Mason Appleton has a fierce aversion to anything that resembles defeat. Neither the game nor the opponent really matters. His appetite for destruction doesn’t discriminate.
"Whatever I’m playing, I’m in it to win. If I’m playing my grandma or grandpa in a board game, I’m not losing that game," Appleton says.
There’s a frankness to his words but enough of a hint of mischief to suggest he’s probably kidding around. This is the same guy who treasures his tight family ties and won’t let two or three days go by without calling to catch up with his three surviving grandparents.
But those in his inner circle — from his busy, blissful childhood in Green Bay, Wis., to his time now as a high-speed, hard-to-the-net Winnipeg Jets forward — are well acquainted with his steely competitive edge.
"Mase is gonna call you out if you try and pull something on him. He’s not afraid of confrontation, by any means. It’s all in good fun. But he’s not letting you win one just to make you feel good." – Former teammate Cam Schilling
Just ask veteran American Hockey League defenceman Cam Schilling. Former teammates with the Manitoba Moose, they exchanged words — in heated bouts of Scrabble — on more than one occasion. He says Appleton definitely knows how to put points on the board.
"Just a very intense guy in everything he does. Me and my wife (Jaclyn) went over and played Scrabble with him and (fiancé Sydney), and he wanted to win. He gets fired up. Mase is gonna call you out if you try and pull something on him. He’s not afraid of confrontation, by any means. It’s all in good fun. But he’s not letting you win one just to make you feel good."
Appleton, 25, maintains that resolute tenacity in everything he does is the result of hearing one too many times his dream of making it to the NHL was unrealistic. It’s the scar tissue left over from expending all his energy, only to get cut by elite teams that many of his bigger, stronger buddies made without breaking a sweat.
A decade later, he’s the one with the nearly seven-figure salary, playing critical minutes for the Jets and putting up career numbers — nine goals, 20 points and a plus-eight in 40 games — principally playing with centre Adam Lowry and left-winger Andrew Copp on what some NHL insiders consider to be among the most effective third lines in the league.
The Jets, indeed, have themselves a gamer in the 2015 late-round draft pick.
Kim Appleton recalls rarely having a moment of peaceful repose once Mason, her first born — a red-haired, whirling dervish — learned to walk.
"He was always high-energy, needed to be busy all the time. A very typical boy," she says.
Her husband Jim had played hockey well into high school, so it was only fitting he’d get the eager tyke into a pair of skates before Mason was four years old. By the time he was seven, he was weaving his way around most of the other kids at Green Bay’s indoor rinks.
"I was certainly a hockey guy and could have played some (Division III) college, but there was certainly some interest to see if Mason could achieve something I couldn’t," Jim says.
"He was a really good player at eight or nine; he was crafty, but he was only average size."
Appleton spent his winters playing hockey, but loved being on the football field and the ball diamond, as well. Weekends and stretches of summer holidays were spent in northern Wisconsin lake country, and he did plenty of fishing and water-skiing at the family cabin on Lac Du Lune, about three hours north of Green Bay.
The Appleton household was a hectic one, as Mason and his younger siblings, Gabby and Nolan, had their folks running in opposite directions to get to their activities of choice.
Kim was a stay-at-home mom, while Jim, a chartered accountant, ran the financial side of a company that he’d later purchase. They were involved in their church, and made volunteering and community service an important element of the family fabric.
The Appletons taught their children by example. The couple was raising three healthy, thriving children, but felt they were in a position to provide a safe, loving and supportive home to an orphaned child from another country. Mason was a young teen when a toddler was adopted by the family.
The fourth-year pro admits the addition of little Ireana from Russia was a defining moment in his life.
"My parents had some initial conversations and then they brought the idea to us kids. All of us were super-excited and were on board right away. We thought it was a great opportunity to give this unbelievable person, my new sister, an incredible family," Appleton recalls.
"My parents spent a lot of time on this. They probably went to Russia three or four times before she came home. She fit in with us quick and is growing up fast and now she’s in middle school and living life large. She’s an incredible sister.
"It was a really eye-opening process, something we’re all really proud of. It’s incredible to see my parents take that initiative. It goes to show the type of loving, open people they are," he adds. "It takes special people to go through the process and add to your family and give someone a great life. People adopt for different reasons, and my parents wanted to give a child a life she probably wouldn’t have had."
Mason’s childhood bedroom has, for the most part, become a guest room for visitors. He and Sydney have their own house not far from Lambeau Field, legendary stadium of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
Kim has altered some of the furnishings and handed over many of Mason’s possessions — clothes, toys, trophies, books — to her son. But empirical evidence of his affection for the NHL, and one superstar, in particular, still remains stuck to the wall.
