Priestley turns spotlight on Ballard's circus in new documentary
“It was non-stop nonsense.”
That’s how former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Rick Vaive describes the turmoil surrounding the team under owner Harold Ballard in Offside: The Harold Ballard Story premiering Sunday night at 8pm ET on the CBC.
The irascible and bombastic Ballard became part owner of the team in 1961 before maneuvering his way to majority ownership in 1972 until his death in 1990. Ballard’s tumultuous reign created a circus-like atmosphere that enveloped management, players and media, and brought with it the nadir of the franchise’s on-ice history.
“It was a lot of chaos and a lot of chaos all the time – especially in the ‘80s, sort of starting in the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s until he passed away,” the film’s director Jason Priestley said. “Chaos seemed to reign supreme all the time. And it wasn’t just in his dealings with the team. It was in his dealings with the media. He just seemed to want to stir it up as much as he could all the time.
“And to what end? Was he just trying to keep everybody off balance? These are things it was very difficult to get to the bottom of. Was it just because he was trying to micromanage everything to the point where it became ineffective? It was just very difficult to get to the bottom of that.”
Priestley and Michael Geddes, the film’s executive producer, spoke to TSN.ca about the making of their documentary and what they discovered about this larger-than-life figure.
For Geddes, the story of Ballard was one that was both rich in lore and largely untold.
“As a producer, ideas float around your head and it’s just a constant thing that happens. I wanted to do a storytelling mission with somebody who hadn’t been dealt with and, surprisingly, Harold was the first box I could tick,” Geddes said. “And then when you dove into it, in the era he was around, the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, I don’t think there was a bigger character than Harold. He certainly was a bright light of controversy, and he ran against the grain. He was very, as we’ve said, un-Canadian, at that time, and, of course, that time being a very different Toronto and a very different Canada. Harold was a one of a kind. So, when I started to tick these boxes, it was clear that, wow, this could be one helluva story.”
It’s a story, Priestley notes, that not everybody knows. While Leafs fans of a certain vintage undoubtedly remember the Ballard days, probably not fondly, there are generations of hockey fans who only know of Ballard in passing or not at all.
“I think some people have strong feelings about him,” said Priestley, who skyrocketed to fame in the 1990s starring as Minnesota high schooler Brandon Walsh whose family moved to the titular zip code on FOX’s smash-hit Beverly Hills, 90210. “People of a certain generation have strong feelings about him. But for people of my generation and younger than me, I think they might know the name Harold Ballard, or they’ve heard of this ‘Ballard Curse,’ but I don’t think they know the real history of Harold Ballard and who Harold Ballard was and how he got control of the team and what that actually meant. I think a lot of younger people don’t know the Toronto Maple Leafs were owned by a publicly traded company. There’s a lot of history, a lot of things and a lot of machinations that a lot of younger people don’t know and really [don't] understand and hopefully, we’ve been able to explain a lot of those things in this film.”
The duo spent almost three years on the project, conducting dozens of interviews with former players including Vaive, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, as well as members of Leafs management and journalists who covered the team during the Ballard era.
Vancouver native Priestley says he was pleasantly surprised by how candidly his interview subjects were willing to speak.
“They were more open than I thought they were going to be, but I found that super refreshing,” Priestley said. “The hockey players of today all speak in very carefully constructed sound bites, right? Which I totally understand, and they should, but the openness and frankness and the candor of all the ladies and gentlemen we spoke to for the documentary I found very refreshing and I’m very appreciative of it.”
Geddes, whose production credits also include Food Network Canada’s Big Food Bucket List and You Gotta Eat Here!, posits that perhaps some of the interviewees felt the need to get some long-held things off their chests.
“We spoke to a lot of players and Jason brought out a very genuine response to all of our questions for these guys and, for some of them, it was time for them to talk, too,” Geddes said. “You have to remember, for 20 years straight the players got dealt a hand they had to deal with and that was this is how this organization is going to be run. The fans got dealt that same hand. It’s ‘Well, we’re used to this. We know things aren’t going to change. We know they’re not investing in the team on the ice in the way they should and the competitive teams [are].’”
In making the film, Priestley and Geddes found a complicated subject whose motivations at times still remain opaque more than 30 years after his death.
“We went into the documentary, and we all had our own expectations and feelings on Ballard, and you get into it and a lot of research happens and we all want to understand why Harold was the way he was,” Geddes said. “And coming out of this documentary and a lot of stories, a lot of discussion and a lot of research, nobody could answer that and the question of ‘Why?’ was [now] maybe even a bigger one. That still bothers me, and it bothers Jason, I think. Nobody knows why, after getting the Leafs and working so, so hard to climb that mountain and get the team under his helm in the early ‘70s, he stopped in his tracks and stopped caring after that point. Nobody really knows why, and we may never know.
“But the viewer will make his own decisions about him and that’s the great thing about this documentary. We don’t shine a light in any one direction to say, ‘This is the way you should think about him or feel.’ I think [each] viewer is going to take away different feelings.”
For Priestley, the Ballard doc marks the first of three Leafs-centric projects in the near future. He will play former Leafs scout-turned-general manager Gerry McNamara in an upcoming series about iconic defenceman Borje Salming and will then helm a feature called Keeper of the Cup, about a trio of long-suffering Leafs fans who decide to take matters into their own hands and steal the Stanley Cup.
“The Leafs and Leafs Nation is such a treasure trove of great stories,” Priestley said. “How could I not reach into the vault and just start pulling them out?”
With Offside marking a first entry into sports documentaries for Geddes and Priestley, both appear open to further exploration into the field.
“When you talk about hockey, there’s probably a few [more stories],” Geddes said. “There’s other owners who did their thing. [Former Edmonton Oilers owner] Peter Pocklington is an interesting guy, but it’s much, much different than the Ballard story. We’ve seen a lot of the Summit [Series] ’72 recently, haven’t we? Maybe too much, quite frankly. I’ve given it a bit of a think, but [the Ballard story] clearly is the one. It’s hard [for a] sequel. We’re just enjoying the ride on this one, but we will retrench and come back with something soon, I hope, for our second act.”
Until then, the duo hopes Offside resonates with viewers on Sunday night.
“I hope they get a glimpse into a very complicated individual,” Priestley said. “I hope that they take away maybe a little bit more of an understanding of a man that maybe they think they thought they knew.”