TORONTO – Twenty years after his death, Harold Ballard is still finding ways to make headlines.
A 1,100-kilogram slab of concrete featuring an inscription of his name and the date 29-07-83 between his hand and foot prints was unveiled Tuesday.
The marks of the cantankerous former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs were discovered on the pad beneath what would have been centre ice during renovations of the old Maple Leaf Gardens in January. A square measuring 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres was removed to preserve the previously unknown chunk of nostalgia.
The Gardens is being transformed by Ryerson University and Loblaws into a combination grocery store, museum, athletics facility and hockey rink.
The two partners donated the piece to the Hockey Hall of Fame on a rainy Tuesday, and the heavy media turnout for the event on Carlton Street beneath the building’s marquee would have given Ballard quite the kick.
“Harold would love it, he loves it now,” said son Bill Ballard. “I mean 20 years later talking about him? That’s beyond his ambition.”
Harold Ballard’s ownership of the Maple Leafs during the 1970s and ’80s was often despised by fans, and was marked by scores of unsuccessful hockey teams.
He was convicted on multiple charges of fraud, tax evasion and theft during his reign, but was always the centre of attention.
“I think to really understand or know Harold you’d have to know that basically he was always putting you on,” said Bill Ballard. “Funny enough (Toronto councillor) Howard Moscoe said the other day that he couldn’t believe the press would actually write what he said.
“That was Harold’s philosophy, he used to laugh and chuckle about that.”
Harold Ballard’s flamboyance and eccentricity stand in stark contrast to today’s straight-laced, corporate-based, privacy-craving sports owners. His antics make Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s most controversial statements look tame.
There were no sacred cows for Ballard.
When questioned over his decision to remove a large portrait of the Queen to make room for most seats at the Gardens, he was quoted in “Ballard: A Portrait of Canada’s Most Controversial Sports Figure” as saying: “She doesn’t pay me, I pay her. Besides, what the hell position can a queen play?”
Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Ellis, who played for the Maple Leafs under Ballard and grew to close to him, said things were always interesting.
“Harold was one of those characters of the game and we need those people,” said Ellis. “Sometimes the product on the ice isn’t what it should be and you need those characters to keep the interest up. Harold certainly did his part.
“Here we are standing in the rain and he’s probably chuckling a little bit, like ‘Look what I created, they’re talking about me again.'”
Ballard’s motivation in leaving the hand and foot prints in the concrete as it was setting isn’t clear, although his son suggests that it was simply “everybody’s sense of wanting to get a piece of immortality.”
Another theory is that King Clancy, the former Maple Leafs defenceman who became Ballard’s close friend, put him up to it.
“I think it was sort of a joke, my dad probably put Harold up to this hand print thing,” said Terry Clancy, King’s son. “No question my dad was an instigator. He loved to have lots of fun, he loved the people, the people loved him, and I think the two of them had a great time around here.”
Bill Ballard said seeing the slab and at the attention it generated “kind of reminds me of going back to the circus.” But he said it also spoke to the history that still remains at the Gardens.
“To me it kind of sadly points the absence of the soul at the new Air Canada Centre that existed here,” he said. “You can say a lot of things about Harold, but he really was part of a soul of something.”
Though it was donated to the hockey hall, it will likely be displayed at the Gardens once the refurbishments are completed, a date tentatively set for August 2011.