"There’s those Fathead stickers, those life-sized stickers on the wall, I still can’t bring myself to take some of that stuff down. He has Sidney Crosby, and we have a friend who has a marketing company who made a Fathead of Mason," she says.
It seems mom divulged classified information — a morsel not meant for his Jets teammates to chew on.
"No, I don’t talk about that. That’s something we never took down. That’s funny," Mason, says, laughing. He was having a quiet day at home in Winnipeg last week with Sydney and their wrinkly pooch, Tito, a miniature Shar-Pei.
“I’ve played (Crosby). There’s a lot of ‘wow’ moments in the NHL. They’re cool, but you gotta get over them pretty early because if you sit there and admire them, the more they take it to you." – Mason Appleton
"Growing up in Wisconsin, we didn’t have a pro team to cheer for, so you kind of pick your favourite players and that’s where that comes from," he says.
"I’ve played (Crosby). There’s a lot of ‘wow’ moments in the NHL. They’re cool, but you gotta get over them pretty early because if you sit there and admire them, the more they take it to you. It’s obviously super-cool to play against guys you grew up idolizing, but at the same time they’re trying to score on you, so you have to take it to them."
While no specific NHL squad struck his fancy, Mason’s had an enduring love affair with the Packers and is an unabashed "Cheesehead." His coach at Michigan State University says Mason’s mood can be directly tied to the Packers’ fortunes on any given Sunday, and he’s ruthless to those who root against the Green and Gold.
"To get a sense of his personality, we trade shots a lot about the Packers and my team, the Detroit Lions, who are pretty pathetic," says former MSU Spartans bench boss Tom Anastos. "(In September) the game starts and the Lions are lighting it up, (quarterback) Matthew Stafford is having a great start and the Lions are up (14-3) in the first quarter.
"All of a sudden I get a text and it’s from Mase and it says, ‘You do know how this will end up, don’t you?’ He was absolutely right. The Lions got bombed in the second half, the Packers came back (to win 42-21)."
While he lagged behind his hockey teammates in terms of physical stature, Appleton’s skill and smarts set him apart during his freshman season with the Ashwaubenon (High School) Jaguars. He transferred to Notre Dame Academy, a private Catholic school in Green Bay, for his sophomore year and made an immediate impact with the Tritons as a shifty but diminutive playmaking centre.
He upped his goal production to 15 in 24 league games, while providing a relentless forecheck and leadership traits on and off the ice during his sophomore season, even though he was still on the short and slight side. He capped off the season by scoring a goal in double-overtime to lift the Tritons to the 2012 state championship.
Notre Dame head coach Cory McCracken says Appleton was a hard-working teen — dedicated in the classroom and fearless on the ice — who deserved a growth spurt.
"From a physical maturity standpoint, he developed late. He came to us when he was 5-7, 140 pounds at 15 years old. But the way he processes hockey, he had that early on," says McCracken.
"His hockey IQ and his talent and skill were already there, he was always an ultra-competitive young man and he cared about his teammates. Those are qualities that take you a long way. He just needed to grow."
And he did. During the latter half of his junior year and through his senior year of high school, he shot up to 6-2 and beefed up to nearly 180 pounds. With that boost in physical development, aspirations of playing hockey at the college level and, ultimately, with the pros, began to come into focus.
"Hockey’s always been what I wanted to do. I dreamed of playing in the NHL and making that my living. There was no point in my life where I wanted to be anything else, and that really started clicking in high school. That’s when I became the most dedicated to push myself past others," Appleton says.
He went on to score 26 goals and helped set up 34 others in his final year (2013-14) at Notre Dame, graduating as an honour student.
Everything changed that summer, even though he was passed over by NHL teams during his first year of draft eligibility. The Appleton family phone started ringing off the hook from interested college programs, although he had already committed to playing a season with the Tri-City Storm (of the USHL junior league), based in Kearney, Neb.
"It was very overwhelming for us, but all the calls went to Mason," remembers Jim. "We’d say, ‘Who was that?’ and he’d say, ‘That was Michigan State’ or ‘That was Minnesota-Mankato’ or ‘That was Ohio State.’ For him, it was really exciting because some of his teammates had been getting those calls since they were juniors and he didn’t get any looks at all."
Suiting up with Tri-City in 2014-15, Appleton fired 12 goals and picked up 28 assists in 54 regular-season games. That’s when he really caught the eye of Jets’ Midwestern U.S. scout Max Giese.
