COVER

A FAMILY STRUGGLE

ANALYSTS PREDICTED A BATTLE FOR CONTROL OF HAROLD BALLARD’S MAPLE LEAFS EMPIRE

D’ARCY JENISH January 22 1990
COVER

A FAMILY STRUGGLE

ANALYSTS PREDICTED A BATTLE FOR CONTROL OF HAROLD BALLARD’S MAPLE LEAFS EMPIRE

D’ARCY JENISH January 22 1990

During her weeklong, round-the-clock vigil, she rarely slept, she lost 16 lb. and she hardly ever left Miami Baptist Hospital. But as Yolanda Ballard charged into a hospital waiting room one morning late last week, she was beaming with confidence and optimism. Harold Ballard, the 86-yearold owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and one of Canada’s most controversial sports figures, was making a remarkable recovery from a combination of kidney failure, heart problems and diabetes, declared the 57-year-old Yolanda, who has been Ballard’s companion for eight years. Although the medical staff described Ballard’s condition as “serious, but stable,” a smiling Yolanda, dressed in a bright-pink tracksuit, told Maclean’s: “He’s alert. He’s talkative. As a matter of fact, he’s roaring. And with Harold, that’s always a good sign.” Ballard’s latest hospitalization led the Maple Leaf Gardens board of directors to take temporary control of the company without informing the owner. Board chairman Paul McNamara said, “The move is just temporary,” but, at the same time, many observers predicted that the ouster, temporary or not, signalled the beginning of a fierce fight for control of the Leafs— one of the National Hockey League’s most valuable and cherished franchises. Looking to a post-Ballard era, many sports analysts predicted an ownership battle between Canada’s two brewing giants: Molson Cos. Ltd., which owns the Montreal Canadiens and has an option to purchase 19.9 per cent of the Leafs, and John Labatt Ltd. (page 38). Some predicted that a lengthy legal battle will ensue now that Ballard’s son William, 43, has launched a legal suit to obtain his father’s controlling interest in Maple Leaf Gardens (page 35). And still others said that a consortium of large corporations may attempt to acquire the team. Said Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players Association and a longtime Ballard acquaintance: “There will be a lengthy court fight unless somebody rich steps up to the plate and pays everybody off.”

Impact: Ballard, who underwent a quintuple heart bypass operation in 1988 and was confined to a wheelchair afterward, entered a hospital near his condominium in the Cayman Islands on Jan. 3. That morning, he and Yolanda, who legally changed her name from MacMillan to Ballard in 1988, had planned to get married before a justice of the peace. However, two hours before the ceremony was scheduled to take place, Ballard changed his mind.

That change of heart may have a lasting impact on Yolanda. Lawyers familiar with Ontario’s Family Law Act told Maclean s that if the couple had married, Yolanda would have been entitled to part of Ballard’s huge estate after his death. And the stakes are high. Maple Leaf Gardens and the hockey team are currently worth an estimated $155 million. As a common-law spouse, however, Yolanda is not entitled to any property. She can apply for support payments from the estate, but even then, she has to prove that she requires assistance. Still, Yolanda insisted throughout the ordeal that her first concern was “the health of the big guy,” and not his empire (page 37).

While refusing to name anyone, Yolanda told Maclean’s that some individuals had pressed the doctors who first treated Ballard in the Caymans to send the ailing Leaf owner to Toronto, rather than to nearby Miami, where he was flown by air ambulance on Jan. 5 and placed in intensive care at Baptist Hospital. But by week’s end, Yolanda’s control of the seriously ill tycoon slipped when his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Flynn, 47, won a court order that effectively shut his longtime companion out of decisions about the care he receives at the Miami hospital.

Order: Under the 30-day order, Miami lawyer Paul Cowan had been appointed guardian in charge of Ballard’s care and safety when his three children were not there. “I’m concerned that he gets good care and that his safety is ensured. I think it’s time the family took this kind of action,” said Ballard’s daughter. Flynn would not say whether the court order was an attempt to nudge out Yolanda, and she added that she directed Cowan to allow Yolanda to continue to visit Ballard. Said Flynn: “She’s there because I said she could be there.”

