Harold E. Ballard (July 30, 1903 – April 11, 1990) was an owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League (NHL) as well as their home arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. A member of the Leafs organization from 1940 and a senior executive from 1957, he became part-owner of the team in 1961 and was majority owner from February 1972 until his death. He was also the owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League (CFL) for 11 seasons, and won a Grey Cup championship as team owner in 1986. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (1977) and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1987).

Early years[edit | edit source]

Ballard was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada as Edwin Harold Ballard. He later reversed the names and referred to himself as Harold E. Ballard. For six years before World War I, Ballard and his family lived in Norristown, Pennsylvania. They returned to Toronto where his father, Sidney Eustace Ballard, founded Ballard Machinery Supplies Co., a sewing machine manufacturer, which at one point was one of Canada's leading manufacturers of ice skates (it got out of the business in the early 1930s, when the Canadian skate market was dominated by CCM). Harold attended Upper Canada College as a boarding student until dropping out in his third year in 1919.

Ballard became a fan of speed skating and would attend skating events and hockey games, helping to promote the Ballard skates. For the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Ballard was appointed assistant manager of the Toronto Varsity Grads team that won the gold medal.

As a member of the National Yacht Club, Ballard became an avid racer of Sea Fleas, small outboard hydroplanes. He competed in several regattas, and won the Toronto-Oakville marathon in 1929. Ballard was elected to the NYC's executive committee in January 1930. He participated in the 133-mile Albany-New York City marathon in April 1930, finishing second in his class. About a month later, Ballard and two friends from the NYC were hurled from a boat into a frigid Lake Ontario. Ballard was pulled from the water unconscious, but one of his friends died. None of the three was wearing a life jacket.

Hockey coach and manager[edit | edit source]

Following the 1930 racing season, the NYC sponsored a senior team in the Ontario Hockey Association called the Toronto National Sea Fleas. Ballard was made business manager. Under coach Harry Watson, the team won the Allan Cup in 1932. Watson chose not to return the following season, and Ballard took over the coaching duties. At first, the players welcomed Ballard behind the bench, but the mood soon changed, particularly after Ballard benched the team captain. That triggered a mutiny among some of the team's top players, who resigned from the squad in November. The team had a poor year with Ballard coaching, but Ballard arranged a European tour for the Nationals which included competing in the 1933 Ice Hockey World Championships in Prague. There, the Nationals lost 2–1 in overtime to a team from the U.S.—the first loss for a Canadian team at the world championships. While touring Europe, the Nationals were involved in several fights, both on the ice and off. In one incident, Ballard was arrested in Paris following a fracas at a hotel. The tour marked the end of Ballard's career as a full-time hockey coach.

In 1934, Ballard became manager of the West Toronto Nationals OHA junior team and hired Leaf captain Hap Day as coach. When Day was busy with the Leafs and unavailable for games, Ballard would step behind the bench as acting coach. Under Day and Ballard, the Nationals won the Memorial Cup at the end of the 1935–36 season. The following season, Day and Ballard worked together to run a senior team sponsored by E. P. Taylor's Dominion Brewery (the Toronto Dominions).

After Day became coach of the Leafs in 1940, he recommended Ballard to the Leaf organization to run the Toronto Marlboros, the senior and junior teams owned by the Leafs. Ballard was made president and general manager. He would coach one more game, for the senior Marlboros, during the 1950 Allan Cup final, after head coach Joe Primeau's father died. The Marlboros lost the game but won the series and the championship.

In the early 1950s, Ballard hired his long-time friend Stafford Smythe, son of Leafs owner Conn Smythe, as managing director of the Marlboros. The team won the Memorial Cup in 1955—their first championship in 26 years—and repeated the feat the following season.

Joins the Maple Leafs[edit | edit source]

In 1957, Ballard moved up to the Maple Leafs as a member of a committee chaired by Stafford Smythe which oversaw hockey operations after Conn Smythe stepped down as general manager and Hap Day was pushed out of the Leafs organization. Ballard wasn't initially named to the committee when it was unveiled in March 1957, but took the place of Ian Johnston nine months later. At age 54, Ballard was the oldest member of the group, which were otherwise all in their 30s and 40s. The committee came to be known as the "Silver Seven".

