The documentary, Offside: The Harold Ballard Story, doesn’t waste a second before showing its cards.
We see Harold Ballard talking to Adrienne Clarkson for a profile she did with The Fifth Estate that aired in 1980, in the middle of his chaotic reign over the Toronto Maple Leafs: “You’ve gotta win,” he says. “That’s the only thing I know. At any cost.”
Of course, Ballard’s Leafs did not win. With him as principal owner, the team lost more games than it won. Stanley Cups? Zero. As for the “any cost” vow, that’s jive, too: The millionaire was a cheapskate – a greedy, tax-cheating cheapskate.
Anyone who lived and breathed during the franchise’s most inglorious years and even casually monitored his seemingly daily displays of pettiness, incompetency and bluster would know the score: The man was a phony, and the filmmakers have a flair for irony.
But Offside wasn’t necessarily made for those in the know.
“For people of my generation and older, the film will be a trip down memory lane,” says director and narrator Jason Priestley, 53. “For people younger than me, it’s an education as to who this guy was and the way the National Hockey League used to be. That people like Harold Ballard could have a controlling interest in a team as large and powerful and important to the NHL, and how they could run it, for all intents and purposes, as a small mom-and-pop operation.”
The film, which premieres on CBC and CBC Gem on Sunday (8 p.m. ET) after making its debut last month at the Whistler Film Festival, leans on nostalgia with an aesthetic straight out of the seventies. Priestley – most known for playing the upstanding high schooler Brandon Walsh on Beverly Hills, 90210 in the 1990s – narrates the documentary in old-fashioned sports broadcaster style. The backdrops for conversations with an A-list of mostly former players, executives and journalists are all wood panelling, liquor bottles and leather chairs.
“We shot a lot of the interviews at the Royal York Hotel and Barberian’s Steak House,” says executive producer Michael Geddes, president of Lone Eagle Entertainment. “We wanted the film to feel like that era. It was a very different time in Toronto – it was a very different city.”
It was a different time everywhere, but Ballard himself never seemed to leave the 1950s, let alone the seventies. He was a raging xenophobic and misogynist who seemed to go out of his way to alienate everyone: players, fans, media, family and the Canadian Revenue Agency. His hiring of yesterday’s man Punch Imlach as coach and general manager in 1979 in particular ruined a promising team and lost them Leaf icon Darryl Sittler.
Journalist Stephen Brunt raises a crucial point, saying that Ballard “could have been beloved.” But, as the documentary shows, he didn’t want that. He’d rather be feared, and why exactly is that? What made the old man tick?
“Believe me, I asked,” Priestley says. “I got so many answers from so many people who knew him. As filmmakers, we thought it best to lay out all the evidence as we received it and let the audience come to their own conclusions.”
Offside is one-third of a hockey-film hat trick for the Vancouver-born actor-director, whose upcoming projects include a six-part biopic of the late Maple Leaf great Borje Salming produced by Swedish-based streaming service Viaplay. Priestley will play former Leafs general manager Gerry McNamara in the yet-to-be named miniseries. He is also slated to direct Keeper of the Cup, a feature comedy involving three diehard Leaf fans who decide to steal the Stanley Cup trophy.
A Vancouver Canucks fan by birth, Priestley no longer puts his skates on much. One wonders if his preoccupation with hockey projects is the obsession of a frustrated player.
“The only frustration I have is that I’m not as good as I imagine in my head, like a lot of us,” he says.
Priestly previously had lead roles in the Canadian television series, Call Me Fitz (2010-2013) and Private Eyes (2016-2021). In 2013, he made his directorial debut with the well-meaning homegrown film Cas & Dylan. He also appeared in the 2015 documentary Being Canadian and popped up on Canada’s Got Talent as guest judge last year. After first finding fame in a Zip code television series, Priestley is now thriving in the land of postal codes.
“I’m from Canada and I love telling Canadian stories. It seems to be important to me these days.”
As Canadian stories go, Offside is a doozy. It’s also a human story, a frustrating one at that. Ballard could have had it all but seemed determined to have less. As for why that is, the documentary has no definitive explanation.
“I tried to get to the bottom of it, and hopefully people will have a good time watching the movie,” Priestley says. “Perhaps they can come up with the answer, because I had a hard time finding the truth.”