Smythe in Toronto. The intention blossomed into action, and today hockey’s “Who’s Who” records “Sylvanus Apps, centre, left-hand shot, height six feet, weight 180 pounds, born Paris, Ontario, January 18, 1915, turned professional 1936-37 with Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Was Apps just a hockey prodigy, a shooting star to appear with fleeting brilliance, then to be dimmed forever?

Backyard Hockey

IN THE summer following his first season in professional hockey we were invited to Paris to see Syl Apps presented with the Calder Trophy, symbolizing that he had been the outstanding rookie of his year. In the second season. Apps led the entire National Hockey League in assists, and was second in total scoring points. Last year he was the popular and unanimous choice for centre on every all-star team. Early this season, prior to his accident in late December, the continent’s hockey experts devoted columns to a discussion of the probability that this youthful Leafian. with only three years professional background, was the greatest hockey player of all time.

How did this super-star get the power that shot him to the peak of his profession? He served a long apprenticeship. When he was six years old, wúth ankles bending and arms swinging, young Sylvanus patrolled a frozen depression on the front lawn, and practiced those famous whirling attacks that, fifteen years later, were to bring cheering thousands to their feet.

But skating alone doesn’t make great hockey players, so Syl’s dad prepared another icy stretch in the back yard. This surface was only a few feet w ide, but it led to a garbage-tin lid, nailed to the barn door. Against this galvanized target the ambitious Parisian fired his rubber bullet and developed strong wrists and the knack of quick shooting.

When only ten years old, the youngster w’as chief “shinnier" for the Quality Hill gang as they indulged in wintry feuds against the lads from Coney Island and The Flats. At fourteen years of age, Apps was playing in the big indoor rink for Paris juniors, and was the youngest player in the Ontario Hockey Association. Three years later he began his intercollegiate career at McMaster Lmivers'.tv. Around his twentieth birthday he was playing for Hamilton seniors, and was shooting rubber into so many nets that he was the sensation of the league and the cynosure of all scouts.

Big Time

/CONSEQUENTLY, when he began trading goals for ^ dollars, he was only twenty-one, but he had been working at his trade for nearly fifteen years.

Despite his lengthy experience he had a lot to learn when

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he matched his skill against Stewart. Boucher, Cook, Barry.

“I soon realized there was a big gap between amateur and professional hockey,” Syl told me. “In the National Hockey League, crowds are greater, each rink has its own peculiarities, the players are smarter, faster and tougher, the number of games are tripled and the long train rides are tiring. No matter how experienced an amateur might be, he still is a novice when he turns professional.”

“But you made good in one jump,” we protested.

“Well,” responded Syl, “if I did I have to give Dick Irvin credit. Fortunately for me, Dick had been a famous centre, and naturally he knew all the tricks of my

position. Dick knows what he talks about, tells it to you in a nice way, and gives you lots of confidence. To me, he is the ace of all coaches.”

But evidently Syl’s natural ability and the tuition of his respected teacher can’t find the right answer to all hockey’s questions, for the centre man of the Toronto Maple Leafs still has his difficult problems. The Boston goalkeeper is one of those unsolved riddles.

“No goalkeeper can be called easy,” says Syl, “but the one that gives me the most trouble is Brimsek. Some goalkeepers are jumpy. They move early; perhaps they clutch one post or fall down; they make their move first—respond to your feint. But not Brimsek. The Bruin net tender is cool, hard to bluff, waits till you make your move, then has such a quick reaction that he generally snuffs your attempt. He’s good.”

Goalkeepers are not the only ones who cause wrinkles in a centre player’s brow. There are defensemen, too. The Leafian star has considerable trouble getting past New York Rangers’ Art Coulter, but he has reason to believe, and body marks to prove, that Boston’s Jack Portland hits harder and blocks more effectively than most rear guardsmen.

“Portland is about six feet four inches tall, and weighs 220 pounds, but he is quite

fast for such a big man. In a clean but forceful way, Jack has ruined a lot of hopeful evenings for me,” recalls Apps.

Centre men, too, have been known to interfere with the best-laid plans of Messrs. Irvin and Apps. Bill Thoms is one of those irritants. Socially, Apps and Thoms are quite friendly—they were team mates for a couple of seasons—hut since Bill joined Chicago Black Hawks he has become a relentless pursuer of the Toronto centre man.

When Manager Paul Thompson whispers to Thoms, “Sic him,” William clings so close to Sylvanus that they could almost use the same stick. “For me,” says Syl, “Bill Thoms is harder to shake than any other player in the league.”

But Apps’ most brilliant duels are not staged when he is stalked, but rather when he faces Boston’s Milt Schmidt.

These two centres have much in common. Each is about six leet tall and 180 pounds in weight. They entered the N.H.L. in the same year. Last season they scored the same number of goals, but Apps had more assists. This year, up to the time Syl was injured, the Leafian had earned eighteen points and the Bruin star seventeen points.