Partner in Leafs ownership group[edit | edit source]

In November 1961, Conn Smythe sold most of his shares in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to a consortium including Stafford Smythe and the Toronto Telegram owner, John Bassett. Ballard fronted Stafford Smythe most of the money for the purchase. Conn Smythe later claimed that he had no knowledge of Ballard and Bassett being partners, but it is very unlikely that Stafford could have acquired the millions he needed to buy the Leafs on his own.

As he played a key role in the purchase, Ballard was named executive vice president of Maple Leaf Gardens, alternate governor of the Maple Leafs and chairman of the team's hockey committee. He played a key role in the Leaf dynasty of the 1960s, winning Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.

However, Ballard soon began displaying tendencies that would eventually make him arguably the worst owner in NHL history. Just after the advent of color television in Canada, the Maple Leafs installed a new lighting system. While it provided a clearer picture for fans, it caused a very sharp glare that distracted players. Ballard's solution was to make the CBC pay for the upgrade. When Hockey Night in Canada's president, Ted Hough, balked at Ballard's demands just before a broadcast, Ballard grabbed a fireman's ax and threatened to cut the TV cable unless Hough agreed to pay. Hough relented, and the broadcast went on as scheduled.

Ballard's greatest influence in this period was not on the ice, but on the financial performance of Maple Leaf Gardens. Within three years under the new owners, profits at the Gardens had tripled to just under $1 million. He negotiated lucrative deals to place advertising throughout the building, and greatly increased the number of seats in the Gardens. To make room for more seats, Ballard removed a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth II from the Gardens. When asked about it, Ballard replied "She doesn't pay me, I pay her. Besides, what the hell position can a queen play?"

He also expanded the number of concerts, entertainment acts, and conventions booked in the building. .

In 1969, Ballard and Stafford Smythe were charged with tax evasion and accused of using Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to pay for their personal expenses. Bassett, who had by this time become chairman of the board, received the support of the board of directors in an 8–7 vote to fire Smythe and Ballard. However, Bassett did not force Smythe and Ballard to sell out, and both men remained on the board. This was a serious blunder; Smythe and Ballard controlled almost half the company's shares between them. They were thus able to stage a proxy war a year later and regain control of the board. Ballard was reappointed as executive vice president.

Facing an untenable situation, Bassett sold his shares to Ballard and Stafford Smythe in September 1971 and resigned as chairman of the board. Just six weeks later, Smythe died. At age 68, he became the majority owner of the Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens, and installed himself as president and chairman of the board.

Leafs under Ballard's sole ownership[edit | edit source]

Criminal trial and the Summit Series[edit | edit source]

Shortly after taking control of the Leafs, Ballard stood trial on 28 counts of fraud involving $82,000, 21 counts of theft involving $123,000, and tax evasion. He was accused by the government of using funds from Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to pay for renovations to his home and cottage, to rent limousines for his daughter's wedding in 1967, and to buy motorcycles for his sons (passing off the expense as hockey equipment for the Marlboros), as well as placing money belonging to the corporation into a private bank account that he controlled along with Stafford Smythe. Ballard pleaded not guilty to all charges.

At the same time, Hockey Canada and the NHL Players Association had negotiated an agreement to hold an eight-game tournament between Canadian professional hockey players and the top players from the Soviet Union. The tournament would become known as the Summit Series. Just as Ballard's trial was beginning, he told Hockey Canada that they were welcome to use any member of the Leafs on the Canadian team, could use Maple Leaf Gardens for their training camp, and could use the building for any or all of the games in the series, with the Gardens' share of the gate receipts being donated to the NHL players' pension fund. Ballard then partnered with long-time rival Alan Eagleson and Eagleson's client, Bobby Orr to get the television rights to the series—which would be used to benefit Hockey Canada and the players' union. At no time before or after his trial did Ballard show any interest in being associated with Eagleson or in having members of the Leafs play the Soviets, and the move was widely seen to be a means to generate favourable public relations. At the conclusion of the series, Ballard sent a bill to Hockey Canada for use of the building.

In August, just weeks before the series began, Ballard was convicted on 47 counts of fraud and grand theft. Two months later, he was sentenced to nine years in a federal penitentiary. After a brief stay at Kingston Penitentiary, he was moved to a minimum-security facility that was part of Millhaven Institution. During a three-day pass, he told reporters that inmates at Millhaven received steak dinners every day--sparking nationwide outrage and a debate in Parliament. He finished his sentence at a half-way house in Toronto, and was paroled in October 1973 after serving a third of his sentence.

