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Friday, September 7, 2012

A History of Harold Ballard's Villainy

Harold Ballard Leafs
The recent passing of Art Modell, the former Baltimore Ravens owner who moved the team from Cleveland, has prompted the "new Browns" to hold a special tribute before Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. 

While most people do not feel the joy in someone's death, even someone they very may well have hated, any sort of tribute for the man who ripped the Browns from Cleveland will surely be met with hostility.

It wasn't long ago that Toronto had their own Art Modell. Not an owner who was hell-bent on moving the team, but one that destroyed them nonetheless.

Harold Ballard.

He feuded with family, players, management, the media, and even the Queen (well, sort of). In his biography, Ballard said that he tore down the picture of Queen Victoria in Maple Leaf Gardens because ''she never gave me anything.''

He once described his own daughter as a "reptile" and called Russians "parasites and barnacles who steal our money,'' which, admittedly, was not an uncommon sentiment at the time.

In The Game, Ken Dryden wrote that Ballard seemed "like [a] wrestling villain who touches the audience to make his next villainy seem worse."

That villainy ranged from the relatively modest type of dastardly cartoon villainy—like the destruction of Foster Hewitt's gondola, despite pleas from the Hockey Hall of Fame, or the cheap-skate selling of Toronto's Stanley Cup banners—to actual breaking the law villainy—like the time he spent a year in jail for fraud.

Of course, there is a long list of owners who weren't good people, but that can all be overlooked if the team wins on the ice or in the field. That wasn't the case for the Leafs under Ballard. Toronto managed only six winning seasons in his 18-plus years as majority owner. Over his last 13 seasons, the Leafs managed to win a total of two playoff series.

He created a circus in Toronto and destroyed one of the league's most iconic teams. It was only after his death in 1990 that the Leafs regained a shred of respectability.

Here are some of his worst on-ice crimes.

Letting future Hall of Famer Bernie Parent walk

When the World Hockey Association formed they began pillaging players from the NHL, who were finally getting their first real opportunity at actual leverage in contract negotiations. Smart teams locked up their important players, even if it meant paying them a little more. Ballard didn't believe the WHA would last and he certainly wasn't going to be bullied into changing his miserly ways. Accordingly, the Leafs failed to sign a number of players.

The most disastrous loss was a 27-year-old Bernie Parent, who signed with the Miami Screaming Eagles, who became the Philadelphia Blazers after initially failing to get off the ground. Parent lasted one year in the WHA before wishing to return to the NHL, albeit not to the Leafs who treated him with such indifference.

Ballard, perhaps still indifferent about Parent, approved a trade that sent the goalie from the Leafs (who still owned his NHL rights) to the Philadelphia Flyers. Parent immediately transformed into an all-world goalie, leading the league in wins, shutouts, and goals against average in back-to-back seasons, winning two Vezina awards and backstopping the Flyers to two consecutive Stanley Cups.

The Leafs got a first-hand look at how good Parent had become in 1975, as the Flyers swept the Leafs in the quarterfinal, an elimination act they repeated the next two years.

Excommunicating Dave Keon

Dave Keon was one of the most beloved and accomplished Leafs in franchise history. He helped the team win four Stanley Cups, including their last in 1967, when Keon won the Conn Smythe trophy. He won the Calder trophy in 1960 and was ranked one of the top-100 players in NHL history by The Hockey News. You'd think someone like that would be treated with some respect. You'd think.

Ballard took over the Leafs in 1972 after a season in which captain Keon scored his lowest point total since his rookie season. The captain was accused of failing to provide the leadership necessary for the team by the cantankerous owner, who refused to give the four-time Stanley Cup champion a pay raise. Keon eventually signed a three-year contract with the Leafs after a deal fell apart with the Ottawa Nationals of the WHA.

Keon had a strong 1972-73 campaign, in which he nearly matched career highs in goals and points. But by the time his contract was set to expire, Ballard was back in the media blasting his own captain. This time he vowed not to re-sign the popular forward, and allowed Keon to sign with any other club. However, any club signing Keon would have to pay the Leafs compensation, and Ballard asked for so much that no NHL team signed Keon.

With the NHL no longer an option, Keon jumped to the WHA, three years later than he originally intended. He signed a two-year deal with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, but the team folded with 21 games left in the season. Keon intended to return to the NHL with the New York Islanders, a team on the cusp of becoming a dynasty, but Ballard once again blocked his return by demanding an unreasonable sum from the Islanders in compensation.

While Keon eventually returned to the NHL in 1979 as the NHL absorbed the Hartford Whalers, he never forgave Ballard or the Leafs for the terrible treatment he received, and had a long-standing feud with the team.