The two are just that dose in both statistics and play. Apps is rated as the more spectacular. At his best, he gathers the jiuck inside his own blue line, outspeeds the retreating forwards, dashes around a defense, feints a shot and whips the bounding disc to an unguarded spot. That’s not an imaginative description; Maple Leaf fans have been generously treated to such Appsian displays.

While Kitchener’s gift to Boston is not so dashing, he is just as effective, and Schmidt is one of the few forwards who can really sock an opposing lineman or even trade bouncing hips with burly defensemen.

Apps is not a rugged attacker, but he has been such a clean player that when he does receive a penalty the story is news. In three seasons his combined sojourns with the timekeeper—including play-off gamesadd up to only twenty-five minutes. This season, during nineteen games, he was never thumbed to hockey’s jail.

Despite his clean record, Apps does not sjxtre himself. Some competent observers believe he travels faster than any other player in the league. Syl himself thinks that outside of a couple of his own teammates, Phil Watson of the Rangers and “Mush” March of Black Hawks are the hardest to catch.

liest Player of All Time?

A \ THILL Apps is quite content to tell

*v you that Watson or March can skate, that Schmidt is smart, that Portland is a great defenseman, that Brimsek is an outstanding goalkeeper, he is readily embarrassed, almost indignant, when praise is heaped ujxm himself.

For instance, across the dinner table we noisily enquired of him, "What is your reaction to being called the best hockey player of all time?”

“It's bunk,” was the emphatic response. “In tne first place, it’s almost impossible to compare players of different generations.

“Today.” Apps enlarged, “a player goes out on the ice in short but frequent stretches, while old-timers, so they tell me. often played the entire sixty minutes. During many years a team had seven players and the puck could not be passed ahead ; now there are only six men to a side and there are large areas where the puck can be passed in any direction.

‘Ice surface, too, is quite different. In earlier years ice was dependent upon weather, and final games were sometimes played on slush. In 1940 we have hard, fast ice at all times. It is not unlikely that a player who was a star a generation or more ago would not have been nearly so good under present rules and conditions. The reverse, too, is just as true.

“Besides—and you can emphasize this,” Syl continued, “when you compare players of 1940 with those of ten, twenty or thirty years back, you have to know who else played on the teams of the fellows you are comparing.

“In my own case, no one knows better than myself, just what I owe to Gordie Drillon and Bob Davidson. If they hadn’t scored goals, I wouldn’t have been credited with assists. Since I started in 1936, I have gathered ninety-three assists, but not one of those assists counted in the league statistics until somebody else on our team turned the {passes into goals.

“Yes,” he concluded, “it was very kind of Jack Adams to suggest I might be the best of all time, but I personally have no such illusions about my jflace in hockey history, and the idea has given me a lot of embarrassing moments.”

At times, professional hockey has been anything but a glamorous adventure for Apjos. Probably the most discouraging incident occurred last Christmas night. Up till that evening Syl was going nicely, again leading the league in assists and closely following Drillon for league leadership in total points. Then, on that festive day, a New York Ranger presented him with a fractured collarbone.

Despite this and a few other blackouts, Apps has not regretted his decision to play professional hockey But hockey is not his final goal; he still has other places to go.

One of the valuable by-products of his present jxqsition, is that it has given Syl an opportunity to meet people, learn their opinions, express his own, and fit himself for a definite public life

In hotel banquet halls, Y.M.C.A. rotundas, Sunday school auditoriums, even in church pulpits, he has accepted the ojojxtrtunity to explain his sjxort ideals and their application to ordinary living.

How far will this twenty-five-year-old Canadian travel? Is a sports background a handicap later on?

In 1896 the captain of the University of Toronto football team was a sturdy, determined student - athlete, named Eddie Beatty. Today that same gridiron expert is Sir Edward Beatty, considered one of Canada’s foremost citizens.

In the early years of this century, Canada’s most versatile athlete was one Eric Hamber. Hamber played hockey for Toronto Argonauts when they contested the Ontario championship; he was such an outstanding pigskin booter that his rugby prowess is still acclaimed by those who were fans in that decade; he was an oarsman in the best Canadian eight of his period. Today, he is Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.

Perhaps the careers of athletes Beatty and Hamber are to be repeated, for the Leafian centre man is already the Conservative nominee in Brant riding for the next Federal election.

Meanwhile, watch Syl Apps, player and man. In hockey and in life, he has formed the habit of playing clean, shooting high and hard, and heading for the goal.

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New Inventions

THERE are many new inventions that are now being perfected. In ten years time, very likely, they will be making fortunes for those who market them.

New ways have been found to obtain heat and power from the sun. There are already several hundred solar waterheaters in California.

It is now possible to make a wall emit light, by coating it with fluorescent materials.

Nonmetallie bearings, lubricated with water instead of oil, can now be made from plasties.

Last year a new fibre, called “Nylon” was patented. It is made from coal, air and water, and is said to be as strong as steel. Efficiency Magazine.