Team Management[edit | edit source]

Ballard was a very hands-on owner who quickly became known for being irascible and cantankerous. He tried to micromanage the team, interfering with coaches and players. Soon after taking over as majority owner, he forced out several longtime front-office personnel and replaced them with his own men. For example, he cut the salary of chief scout and former Leafs star Bob Davidson by almost two-thirds, forcing Davidson to resign. Davidson had served in the Leafs organization for almost 40 years in various capacities.

Ballard's opposition to European players was so virulent that a Leafs scout used Ballard's time in jail to sign Börje Salming, one of the NHL's first great European players.

After Ballard took control during the 1971–72 season, one of the first challenges he faced was the creation of the World Hockey Association (WHA) as a competitor to the NHL. At the time, NHL teams relied on the reserve clause to keep players from jumping to other teams in the league, but the clause couldn't prevent players from leaving the NHL to join a different league.

At the end of the 1971–72 season, the Leafs only had three players signed to contracts for the next season: Rick Kehoe and veterans Jacques Plante and Bobby Baun. But Ballard did not take the unproven WHA seriously as a competitor and so was outbid on the services of several players in the Leafs organization. The biggest loss was goaltender Bernie Parent, a superstar in the making, who was offered a WHA contract with financial terms far beyond what Ballard was prepared to match. Along with Parent, Rick Ley, Jim Harrison, Brad Selwood, and Guy Trottier all left the Leafs for the WHA before the 1972–73 season, as did some minor league prospects in the Leafs' system as well as the team's minor league coach, Marcel Pronovost. Paul Henderson and Mike Pelyk followed a year later. The players who stayed could use the threat of joining the WHA to negotiate better contracts, and Ballard always blamed the WHA for inflating players' salaries. Ballard never forgave the WHA for this, and became the leader of the hardline faction of NHL owners who opposed any merger with the upstart league.

With the formation of the WHA's Toronto Toros, Ballard deliberately made the lease terms at Maple Leaf Gardens as onerous as possible. The Toros were owned by John F. Bassett, the son of Ballard's former partner in the ownership of the Leafs, John Bassett. The Toros' lease with Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. called for them to pay $15,000 per game, which was negotiated by Ballard's son Bill while the elder Ballard was in jail. However, by the time the Toros played their first game, Ballard had regained control of the Gardens. Much to the younger Bassett's outrage, the arena was dim for the first game. It was then that Ballard demanded $3,500 for use of the lights. Ballard also denied the Toros access to the Leafs' locker room, forcing them to build their own at a cost of $55,000. He also removed the cushions from the home bench for Toros' games (he told an arena worker, "Let 'em buy their own cushions!"). These demands forced the Toros to move to Birmingham, Alabama.

When the NHL finally did take in four WHA teams after the 1978–79 season, Ballard refused to support the deal. He was not only angry at how the WHA had decimated his roster earlier in the decade, but also wasn't enamored at the prospect of reduced television revenue. The WHA had insisted on bringing in all three of its surviving Canadian teams, meaning revenue from CBC telecasts now had to be split six ways rather than three.

At the time Ballard took over, the Leafs' captain was Dave Keon, who had been with the team since 1960. Ballard and Keon never got along, and when Keon's contract expired in 1975, Ballard let it be known that Keon had no place on the team. However, he insisted on receiving compensation for Keon, and set the price so high that potential suitors shied away, which in effect had prevented Keon from joining another NHL team. Keon was forced to move to the WHA's Minnesota Fighting Saints. In 1980, when Keon received an offer from the soon-to-be dynasty New York Islanders, Ballard still owned Keon's NHL rights and blocked that deal, forcing Keon to finish off his career with the mediocre Hartford Whalers as the WHA was absorbed into the NHL. Keon never forgave Ballard for how he had been treated, and it was more than 20 years before he was reconciled with the Leafs.

Relationship with Sittler[edit | edit source]

Ballard's desire to control players and their salaries also put him at odds with Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players Association and a player agent whose clients included Keon's successor as captain, Darryl Sittler. Ballard had once called Sittler "the son I never had", but relations between the two took a turn for the worse with Sittler's increasing prominence in the NHLPA. Around that time, the Leafs had made it as far as the conference finals in 1978, losing to the two-time defending champions Montreal Canadiens, but Ballard was criticized for not spending the extra money to take the team over the top (see below).

During the 1978–79 NHL season, Ballard fired and then rehired coach Roger Neilson, which saw Sittler lobby on the players' behalf for Neilson's reinstatement. An apocryphal tale suggested that Ballard tried to make Neilson wear a paper bag over his head behind the bench.