Ballard was critically ill and badly dehydrated when he arrived at the Miami hospital after spending three weeks in the heat and humidity of the Caymans. Still, Marysue Nugent, a nursing supervisor in the critical-care unit said last week that,while Ballard is being treated for a kidney ailment and is hooked up to a dialysis machine, “he’s been able to talk pretty much the whole time.”

Throughout last week, Yolanda and Denise Banks—an 18-year-old that she and Ballard have taken under their wings and who was travelling with the couple—were allowed to stay in a one-bedroom suite at the hospital. At times, Yolanda granted interviews or issued statements attacking the Gardens board of directors and insisted that Ballard had proposed marriage three days before he became ill by suddenly declaring: “Well, ya wanna get hitched or what? It’s now or never.” And after describing the Gardens directors as “evil schemers,” she said that she was the one who called off the wedding when she realized Ballard was ill.

Upheaval: The uncertainty and upheavals of the week followed a tumultuous year in the life of one of Canada’s most controversial sports figures and celebrated hockey teams. Since mid-December, 1988, the Leafs have had three head coaches: the pugnacious John Brophy, who was fired by Ballard; former Leafs great George (Chief) Armstrong, who was relieved of his duties six weeks before the start of the current season; and Doug Carpenter, who replaced Armstrong.

During the same period, as the Leafs stumbled through another losing season, the Ballard family has engaged in public and bitter infighting. Older son William, for one, sued his father and brother for $170 million in a dispute over control of a critical block of Harold E. Ballard Ltd. Gardens shares. And last September, he was fined $500 after being convicted of assaulting Yolanda. On Aug. 19, son Harold Jr. was charged with breaking, entering and theft when he allegedly broke into the vacant Ballard home, and was also charged with assault after he allegedly attacked two police officers who arrested him as he was carrying away furniture and hockey memorabilia from the home.

Victims: In addition to fighting with his children, Ballard recently was well enough to continue battling with the media. Late last year, Pat Marsden of Toronto radio station CFRB and Dave Hodge of Vancouver’s CKNW became the latest in a long list of sports journalists banned from the Gardens for criticizing the Leafs. “I’ve asked myself what this was all about and I honestly don’t know,” Hodge said at the time. “The most logical explanation seems to be that, in old age, Harold Ballard wants to take some victims down with him.”

Indeed, Ballard was legendary for being far tougher with his low-paid, long-serving Gardens employees than with his well-heeled business associates. Stanley Obodiac served as Leaf publicist from the mid-1950s until he died of liver cancer in November, 1984. At the time of his death, Obodiac was only earning $23,000 a year. William and Harold Jr. attended Obodiac’s funeral, but their father did not even send a sympathy card, and on the following day a Gardens employee awoke Obodiac’s widow at 8:30 a.m. to collect his company car.

Two weeks before Christmas, Ballard abruptly fired Henry Hayek, 57, a 15-year Gardens employee, who, over the past two years, pushed his wheelchair and attended to his personal needs for up to 16 hours a day. Three days before he was fired, Hayek had exchanged sharp words in the Gardens lobby with a ticket scalper who is a friend of Ballard’s and who traditionally looked after Yolanda’s dog, T. C. Puck, when the couple travelled.

Capricious: Friends and associates over the decades say that Ballard began his capricious, unpredictable behavior as a youth. Born in Toronto in 1903, the son of a businessman who manufactured skates as well as machinery for the garment industry, Ballard attended Upper Canada College. Afterward, he went to work for his father, took over the business when his father died in 1936 and kept the company until the early 1970s.

But Ballard’s driving interest was always sports. He raced boats on Lake Ontario as a young man and competed successfully as a speed skater. At different times throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he managed the Toronto Marlboro junior and senior hockey teams along with Stafford Smythe, son of the legendary Leafs founder Conn Smythe.

Despite Ballard’s lifelong love of hockey, his involvement with the Leafs did not begin until November, 1961, when he was 58. He, Stafford Smythe and newspaper publisher John Bassett acquired a 60-per-cent controlling interest in Maple Leaf Gardens. Author Scott Young, who was a Globe and Mail sports columnist at the time, says that Ballard was the junior member of the triumvirate, in charge of almost everything but hockey. Added Young: “He was looked upon as a court jester.”

