This is the sixth and final in a series of profiles of Minnesota athletes who are competing for Team USA in the Maccabiah Games – also known as “the Jewish Olympics” – in Israel from July 12-26.
Since the time he was three years old and just starting out, Branson Appelman always wanted to bring his baseball mitt onto the ice with him to play goalie – even when his father (and coach), Avery, tried to push him back to playing defense.
Now that Branson, a rising high school junior is on his way to being an elite goalie who is also representing the USA at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, it’s clear that the wishes of the son won out.
“I’ve always had an attraction to it,” Branson said. “It’s almost like an art form because you’re not only stopping pucks; you’re looking where the threats are. Sizing up the game at a high level is just such an appeal to me.”
Appelman and Team USA will be one of the first events of the Maccabiah, opening the juniors tournament against Canada several hours before the Opening Ceremonies on July 14. The Maccabi World Union is planning for the game to be attended by all of the nearly 11,000 participants of the games before walking over to the stadium for the ceremonies.
Branson is from Maple Grove and spending his summers at home, but the last two seasons – and this upcoming one – he’s spent in the St. Louis area playing for the AAA program Carshield, which recruited him after playing two years with a team in Omaha that allowed him to live and go to school at home in Minnesota while traveling on the weekends.
“So when so they called me, they said. ‘We want a goalie and we want you,’” Appelman said. “We thought about it: is playing Minnesota better or worse than playing AAA in Missouri?”
While hockey is often romanticized in Minnesota, Avery Appelman said that the state isn’t great for elite-level players.
“Branson getting 15 shutouts in 30 games isn’t helping him [develop],” he said. “Once outside of the borders of Minnesota, every game is against real talent. [His goalie coaches] Brennan Poderzay and Jason Power at Carshield are firmly invested in him being better.”
Poderzay, who is a volunteer goalie coach at the University of Minnesota, had the same job at Minnesota State Mankato where one of his former players, Dryden McKay, won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey this past season.
“As a goaltender, Branson is an absolute competitor; he hates being scored on and hates losing,” he said. “He’s never been afraid to put in the work. He has an insatiable desire to be better.”
The mentality of being a goalie is also very different. Appelman says: “We’re psychos.” Poderzay puts a little finer point on it.
“Everyone talks about the goalie being the weirdo or psycho, but I think it’s a stigma with the position,” he said. “I think because not too many people want 70-to-80 mph vulcanized rubber shot at them.”
Branson and his mom, Cindi, live in St. Louis during the hockey season, where he attends and occasionally plays for Kirkwood High School, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of his Carshield responsibilities.
This will be Appelman’s first at the U-18 level after playing at the U-15 and U-16. In 16 league games last year, he won 14 of them with a 1.31 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage. His plan for the 2023-24 season is to play for a team in the North American Hockey League, which is the second division of junior hockey in the U.S.
“This year needs to be a development year, and then hopefully next year, I’ll be gone,” he said. “Some far-flung place like Kenai.”
Yes, Alaska is a possibility. So is Odessa, Texas, or Lewiston, Maine. Or maybe something a little closer to home, like Cloquet or Austin. After a year or two there, he has his sights set on college hockey at the Air Force Academy.
“It’s just a dream,” he said. But he acknowledged that playing for a service academy likely ends the dream of playing professionally – if he even has those goals. “They’re looking for a guy with a 3.8 [GPA] and that’s willing to go to your place and give up any dreams.
Appelman has kept himself in check and has a realistic view of what lies ahead.
“Trust me: I have wanted to have an unrealistic view,” he said with a smirk, “and am always shut down.”