"Mason was a bit of a late-bloomer. He was a pretty skinny kid, lacked some strength, power and speed. (Giese) brought up his name as a kid with potential and he continued to follow him and his belief in him grew throughout the season," notes Mark Hillier, Winnipeg’s director of amateur scouting.
"We went out to see Mason, and I think we were pretty cautious. But we thought his skating would come, and Max saw him as a kid that would put in the time because he had the work ethic and the desire to become a pro. He was right."
“Mason was a bit of a late–bloomer. He was a pretty skinny kid, lacked some strength, power and speed. (Giese) brought up his name as a kid with potential and he continued to follow him and his belief in him grew throughout the season.” – Mark Hillier, Winnipeg’s director of amateur scouting
The Jets used their sixth-round selection (168th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft to get him.
Appleton elected to attend Michigan State after the lone junior campaign and went on to play a pair of seasons (2015-16 and 2016-17) with the Spartans, generating 17 goals and 53 points. He was still a teen when he played his first NCAA Division I game but was quarterbacking the power play, killing penalties and matching up against the opposition’s best a month into the season.
Anastos says the freshman understood the action around him as swiftly as anyone he’d coached, before or since.
"His head was like a computer on the ice, he dissected the game very quickly. He’s able to slow down what’s happening and process the game. If he came to the bench to talk, it was really important for me to listen to his viewpoint because I came to realize it was pretty darn accurate," he says.
Appleton left Michigan State before his junior year, signing a three-year entry-level deal with Winnipeg in July 2017.
Few in the Jets organization were immediately blown away by Appleton’s first professional training camp mere weeks after putting his name on a contract. His destiny had been predetermined: a spot with the Moose at best, or the Jackson Icemen of the ECHL, at worst.
Manitoba head coach Pascal Vincent says the young forward flew under the radar to begin the AHL season, tasked with playing up the middle on the club’s bottom forward line. Not much time elapsed before he was climbing the depth chart.
"He could have gone (to the ECHL) but he forced us to keep him. He started with lower minutes, but kept improving, practising right, his decisions on the ice were good, and then the next thing you know he’s playing top minutes and on the power play. He’s playing on the (penalty kill), against the top lines, he’s creating offence and he’s doing a lot of good things," Vincent recalls. "An easy guy to coach. He came to work every day, great attitude... he’s a guy I really enjoyed working with."
Appleton played all 76 games for Manitoba, finishing fourth in league scoring (22G, 44A) and was duly recognized as the 2018 AHL’s rookie of the year.
Schilling, who spent three seasons in the Jets organization, says it became clear to everyone associated with the Moose that Appleton understood the job requirements to be successful.
"He was the kind of player that loved going to the front of the net. I’d get shots through and he’d be tipping shots. Mase has skill but he’s not the guy on the half-wall. He goes to the net, he goes to the dirty areas, he uses his speed. You go hard to the net in the AHL and that can translate directly to the NHL. Some guys peel off, but Mase won’t do that," says Schilling.
During his second pro camp, Appleton failed to stick with the big club and started the 2018-19 season in the AHL, picking up exactly where he left off before earning a December call-up from Winnipeg. He made his NHL debut against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 1, earning a third-period assist.
He then went nine games — primarily with linemates Nic Petan and Brendan Lemieux — without generating a point, but finally scored his first NHL goal Dec. 20 in San Jose in prototypical fashion, storming the net, earning body position on blue-liner Radim Simek and jamming the puck past Sharks netminder Martin Jones.
Appleton finished with 10 points (3G, 7A) in 36 games in a Winnipeg jersey. His production was similar during an injury-plagued 2019-20 season, with five goals and eight points in 46 outings. The lowlight, most will recall, was a foot injury sustained while tossing a football at Mosaic Stadium on the eve of the Heritage Classic outdoor game in Regina in late October. He was sidelined for 17 games.
His dad still shakes his head when thinking back to the phone call from his devastated son.
"I’m like, ‘‘What are you doing? You know you’re on the cusp. You can’t be doing stuff like that,’" Jim says. "Then he explains that everybody else was doing it, throwing the ball around. He was sitting there and he wasn’t going to goof around. But Kyle (Connor) asked him to throw a couple of balls. He thought he was being the most cautious and he ends up breaking his foot."
In retrospect, it seemed like an entirely innocuous way to warm up, and the fall could just as easily have occurred walking down a slippery Winnipeg sidewalk. But Appleton’s now mindful of suffering similar mishaps during the off-season, and has abandoned barefoot water-skiing despite a need for speed.
When restricted free agent Jack Roslovic opted not to attend Jets training camp in December, the absence created a hole on the third line that Appleton was eager to fill.