In July 1979, Ballard brought his longtime friend, former Leafs coach and general manager Punch Imlach, back to the organization as general manager. Imlach was as staunchly anti-union as Ballard; during his first stint in Toronto, he had been one of Eagleson's most ardent foes. With Ballard's support, Imlach moved to dismantle the roster and undermine Sittler's influence, despite many analysts viewing the team as having a promising future. Sittler was apparently untouchable as he had a no-trade clause in his contract and, through his agent Eagleson, had insisted on $500,000 to waive it. When the Leafs traded Sittler's close friend Lanny McDonald to the moribund Colorado Rockies on December 29 1979, a member of the Leafs anonymously told the Toronto Star that Leafs management would "do anything to get at Sittler" and was bent on undermining the captain's influence on the team. Angry teammates trashed their dressing room in response, while Sittler ripped the captain's C off his sweater, later commenting that a captain had to be the go-between with players and management, and he no longer had any communication with management. Ballard would liken Sittler's actions to burning the Canadian flag. Eagleson called the trade "a classless act."

Through the summer of 1980, Ballard insisted that Sittler would not be back with the Leafs. As Imlach was preparing to trade Sittler to the Quebec Nordiques, he had a heart attack in August and was hospitalized. Ballard used the opportunity to name himself acting general manager and hold talks with Sittler, and the two agreed that Sittler would return to the team for the 1980–81 season. Both men appeared together at a news conference described as "all smiles and buddy-buddy". to announce that Sittler would be at training camp, with the C back on his sweater which meant that he was reassuming the role of team captain. Ballard told the press that the real battle had been between Imlach and Eagleson, and Sittler just got caught in the crossfire. Ballard also signed Börje Salming to a new contract with terms that Imlach had refused to offer.

Ballard remained as de facto general manager even when Imlach recovered. In September 1981, after Imlach had another heart attack, Ballard told the media that Imlach's poor health meant that "he's through as general manager". Imlach was never officially fired, but when he tried to return to his office in November, he found that his parking spot at Maple Leaf Gardens had been reassigned and Gerry McNamara had been made acting general manager. Imlach never returned to work and his contract was allowed to expire.

Though Imlach was gone, Sittler's relationship with the Leafs worsened again in the 1981–82 season. At the end of November 1981, Sittler told Ballard and acting general manager Gerry McNamara that he would waive his no-trade clause if he was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers or the Minnesota North Stars. In the first week of December, Eagleson agreed to terms with Flyers' owner Ed Snider and North Stars' general manager Lou Nanne. But it took another seven weeks for the Leafs to make a deal. During that time, Sittler added the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders to the list of teams he could be traded to.

On January 5, 1982, on advice from his physician, Sittler walked out on the Leafs, saying he was "mentally depressed" because a trade was taking so long to complete. Finally, on January 20, 1982, the 31-year-old Sittler was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Rich Costello plus the Hartford Whalers' second-round pick in the 1982 draft (used by the Leafs to select Peter Ihnačák), and future considerations, which ended up being Ken Strong. Only Ihnacak would play regularly for the Leafs. The irony was that in 1980, Imlach had rejected an offer from the Philadelphia Flyers, who were said to be willing to trade Rick MacLeish and André Dupont for Sittler.

1980s[edit | edit source]

The McDonald trade sent the Leafs into a downward spiral. The team did not post a winning record again until after Ballard's death, going a franchise-record 13 consecutive seasons without a winning record. The low point came in 1984–85, when the Leafs finished the season with the worst record in the league, 32 games below .500. They nearly duplicated that dubious achievement in 1987–88, ending the season one point up on the last-place Minnesota North Stars. Many players refused even to consider playing for the Leafs because of Ballard's reputation.

Off the ice, the Maple Leafs under Ballard were one of the league's most financially successful teams. However, this was because Ballard routinely kept the Leafs' payroll among the lowest in the league, despite playing in the fourth-largest market. Ballard had little financial incentive to spend money on star players to improve the quality of the on-ice product and attract fans, as all games were sold out regardless of how poorly the Leafs played. Even so, many Leafs fans consider the Ballard era to be the darkest period in team history. Indeed, the Leafs only had six winning seasons in Ballard's 18-plus seasons as majority owner, and never finished above third in their division.

