There’s a clever scene early on in OffSide: The Harold Ballard Story, a new TV documentary about the notorious former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, which serves as a winking reminder to viewers that history is sometimes little more than third-hand stories of long-ago events recalled imperfectly through a haze of nostalgia and resentment.
Director Jason Priestley intercuts interviews with former general manager Gord Stellick and Leafs legend Rick Vaive, as they offer wildly differing accounts of a famous Beatles concert held at Maple Leaf Gardens in August, 1965. Legend has it that hundreds of fans fainted at the show because Ballard was such a canny businessman he’d intentionally made the place insufferably hot in order to sell more soft drinks.
“Folklore goes that Ballard turned off the air-conditioning – which didn’t exist,” Stellick begins, with a wry smile. Vaive weighs in: “He delayed the concert by an hour and a half, turned the heat on in the building, and turned the water off.” Stellick: “Where’s there a water fountain in Maple Leaf Gardens? ... I wouldn’t even know where one was!” Vaive: “People had to go to the concessions to get something to drink, and it was probably 110-degrees in the building.”
So, what was the truth? Well, a review of the concert published the following day in The Globe and Mail did note the show started 15 (not 90) minutes after its scheduled time, but there is no mention of issues with the temperature – or, even, of mass faintings. Nor, in the days that followed, were there any local press accounts of such troubles, though every other element of the concert and its aftermath were breathlessly chronicled.
And yet the story took hold over the years (including, alas, in the pages of this newspaper), feeding Ballard’s legend. “He loved that,” Stellick says. “That was his reputation, that he was such a promoter that he did all these things ... his business-savviness.”
In truth, though, Ballard’s greatest achievement may have been promoting himself. Certainly, he ruined most other things he touched. His Leafs were laughable (if you were a fan you had to laugh or you’d cry); in the decade that he owned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, attendance dropped 42 per cent, losses hit an estimated $20-million, and he wound up selling the club for $1; he fought with his three children, sometimes in court, and died in April, 1990, estranged from them.
Which is to say, he was a reality star in a prereality TV era.
The doc, which premiered on CBC-TV Sunday night (and is streaming on CBC Gem), comes at a time when we’ve never had more access to content that purports to pull back the curtain and show the reality of the sports industry, from pro teams’ upbeat dispatches filed by “reporters” on their payrolls, to the explosion of docuseries pumped out by streaming services (Drive to Survive, All or Nothing, Break Point, The Test, etc.), to athletes’ Instagram feeds oversharing the highs and the heartbreak of their daily lives: an all-you-can eat buffet of empty calories.
Offside is a reminder of what reality often actually looks like – raw, ribald, uncomfortable, unvarnished – when there are no teams of image consultants ensuring someone doesn’t stray off-brand.
To be sure, Ballard was an extreme and ugly example, operating in a far different time. He was intemperate, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, paranoid, and utterly lacking self-awareness.
Or, as Adrienne Clarkson says at the top of a 1980 profile by the CBC’s The Fifth Estate, “he’s been called a pirate, a bully, an oaf, a vulgar male chauvinist pig.” Later, she refers to Ballard’s “image of a money-grubbing hustler.” During an interview in his office, she tells him he’s “a con artist.” He replies with a smile: “That’s what they call me!”
The new doc borrows liberally from that profile (which is available on the CBC’s YouTube channel) but though Priestley outlines Ballard’s racism and sexism (and quotes Sportsnet reporter Donnovan Bennett saying: “If Harold Ballard existed in 2022, he would have been cancelled – like, very quickly”), even he seems wary of wading too deeply into the muck. The Fifth Estate’s microphones picked up Ballard using the N-word, and there’s an extended back-and-forth with Clarkson in which Ballard defends himself using all manner of racial epithets, saying that “everybody does it.” Besides, he says, “You want to get offended at that? It’s stupid!”
Why would Ballard have sat for the interview with Clarkson – even going so far as to open up a senior executive meeting to CBC’s cameras? When I called Clarkson a few days ago to ask, she didn’t recall the specifics – to be fair, it was 43 years ago, and, as she points out, she’s done thousands of such interviews – but she did say this: “The Fifth Estate was a big deal, and if people were publicity-prone – as Harold Ballard certainly was – I don’t think he would have cared whether you put his picture on the back of a garbage truck, he’d still want to talk.”
As it happens, The Fifth Estate did another sports-oriented story a couple of weeks ago, about the noisy arrival of sports gambling in Canada, and the access to key figures couldn’t have been more different.
After failing to get a response from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews about his decision to become a brand ambassador for Bet99, the program tracked him down at a Leafs practice. Walking into the dressing room, Matthews glances behind him, spots reporter Bob McKeown and appears to scurry away. Later, in a press scrum with other reporters, McKeown asks about the deal, and Matthews replies: “I appreciate the question, but after all that I don’t think I’m going to get into it much, honestly. So – you guys got any more hockey-related questions?”
It’s an awkward moment. He looks uncomfortable, and who could blame him? Like most athletes and the corporations that employ them and the media outlets that depend on them, Matthews is used to offering performative transparency, playing his part in a simulacrum of reality.
Real reality breaks through so rarely nowadays, it’s a wonder we recognize it at all.