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Q&A: New Documentary Tells the Controversial Story of Harold Ballard

"Offside: The Harold Ballard Story" looks extensively at the rise and fall of the headline-grabbing, infamous former Toronto Maple Leafs owner.
Harold Ballard in his office at Maple Leaf Gardens

Infamous former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard was, for better or worse, a one-of-a-kind public figure who made headlines up until the day he died in April of 1990. His legacy has lived on since then, and now, director Jason Priestley and executive producer Michael Geddes have chronicled his extremely public rise and devastating fall in a new documentary, Offside: The Harold Ballard Story.

Priestley directed and narrated the film, which premiered at the Whistler Film Festival in December, and the general public will get its first look at the picture when it debuts on CBC Jan. 22. 

THN.com spent time early Wednesday morning with Priestley and Geddes. Here is a transcript (edited for length and clarity) with the two key forces behind the documentary:

Adam Proteau, THN.com: As a guy who is 50 years old and born in Toronto, this film really evoked incredibly painful memories for me…my connection to Harold Ballard is that, as kids, we would always hang out on Wood St., behind Maple Leaf Gardens and get autographs from all players; one day, Ballard came by, strolling down the street, and my friend and I asked him for an autograph.

He said, “Sure, kids,” and he reaches into his pocket and flicks out this card that had been automatically stamped with his signature. We both kind of stood there, our mouths were open, and we thought, “have we just been kind of told to frig off by Harold Ballard?”. Was that artifice of Ballard something you recognized as part of who he was, as a showman, a con man, an artificial figure?

Jason Priestley, director: Yes, I think so. I think that he was very good at exploiting the media, and exploiting the fact that hockey, and the love of hockey, was an intrinsic part of Canadian society, and our folklore in this country. And he figured out a way to exploit Canadians’ love of hockey, to the point that, even when the Leafs were not performing well, you still couldn’t get a seat at Maple Leaf Gardens for all of their home games. And I think that he exploited that.

Even though he talked about winning, and winning at any cost, he didn’t do those things. And we really wrestle with this in the documentary: was it because he was this really genius Machievellian figure, or was it just because he was not the greatest hockey mind, and he wouldn’t spend money to hire the greatest hockey minds to run the team? These are the questions that we bring up in the film, and we sort of leave it up to the audience to make their own judgements about who this man really was.

Michael Geddes, executive producer: It was very hard to figure out Harold Ballard, and I’m sure, at the time, many of the players, many of the management that were in his era, which spanned 20 years, couldn’t figure him out. And let’s face it – there probably was an element of fear as well, because he was impulsive. If you didn’t catch him on the right uptick, I don’t think anybody would’ve been comfortable in their jobs, except for King Clancy, his sidekick. So it just really was a callback from my generation – and as you’ve said in your story, Adam, of being a 50-year-old (Leafs fan) – I think people have forgotten a little bit about Ballard. We’ve all forgotten that era, maybe by design, so it’s good to revisit it.

But then for the generations younger than us, they’ve heard those rumors. They’ve heard about Ballard. They certainly hear about the “Ballard Curse” at playoff time. They now have a great documentary to watch that will fill in a ton of blanks, will really justify why there’s a Ballard Curse, and (they’ll) really shake their head at it. Here’s a professional sports franchise and how it was being run – it just doesn’t happen that way anymore. Today, Maple Leaf Sports is a first-class organization from the top down. Everybody is empowered to make decisions. They spend money. They do all the things at the other end of the spectrum from where the Leafs were in the ’70s and ’80s. And they’re winning. So, it was a crazy time back then, for sure.

THN: I also remember growing up in Toronto, getting through (the Ballard years), and when he died, having that unfortunate feeling of relief, as a fan. And I hate to say that about a fellow human being passing on. But I think there weren’t many other examples – maybe in Bill Wirtz in Chicago, where the Blackhawks had that same kind of misery, and had that irascible owner – so maybe Ballard and Wirtz were two of a kind. But I thought you were very fair to Ballard in the documentary – you probably could’ve gone negative the whole time, but…in being fair to him, what did you learn about him from a positive standpoint that you hadn’t learned before?

JP: Well, the biggest thing that we learned, I think, was his capacity to give to charity, and the fact that, even though he gave so much to charity – and that his foundation continues to give millions to charities every year – he tried to keep it all a secret. He didn’t want anyone to know that he was giving as much as he was, all the time, to charity, because he wanted to keep that tough guy image, and he didn’t want anyone to know that he was a softie at all.

And it’s that kind of paradox that was fascinating about the man. But we felt it was important to lay that kind of information out. Because, being a documentarian, and in the telling of this movie, we thought it was important to lay out the good, the bad, the ugly, and let the audience members really make their own judgment about Harold Ballard.

MG: My take is, you know, here’s a guy that won the prize, climbed the mountain in the early ’70s, took control of the team. After this documentary, I’m pretty sure that Ballard knew himself that he was in over his head. His real skill set was being the showman – he was the P.T. Barnum of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., but then he had the hockey team, and then he had to be a hockey man. And I think his strategy, although there was no grand plan to it, was that, “If I can’t run this team, I’m going to make sure I keep everybody else involved off-balance”. And I think he was a master at that.

