New documentary shines light on controversial former Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard

The film is scheduled to air Sunday on CBC/CBC Gem.

A new documentary tells the story of former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, considered by some to be one of the worst owners in the history of the NHL. (Getty Images)

Jason Priestley and Michael Geddes are eagerly waiting at the ritzy Le Germain Hotel in the heart of downtown Toronto, ready to conduct one of several interviews during their press tour for a documentary that shines new light on one of Canada’s most controversial sports figures.

Priestley — best known as iconic heartthrob Brandon Walsh from Beverly Hills, 90210 — is the director of Offside: The Harold Ballard Story, a new project about the bombastic, tyrannical former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The film is scheduled to air Sunday on CBC/CBC Gem, so it’s only natural that Priestley and his executive producer, Geddes, are quickly ready to explain why they’ve taken on a project about such a contentious character in hockey history.

Ballard is often considered to be the worst owner in Maple Leafs history. Most hockey fans and historians immediately think of his explosive temper, and he was consistently characterized as a brazen sexist and racist. So why embark upon a Ballard project in 2023?

“I think looking back at a guy that was very un-Canadian who lived in Toronto at a time when it was very different, it made for a great story,” Geddes told Yahoo Sports Canada. “He was one of Canada's biggest characters. People have forgotten about Harold Ballard. People of our vintage remember him well, but they've forgotten about him. And I think a whole new generation of people out there now, younger than us, have heard about him through only rumours. He was a larger-than-life figure, he had a hell of a story."

“A lot of the people who actually knew Harold and the people who actually had personal connections to him and stories to tell about him are starting to get to an age where they're starting to leave us now,” Priestley added. “So we felt it was important to get their stories on film and put this piece together, before those people are no longer with us.”

Geddes added that Priestley went through a comprehensive deep dive during the interview process to unfurl new information about Ballard that wasn’t previously known to the public.

Ballard made a deliberate point of projecting himself as a hardline capitalist concerned solely with the Maple Leafs’ finances, with limited interest in caring about the hardships that other people are regularly subject to. He also hid all of the charitable initiatives he embarked upon from public viewing; he didn’t want his work with children’s charities to detract from his self-imposed tough-guy posture.

He died in April 1990 and contemporary society has shifted to recognize that racism and sexism are intolerable maladies that we have to reckon with. But even in his era, Ballard was known for these despicable qualities. As someone who was a toddler when Ballard died, am I and others from my generation guilty of assessing Ballard’s legacy through a revisionist lens?

“It's kind of hard to look at Harold Ballard through the lens of today, we've talked about this,” Geddes said. “We've set this documentary (as) best as we could in the era that Ballard was living, that is the 70s. The shooting locations were very 70s vibe. I think it's important to look historically at him in this context and go, 'now we know why!'

“Things have changed. The league changed their constitution because of owners that ran unchecked. Of course, the wokeness in the league has changed, and the complexity of the league has changed with the players. They're not just all Canadian kids from Northern Ontario for instance. Ballard didn't live that and didn't understand that and he never would. I think this documentary is great for the younger generation to go 'wow, look at the way things were run!”

Ballard bought Stafford Smythe’s shares of the Maple Leafs to become the controlling owner of the franchise when he was 68 years old in 1972. His tenure was defined by some of the worst teams in Maple Leafs history, while their Original Six contemporaries Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins owned the 1970s. By the end of the decade, Maple Leafs icon Darryl Sittler was in open revolt against Ballard’s reign, and fellow legend Borje Salming similarly followed suit, disgusted by Ballard’s xenophobia and fear of signing fellow European players.

By the 1980s, the Maple Leafs were one of the laughingstocks of the NHL due to their inept on-ice performances, while their star players hated playing for one of the league’s most storied clubs. Priestley shed some light on some of the tactics that Ballard employed, which run anathema to the way modern franchises operate.

“There's no comparison that the Leafs of today are run in a far more professional, far more organized, far better way than they were back in the days of Harold Ballard. Harold was running the team like a small mom-and-pop organization. He tried to micromanage everything, he tried to be in control of every aspect of the team in a way that was detrimental to the team. So much so that one of the trainers on the team was this guy named Guy Kinnear, who was his boat mechanic from his cottage up in Georgian Bay. Here's a guy with no medical knowledge, no kinesiology degree. When players would ask him for help with their nagging injuries, he would give them packets of Neocitrin! It was preposterous what was happening!”

Ballard was openly hated by Maple Leafs fans for his frugality, but Priestley argued that this was never a concern for the owner, given the franchise’s immense popularity.

“I believe that the fans back then may have detested Harold Ballard, yet you couldn't get a seat at Maple Leaf Gardens for any of their home games. Maple Leaf Gardens was sold out every home game. They may have hated Ballard but they still loved their Toronto Maple Leafs. Leafs Nation has been alive and thriving for decades. Torontonians around the world love their Leafs. The strength of the Maple Leafs' fan base has been the strength of that team but it also was the one thing that Ballard figured out that he could exploit. Even though he was fielding a sub-par team, he still figured out he could generate the revenue from the turnstiles at Maple Leaf Gardens.”

The current iteration of the Maple Leafs has frustrated some factions of the fan base due to their six consecutive first-round exits, despite boasting a statistical and talent profile that suggests better results are in store. There’s a stark contrast between a team that’s trying to win, and a team that wasn’t trying at all. The idea of tanking would’ve been a non-starter in Ballard’s era, either, so the fruits of losing shamelessly were never readily apparent.

“I think the fans of yesteryear when Ballard had the team, two things come to mind: they had lost trust and they had lost hope,” Geddes said.

“I think those two things are back. The trust being that money is going to be spent to win and to put that product on the ice with winning clearly in mind. And hope, as much as it's been 55 years and counting, there's hope again. I think for a long time, maybe decades, this documentary talks about it, there wasn't any hope. When you make that bet, when you buy that ticket, you want those two boxes checked as a fan. For a long time, they couldn't provide that — Ballard couldn't.”

Sports historians are always worried whether their work will stand the test of time, but Priestley and Geddes take pride in the widespread interest in the forthcoming documentary. And while Ballard may represent a dreary part of Maple Leafs history, in some ways it serves as a prologue to brighter days ahead for this current group.

“You get a sense of ‘is this project going to matter?’ I think we're finding out with the immense amount of interest that this film matters right now and people are very interested in the premiere this Sunday on CBC,” Geddes said. “It had the same interest at the Whistler Film Festival, it was great to debut it out there. This surpassed my wildest dreams in terms of the support and the interest.”

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