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Hockey success comes naturally for Tigers' faceoff specialist Apps

So many faceoffs occur in any given men's hockey game that only in rare late-game situations does a single one affect the outcome of the game.

But any hockey coach will tell you that over the course of a game, the team that dominates the faceoff circle will usually dominate the game. Often, the difference between a win and a loss can be the aggregate outcome of the play in that circle.

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And when the game pivots on the referee's drop or the team just needs to come up with the puck in its own end, head coach Don Cahoon sends junior center Syl Apps into the circle to do battle for Princeton.

While many centers and forwards will face off during the course of a contest, the Unionville, Ontario, native has emerged as the Tigers' top faceoff specialist. He takes virtually all of the faceoffs in the Princeton defensive zone and the most crucial drops elsewhere. Indeed, Apps' ability in the circle often serves as a momentum swing in favor of the Tigers.

Taking charge

"He wins it probably 80 percent of the time," junior center Brian Horst said. "It takes a big weight off of (the team's) shoulders. He makes it so much easier to be in control of the game."

"In winning faceoffs, more important than us gaining possession of the puck," Cahoon said, "is not letting the other team get possession. Faceoffs are a vital part of the game."

After Princeton's first 3-2 loss to Eastern College Athletic Conference-leading Yale earlier this season Dec. 6, Cahoon cited Apps' gutty work in the circle as one of the reasons that the Tigers were able to remain in the game and take a late stab at the Elis' lead in the third period.

With the possible exception of a clean breakaway, the faceoff exists as the only situation in which the game becomes a one-on-one contest. Apps thrives on this unique facet.

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"The referee drops the puck and it's you and the other centerman," Apps said. "I kind of like that."

"It's a little game," he added, "within the game because you're going to be facing (the other team's best center) a lot of times during the game. I like taking faceoffs; I enjoy the pressure of it."

Facing off is not simply a natural ability for Apps, though he grew up playing hockey in Ontario learning the tricks from a professional center, his father.

In the Apps family, hockey is not just a game, it's a birthright. Apps' father, Sylvanus Apps, Jr., played professionally in the National Hockey League with the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings before retiring in 1980. In the previous generation, Sylvanus Apps, Sr., is a member of the NHL Hall of Fame as a player and was recently named to the NHL's 50 Greatest Players list.

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"He has one of the richest legacies in Canadian hockey," Cahoon said. "His father has had a great influence on Syl. His father has gotten him to look at the finer points of the game."

Included among those finer points are many skills other than simply taking faceoffs. The youngest Apps has made his presence on the ice that lies outside of the face off circle as well. Since his arrival at Princeton, Apps has established himself as one of the preeminent defensive forwards in the league.

He was nominated for the ECAC Defensive Player of the Year award each of his first two seasons, and last year he was a finalist for the ECAC Best Defensive Forward award.

"I definitely have a responsibility to take care of my own end," Apps said.

Nor is Apps limited to his own end of the ice. With nine points (four goals, five assists) in 20 games this season, he has matched last year's total and is one point away from his freshman-year mark with eight games remaining in the regular season. He stands seventh on the Tigers in scoring this year.

Easy choice

But it is Apps' physical presence behind the Tiger blueline that has made him a fixture on the ice for Princeton. Yet his lack of size was what initially enabled him to consider a college career. At the age of 16, Canadian hockey players must decide whether to turn pro and enter the minor league system or wait and try to be recruited by an American university.

The choice was simple for Apps, who stood five feet, six inches tall and weighed 160 pounds. He continued to play for his high school, Upper Canada College. In order to compensate for his diminutive stature, he had to increase his physical strength and thickness.

Apps then grew into a hefty six-foot frame and attracted the notice of Cahoon among other college coaches.

"He is real physical on the ice," Horst said. "He can get on defensemen and hold them off (the puck). Most people don't notice that he is a pretty good forechecker."

Cahoon and the rest of the seventh-place Tigers will need Apps to continue his solid play at both ends of the ice as the team enters the stretch run of the playoff chase.

And if there comes a crucial faceoff late in a game on which the season rests, everyone knows the Tiger who will be in that circle: Syl Apps.

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