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


For director Jason Priestley, « Offside: The Harold Ballard Story » — a feature-length documentary about the former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs — is a story of « greed and corruption » that’s also a sad story.

Indeed, the logbook of the film, which will 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 biggest takeaway, » actor and filmmaker Priestley said in an interview. « That’s the saddest thing of all is that during the years he owned the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Maple Leafs were really on the verge of being a really good team, but it was Ballard’s greed. »

Hailing from Vancouver, Priestley, 53, began working on the documentary during the pandemic lockdown. As people in the United States dealt with Donald Trump as President, “it seemed 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 he’s done throughout his life, and grabbed hold of this amazing piece of Canadian sports memorabilia, so to speak, and single-handedly destroyed it before he died and was never held accountable one way or another.

Priestley said: ‘It felt like we could figure out what made Ballard do the things he did and… what made him tick, maybe we could find some reasoning about what made him. made Donald Trump the way he was and find a reason for the things he was doing, because everything was very confusing at the time.

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

« Internationally, everyone loves the story of a villain and a person who ran out of control, felt above the law, felt they could just make decisions without caring about the consequences. »

Ballard, he said, « happened to have one of the most powerful offices and jobs in the country, which was very interesting given the difficulty, his rise in the role, the way he took over the Leafs, and then it almost seems like he doesn’t like it.

Ballard was the principal owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1972 until 1990, the year of his death. During 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 as well as interviews with former employees, players and media to give viewers a glimpse into a powerful figure in Canadian history, whom they know or not Ballard’s story.

When asked why Ballard had been able to hold this position of power for so long unchecked, Geddes speculated that the media at the time needed him.

“They needed access, they needed hockey, they needed to get into 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 at is that he probably controlled the media better than anyone in this country.

Growing up on the West Coast, Priestley knew a little 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 he gave to charity was something I had no idea; it was something he tried to keep very private and didn’t want a lot of people knowing, which I always found really fascinating about him.

The documentary shows Ballard publicly saying misogynistic, homophobic and racist things. He even banned women from entering the locker room, which was the norm at the time, Priestley noted.

« While we were making this documentary, we really had to remember that it was really a different time back then and we had to kind of avoid looking at Ballard through a modern lens…guys like that can’t fortunately exist, but at the time, it wasn’t just him. It was George Steinbrenner too, and there were other guys who were maybe not as bad as him, but it was a very different time. But even in that different time, he was still very quirky, which was saying something,” Priestley said.

Under Ballard’s leadership, the so-called Harold Ballard Curse was born, the idea that Ballard’s turbulent ownership resulted in a misfortune that kept the Leafs from winning a Stanley Cup for nearly 55 years. Priestley believes in it 100%. As for Geddes, « I’m kind of half in and half over the curse. I know the team has moved this far, but it’s a convenient place to go…when the team is in and out of playoff contention quickly.

So what would Ballard think of this documentary? Priestley burst out laughing. « I think he was a firm believer in the fact that there’s no bad press. So it’s just more coverage for him and more coverage for his team… I think he would be annoyed if we we talked so much about all his charities because he liked trying to keep it a secret.

Geddes added: « I think he would be delighted if most of the players we spoke to respected him, despite his flaws. I think that comes out of all the interviews we’ve done with all the former captains and former players He wanted to be loved by the players, even though he was a badass. Because he hung out with the team, he traveled with the team, he lived in Maple Leaf Gardens. That was his baby. , despite the fact that he was not a good parent.

« Offside: The Harold Ballard Story » will be available across Canada through the online portion of the Whistler Film Festival on December 16.
Marriska Fernandes is a Toronto-based entertainment journalist and film critic. She is a freelance contributor to the Star’s Culture section. Follow her on Twitter: @marrs_fers


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