With the media, it was love-hate, and he kept them off-balance. He gave (media) the story every day, and it was easy to write about him because he just served it up on a platter. But with the players, where it becomes very unfair, you’re not supposed to keep your hockey players off-balance. You’re supposed to support them at any cost. But that was the only grand plan that Harold seemed to have.

Jason Priestley and Michael Geddes

Director Jason Priestley stands beside executive producer Michael Geddes at the documentary's premiere at the Whistler Film Festival.

THN: I’ve heard a couple of people talk about Ballard in the post-(Donald)-Trump Era, and with the cult of personality, how Ballard would’ve operated today. What’s your perspective on what Harold Ballard would’ve been in this day and age?

MG: He would’ve been a high Twitter user if someone showed him how to use it. He used the press as his megaphone. So I think he probably would’ve been a big Twitter fan. But I also know that the leagues have changed, and their constitutions don’t allow a Harold Ballard to run unchecked. So I’m not sure he would’ve been around long if it was the same Harold as he was in the ’70s and ’80s, in today’s “woke” world – and not even the “woke” world, just the way the league wants their owners to be perceived.

JP: I agree with what Mike says. I think (Ballard) used the press – and, at times, masterfully, he used the press – I feel like he was very Trumpian in the way he manipulated the press and used the press as a megaphone. But I feel like Ballard didn’t care whether it was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ name, or his name, in the paper – whether it was on the front page or the front page of the sports section, just so long as one of them was mentioned, above the fold on the first page of the paper, one of their two names was grabbing headlines. So they always were in the news, and that was free press for one of them.

I think that excited him. And I think after a while, I feel like his ego started to get the better of him, and he wanted it for himself. And I felt like his ego made it so that he became the most important part of the team, to himself. He was this wild, grandiose figure, and after his wife died, you’ve got to remember, he moved out of his house in the west end and built an apartment inside Maple Leaf Gardens and moved into Maple Leaf Gardens, and lived with the team and travelled with the team, and never left the team. The team became his family. The whole story is so bizarre, if you wrote this movie, no one would believe it, especially in this world of corporate team ownership. It defies belief and comprehension.

Harold Ballard in his officeat Maple Leaf Gardenstalking on phone

THN: Toward the end of the documentary, we really see Ballard as a human being, ultimately. He wanted to be loved, he had a capacity for love and charity. And your film spoke to that, in terms of his friendship with King Clancy and his relationship with (widow) Yolanda Ballard. Was it important for you to humanize him and maybe take away some of the Darth Vader tones to him?

MG: He wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t even Donald Trump… But I think Ballard, who was 68 years old when he took the helm of the Leafs, his mental capacity in the ’80s started to decline. But he wasn’t willing to let go of the reins. He was going to take that to his grave, and obviously, he did. People are going to have different takeaways, but he was a human, and Jason did a great job of bringing out those stories, from players and the media. Towards the end of the documentary, you saw it – they spoke to that.

Time heals all wounds as well. We all know that. But when you open something back up and reflect on it, I think it was important to show that he was a father, he was a husband, he loved his wife. It messed him up, like it would anybody. And I think Jason did a great job at bringing that out.

THN: What about you, Jason? How did you see Yolanda in particular?

JP: Well, the Yolanda Episode, the Yolanda Years – it’s like (Toronto media member and former Ballard employee and Leafs GM) Gordon Stellick said: as his health was declining, she became as much his nurse as his partner. And she definitely served a purpose in his life. You know, the interesting thing, I think, at that point in time in his life, is how it became contentious between her and his children, and everybody was fighting over the scraps of the dynasty. It was like an episode of “Succession”, which is fascinating.

But we did really try to humanize Harold and show that he wasn’t a monster, and he wasn’t all bad. He was a human who had many facets to himself. There are certainly (former Leafs players) Rick Vaive, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald who air their grievances about him in the film, and they’re all very forthcoming and very honest, which is very refreshing to see players really wear their heart on their sleeves and be forthcoming in the film. But then there are other players, like Tiger Williams, who had nothing but admiration for the guy, which is really fascinating to see as well. So we really tried to show a fair and honest and complete picture of the man and let the audience take away from it what they will.

THN: It’s hard sometimes to reach the new generations with all the content that’s thrown their way. What would be your selling lines, or your selling points to them for this picture?

MG: First of all, it’s sports, so we’re going to get those hockey fans, I believe, no matter what generation. But I also think everybody loves the story of a rise and a fall. And Ballard, with a big twinkle in his eye – and he was a classic business scoundrel at the end of the day – it just so happened he owned a very, very important public jewel in the Toronto Maple Leafs.

So, when you bring all those together in that one big intersection, it’s a great story and a high-profile story, and people are going to be talking about this. We know they already are – there’s a great amount of heat and sizzle under this documentary, so we’re going to reach those (demographics) for sure.

JP: We worked really hard to make this movie accessible for everybody, not just people who know hockey. That’s why we spent a little bit of the time in the first act of the film telling the story of the Toronto Maple Leafs, how they became the Toronto Maple Leafs and really setting the table of the story before we get into it. And we really worked hard to not make the movie so “inside-hockey” that people who don’t know hockey necessarily wouldn’t enjoy the story as well.

It’s really the story of a larger-than-life character who, like Mike said, had this incredible rise and this very tragic fall at the end. And so I think that people, whether you know hockey or not, or whether you love hockey or not, you’ll still really enjoy this story of this larger-than-life character.

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