Firing and embarrassing Roger Neilson

Ballard didn't stop at alienating and embarrassing future Hall of Fame players; he went after future Hall of Fame coaches as well.

Roger Neilson took over as head coach of the Maple Leafs before the 1977-78 season. He led a talented group to the team's best season since the 1967 Stanley Cup winning season, eventually losing in the semifinal to a dynastic Montreal Canadiens.

The team wasn't quite as successful the following season, finishing with 11 fewer points, but still good enough for third in the Adams division, just like the season before. This didn't stop Ballard from firing Neilson late in the 1978-79 season, however.

Neilson was hired back a few days later after the players protested to Ballard, who relented, only to insist that Neilson wear a paper bag over his head for his first game back as a coach. Neilson didn't wear a paper bag, not that he had much time, because by season's end he would be fired for the second time in less than a year.

The 1980s

If you think it's dark now, just imagine a decade without a winning season. That was the 1980s for the Maple Leafs.

Trading Lanny McDonald to get at Darryl Sittler

As if feuding with one beloved Leafs captain wasn't enough, Ballard was back at it with Keon's successor, Darryl Sittler.

Technically, it was Punch Imlach who made a real mess of the situation, but one of the reasons Ballard hired the former-GM back was that he was vehemently anti-union, and Sittler, among others, were getting a little too ingrained in the NHLPA for Ballard's liking.

The first shot fired was by Imlach, who tried to block both Sittler and goaltender Mike Palmateer from appearing on Showdown, a program that ran during intermissions on CBC. That stunt began a big feud with Sittler and other prominent players on the Leafs.

It got to the point that Imlach was willing to trade Sittler, the Maple Leafs' best player, anywhere in the league. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for Toronto fans), Sittler's agent, Allen Eagleson, negotiated a no-trade clause into Sittler's contract and said that it would only be waived for $500,000. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, Lanny McDonald did not have a no-trade clause, and since he was one of Sittler's best friends on the team, Imlach decided to ship him out instead.

Another future Hall of Famer gone.

Well, that pissed off some people, to say the least. Sittler ripped off his captain's "C" in the dressing room, declaring that he couldn't be captain as he no longer could be a go-between the players and management.

By next season, with Imlach in the hospital after suffering his second heart attack, Ballard and Sittler made up publicly, and the "C" was back where it belonged. However, the d├ętente wouldn't last, and the relationship between the two men became so strained that Sittler would waive his no-trade clause without receiving compensation.

The Leafs traded Sittler to the Philadelphia Flyers for Rich Costello, a second-round pick, and future considerations, a package that amounted to almost nothing.

For those counting, that's four Hall of Famers run out of town.

MLSE is by no means a great owner, but it's been worse.

8 comments:

Pineapple Joe said...

That's a pretty good summation of HB's Caligula-like reign at MLG. The Keon situation was even worse than depicted here however. I recall back in November 1974 seeing front-page pictures of Ballard at rink-side berating Keon to the media for poor leadership and the captain hanging his head in embarrassment or shame. The same episode in which Ballard ripped Inge Hammarstrom for being a wuss, saying he could go into the corners with eggs in his pocket and not break any of them. That kind of public humiliation was way over the top even back then.

But probably the most repellent and malignant aspect of Ballard's reign of error was the fact that MLG harbored a virulent pedophile ring that preyed on young boys besotted with the Leafs. There's never been any suggestion that Ballard was directly involved or actively lent support to this gang of predators. But his sycophantic and crony-ist style of management meant that there were no mechanisms and safeguards around to prevent this kind of villainy from festering in the organization.

Matt Horner said...

I knew of the pedophile ring, but since I had no idea of the extent (if any) of knowledge that Ballard had of it, I didn't want to lay it on him. Still, if it happened under him, that's obviously terrible and transcends simple hockey stuff.

Seb said...

My late grandfather was a sports photographer for the Toronto star (he's actually the guy who took the famous Paul Henderson Summit Series picture), and he used to tell us about his numerous fights with Ballard. He was banned from Maple Leaf Gardens almost continuously for years, got into a few physical altercations with Ballard, and was constantly harassed and threatened by him. All this came about because he had taken pictures of Ballard in the middle of his tirades. Oh, also because he insisted on calling him "Old Man" instead of "Sir".

Matt Horner said...

Haha, that's pretty funny. Thanks for sharing, Seb!

Anonymous said...

When they traded Tim Horton the Leafs became number 2 in my books. Looked on in amazement as Ballard feuded with his best players and media. Took awhile for me to realize it wasn`t about hockey it was all about Harold Ballard. NHL should be ashamed of having him in the Hall of Fame.

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