Maple Leaf Gardens under Ballard[edit | edit source]

After Ballard's release from prison, he had an apartment built at the Gardens facing Church Street where he would live through most of the year, while spending summers at his cottage in Midland, Ontario.

The storied arena fell into disrepair during Ballard's tenure. For example, when the roof leaked, he did little more than order plastic sheets to catch the rainwater.

Incidents with media[edit | edit source]

Toronto newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster had many run-ins with Ballard. It was Hunt that gave Harold Ballard the nickname Pal Hal, which would be the title of Dick Beddoes biography about Ballard. [1] The first notable incident with Ballard took place as a rebuttal towards Hunt’s comments about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ballard went on the air after the next Maple Leafs game and called Hunt a bastard. [2] He then told TV host Dave Hodge that his comments were about someone who’s last name starts with one of the first three letters of the alphabet. Hodge responded by saying Jim Bunt. Ballard responded by saying the name started with the letter C. [2]

When Hunt worked for the Toronto Sun newspaper, Hunt was asked to attend Harold Ballard’s 85th birthday. The birthday was on July 30, 1988 and held at Ballard’s cottage in Thunder Bay. Hunt attended the party with a female photographer called Veronica Milne. Hunt and Milne got lost on the way to the party and arrived an hour late. Upon their arrival, Ballard responded by saying, “Hunt, I know why you’re late. You were humping her in the back seat of the car.” [3]

On March 5, 1979, Ballard was interviewed by Barbara Fram for CBC radio. He offended many Canadians when he stated that women on the radio are a joke and implies that the best position for them is on their backs. [4] In the 1980's, Ballard also banned female reporters from the Maple Leaf Gardens locker room unless they undressed first. [5] In addition, male reporters were banned from the locker room. His is the only team in the NHL without an open locker room and one of the few in professional sports.[6] In February 1987, reporters in Toronto entered the Maple Leafs' locker room after a game with the Kings. Ballard went into an angry tirade and ordered security to remove the reporters.

Supporters[edit | edit source]

Ballard was well-known for his charitable activities, and even leased out MLG for many functions. He was recognized for this on his citation during his 1977 Hockey Hall of Fame induction. However, as Ken Dryden put it in his book The Game, he seemed "like [a] wrestling villain who touches the audience to make his next villainy seem worse."

Dave "Tiger" Williams who played with the Leafs from 1973 to 1980 had a close relationship with Ballard. Years later, Williams would remark that all Ballard would want from his players was an honest day of hard work. In gratitude, Williams shot a bear during a winter hunt and skinned it for Ballard's office.

Personal life[edit | edit source]

According to Ballard's lawyer, his estate was worth less than $50 million. Most of the money was left to a charitable foundation. Ballard left his personal belongings to his children and grandchildren. Ballard's three children had all previously received shares in Maple Leaf Gardens that they sold for more than $15 million each.

The executors of Ballard's will were Steve Stavro, Don Giffin and Don Crump. In 1991, Stavro paid off a $20 million loan that had been made to Ballard in 1980 by Molson. In return, he was given an option to buy Maple Leaf Gardens shares from Ballard's estate. Molson also agreed to sell its stake in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to Stavro. That deal closed in 1994, and shortly after Stavro bought Ballard's shares from the estate for $34 a share or $75 million. The purchase was the subject of a securities commission review and a lawsuit from Ballard's son Bill, but the deal stood and Stavro and his partners in MLG Ventures became the new owner of the Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. All Work and All Play: A Life in the Outrageous Sport, p.119, John Wiley and Sons Canada Ltd., Mississauga, ON, 2005, ISBN 0-470-83552-4
  2. 2.0 2.1 All Work and All Play: A Life in the Outrageous Sport, p.120, John Wiley and Sons Canada Ltd., Mississauga, ON, 2005, ISBN 0-470-83552-4
  3. All Work and All Play: A Life in the Outrageous Sport, p.122, John Wiley and Sons Canada Ltd., Mississauga, ON, 2005, ISBN 0-470-83552-4
  4. http://archives.cbc.ca/arts_entertainment/media/topics/368-2102/
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/30/sports/canadian-football-a-rite-is-going-wrong-way.html?src=pm
  6. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-02-11/sports/sp-1669_1

External links[edit | edit source]

Preceded by
Conn Smythe
Principal owner, Toronto Maple Leafs
1961-1990 (with Stafford Smythe and John Bassett until 1970 and with Stafford Smythe until 1972)
Succeeded by
Steve Stavro

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