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Jason Priestley tells ‘Trumpian’ tale of Harold Ballard in documentary ‘Offside: The Harold Ballard Story’

To director Jason Priestley, “Offside: The Harold Ballard Story” — a feature documentary about the former Toronto Maple Leafs owner — is a story of “greed and corruption” that’s also a sad tale.

Indeed, the log-line for the film, which has its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival on Saturday, is “Canada’s greatest showman — He didn’t invent greed. He perfected it.”

“I think the story of Harold Ballard is a story of greed and corruption and I see that as the greatest takeaway,” actor and filmmaker Priestley said in an interview. “That’s the saddest thing of all is that in the years that he owned the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Maple Leafs were really close to being a truly great team, but it was Ballard’s greed.”

Vancouver native Priestley, 53, began working on the documentary during the pandemic lockdown. While people in the United States were dealing with Donald Trump as president, “it felt incredibly relevant at the time to examine a man who felt very Trumpian as a Canadian figure; someone who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and never had to answer for any of the wrongdoings that he did throughout his life, and grabbed a hold of this incredible piece of Canadian sports memorabilia, as it were, and single-handedly destroyed it before he passed away and was never held accountable for it in a way.”

Priestley said, “It felt like … if we can figure out what it was that made Ballard do the things that he did and … what it was that made him tick, maybe we could find some reasoning to what it was that made Donald Trump the way that he was and find a reason for the things that he was doing, because it was all very confusing at the time.”

Director Jason Priestly, left, with Alan Eagleson, NHL agent and founder of the NHL Players Association, and producer Chuck Tatham.

Ballard’s story is about the rise and a fall of someone in power, and people love a story like that, said executive producer Michael Geddes.

“Internationally, everybody loves the story of a scoundrel and a person that ran unchecked, felt he was above the law, felt that he could just make decisions without worrying about consequences.”

Ballard, he said, “just happened to have one of the more powerful offices and jobs in the country, which was very interesting given how hard it was, his ascension into the role, how he got control of the Leafs and then it almost seems like he didn’t cherish it.”

Ballard was the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1972 until 1990, when he died. Over his tenure, he was accused of abusing his players and coaches, firing 13 coaches and six general managers.

“Offside: The Harold Ballard Story” uses archival footage of Ballard along with interviews with former employees, players and media to give viewers a glimpse of a powerful figure in Canadian history, whether they are familiar with the story of Ballard or not.

Asked why Ballard was able to hold that position of power for so long and go unchecked, Geddes theorized that the media back then needed him.

“They needed the access, they needed hockey, they needed to get inside Maple Leaf Gardens, they needed access to the players … it was a love-hate relationship with the media. That’s what the documentary really gets into is that he probably controlled the media better than anybody ever has in this country.”

Growing up on the West Coast, Priestley knew a bit about Ballard, but working on this documentary was a real education for him.

“There was obviously a softer side to Ballard. The amount of money that he gave to charity was something that I had no idea about; it was something that he tried to keep very private and didn’t want a lot of people to know about it, which is something that I’ve always found really fascinating about him.”

The documentary shows Ballard saying things on the record that were misogynistic, homophobic and racist. He even banned women from the locker rooms, which was a norm back then, Priestley noted.

“While we were making this documentary, we really had to remind ourselves that it really was a different time back then and we had to sort of avoid looking at Ballard through a modern day lens … guys like that can’t exist anymore thankfully, but back then it wasn’t just him. It was George Steinbrenner, too, and there were other guys that were maybe not quite as bad as him, but it was very much a different time. But even for that different time, he was still very out of line, which was saying something,” said Priestley.

Under Ballard’s management, the alleged Harold Ballard curse was born, the idea that Ballard’s turbulent ownership resulted in a jinx that has kept the Leafs from winning a Stanley Cup for almost 55 years. Priestley believes in it, 100 per cent. As for Geddes, “I’m kind of half in and half out on the curse. I know the team’s moved so far, but it’s a convenient place to go … when the team goes in and out of the playoff race quickly.”

So what would Ballard think of this documentary? Priestley laughed. “I think he was a firm believer in the fact that there’s no such thing as bad press. So it’s just more coverage for him and more coverage for his team … I think he would be annoyed that we talked so much about all of his charitable works because he liked to try to keep that under wraps.”

Geddes added, “I think he would be pleased that most of the players we spoke to respected him, despite his flaws. I think that comes out in all the interviews we did with all the former captains and former players. He wanted to be loved by the players, even though he was a hard ass. Because he hung out with the team, he travelled with the team, he lived in Maple Leaf Gardens. This was his baby, despite the fact that he wasn’t a great parent.”

“Offside: The Harold Ballard Story” will be available across Canada through the online portion of the Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 16.

Marriska Fernandes is a Toronto-based entertainment reporter and film critic. She is a freelance contributor for the Star’s Culture section. Follow her on Twitter: @marrs_fers


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