While Paul Maurice has tinkered with his top-six forward group, the Lowry-Copp-Appleton connection — comprised entirely of Jets draft picks — has remained intact for big chunks of the abbreviated 2021 regular season (only modified owing to injuries, including to Blake Wheeler late this week).
The unit exceeded all expectations, maintaining a responsible, tight-checking and physical game linked with an unforeseen but important offensive contribution.
"I really like how we’re playing. We have some differences in our games but there’s a lot of similarities, too. We’re all strong on the puck and, especially when we’re playing against top lines, we can sustain pressure on a good forecheck and recover pucks and create some chances," says Appleton, who inked a new two-year contract (average annual value of US$900,000) in October.
"It’s a pretty simple, but effective game and it differs so much from our top two lines. That’s what we thrive on, playing hard and fast, competing down low, and that’s how we generate our goals, hemming teams in."
Many of his goals are manufactured from a strong net drive.
"He’s hard on it, with speed. He’s strong, protects the puck well, takes it to the net and can finish around the net," says Copp. "He’s fit in well with (Lowry) and I, for sure."
Appleton was hardly an overnight sensation, but each NHLer hits his stride at a different pace. And while many prospects — even ones considered "can’t-miss" — are quickly confined to obscurity, he adjusted to an important though less-flashy role and has thrived.
Winnipeg’s bench boss liked several elements of Appleton’s game but needed some convincing.
"His training camps early on... you didn’t notice him, almost uninspiring. Then, the second half (of 2018-19) he got up to that strength and quickness, he got strong and fast, and then there’s something there. Really, what happened was Mason, himself, figured out, ‘I can play this style of game in the NHL and be a really good player.’ Now he’s starting to excel at it," says Maurice.
"What transpired with Mason is he came to us (as an offensive player) but in truth, there were other players that were better at that style of game. What he was able to do then was to adjust his style of game to something that he’s now great at. He’s very quick, he’s got a good stick and he’s become a relentless player. He’s on the forecheck, he’s on the backcheck, he’s got good defensive reads and he’s highly competitive."
Soon, Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff will have to gauge how much they value the blossoming, two-way player.
Would they risk exposing him for the Seattle Kraken to wrap their tentacles around him in the summer expansion draft?
Appleton has prospered at all levels by adhering to the motto, "drive to the net and good things happen." Twice in a week in mid-March, the now-6-2, 200-pound winger lit the lamp behind Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen by doing just that. He scored the eventual game-winner after taking a pass on the backhand from Copp, dropping his right shoulder and cutting toward the Toronto netminder before slipping the puck to his forehand for nifty deke while falling. Four nights later, he opened the scoring for the visitors, darting between Travis Dermott and Jason Spezza to reach the crease and get a stick blade on a feed from Lowry.
It’s an area of the ice that comes with some hard knocks, but can be a gold mine, he says.
"There’s a lot of goals to be had there, so the faster you can get there, the better chance you have. My game is taking pucks to the net, that’s something I pride myself in and it makes me an effective player. Any chance I can get to the net, with or without the puck, that’s how I create," says Appleton.
One of his biggest fans wasn’t at all shocked to see him light the lamp with that bullish approach.
"Our coaching staff was laughing about it. We were having dinner together (the first night in Toronto) when he was crashing the net and losing his feet in the blue paint because we’d probably seen that goal 20 times his senior year of hockey in Wisconsin. That’s a Mason Appleton special," says McCracken, who still coaches at Notre Dame.
"It doesn’t matter what level you play; as the season progresses the fewer cute goals are scored and more are produced near the blue paint. Scrums, loose pucks. Mason understands that and has since he was 16."
McCracken watches most Jets games on the tube, as does Anastos, who stepped down as coach of Michigan State in the spring of 2017.
Meanwhile, Jim and Kim Appleton never miss a game on the NHL TV package but long for the day when they can travel north to Winnipeg, or occupy seats at United Center in Chicago or Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul and watch their oldest boy compete in person.
They talk on the phone and trade texts daily, only occasionally discussing hockey. Mostly, it’s keeping up with family news, making plans for the summer at the cabin or a boys’ hunting trip.
Those closest to him don’t just see the polite but straight-to-the-point professional that fans have come to expect during meetings with the media.
"We see the goofball," says Kim. "When we watch his interview, we always think he’s so well spoken and he is pretty intense, but he doesn’t hold back at home and around people he’s comfortable with. It’s amazing he’s doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do with his life. We’re really proud of him.
"You hope your kids are happy and successful in life, but what you really want is for them to be good people."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).