But he ran into serious difficulty in the summer of 1971 when police laid dozens of fraud charges against him and Smythe for the theft of nearly $500,000 in cash and securities from the Gardens. They were charged after police determined that they had deposited Gardens payments into unauthorized accounts and had the Gardens pay for renovations to their homes and cottages.

The ensuing trial led to an angry fight for control of the Gardens between Bassett, who was deeply angered by the theft, and his two partners. Bassett eventually lost and sold his shares to Ballard and Smythe. In October, 1971, shortly before he was due to stand trial, Smythe died of stomach cancer. One year later, Ballard was convicted on 47 fraud and theft charges and sentenced to three concurrent three-year terms in prison, but he only served a year.

The departure of Bassett and the death of Smythe allowed Ballard, at 69, when most businessmen have retired, to gain control of Maple Leaf Gardens—one of hockey’s most illustrious and, until that point, successful franchises. During their 62-year history, the Leafs have won a total of 11 Stanley Cups, including four in the 1960s. At the same time, some of the game’s greatest players, such as Charlie Conacher, Francis (King) Clancy, Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, have played for the team. Before the 1967 expansion of the NHL from six to 12 teams, the intense rivalry between the Leafs, who represented English Canada, and the Canadiens, who symbolized French Canada, became legendary.

Bottom: But under Ballard’s ownership, the Leafs’ reputation—once synonymous with greatness—turned sour. They have advanced as far as the Stanley Cup semifinals only once, in 1978, and over the past 10 years they have not had one winning season. In 1984-1985, they hit bottom, finishing last overall in the 21-team league. Ballard went through 10 head coaches and innumerable players. Indeed, three of his best—and most popular—players, McDonald, Sittler and Rick Vaive, the only 50-goal scorer in Leafs history, were traded after disputes with him.

Despite the almost-perpetual turmoil surrounding Ballard and the dismal performance of his team, the Leafs remain one of the most profitable and valuable hockey franchises in North America. Based on the current price of Maple Leaf Gardens shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange, the team and its arena are worth $155 million, compared with $21.7 million in 1980. Said Gordon Stellick, a former Leafs general manager, now with the New York Rangers: “Maple Leaf Gardens has enjoyed phenomenal financial success during his tenure.” But former Leafs centre and coach Red Kelly added, “Of course, Ballard was the biggest shareholder.”

Other NHL executives point out that the Leafs still enjoy one of the largest and most lucrative hockey markets on the continent. Said Arthur Griffiths, vice-chairman of the Vancouver Canucks: “If you asked me which team and which market I would like to have in North America, the Leafs would be one of the top three, maybe No. 1.” And Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry added, “When you go on the road, there are as many people cheering for the Leafs in Calgary as there are fans cheering for the Flames.”

Inspire: And team members also criticized Ballard for failing to capitalize on the Leafs organization’s illustrious past to inspire its young players. Great players of the past were rarely invited back to the Gardens or encouraged to fraternize with current Leafs. That may soon change. In one of its first decisions last week, the board of directors decided to give Maple Leafs oldtimers a clubroom at the Gardens. They and their families would also get free passes for Leafs games. Said former Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, who is considered one of the best Leafs of all time: “I have never been formally invited back to the Gardens.” By comparison, noted coach Doug Carpenter, the Montreal Canadiens meet and socialize with stars from the past. Added Carpenter: “When you can shake hands with the legends and talk to them, I think the adrenalin flows, the heart rate jumps a bit.”

Many former players and team executives say that Ballard always put profitability and personal aggrandizement ahead of performance. Former Leafs defenceman Jim McKenny, now a reporter with Toronto’s CITY TV, said that Ballard refused to pay high enough salaries in the mid-1970s to prevent his players from jumping to the rival World Hockey Association.

According to some insiders, Ballard used outlandish behavior to draw attention to his team and the game of hockey. Others say that Ballard’s love of publicity satisfied some deeper personal needs. Stellick claimed that Ballard was able to accept the team’s hapless play because of the financial success of the franchise and his own emergence as a public figure with a national profile. The former general manager added that, when he was in full control, Ballard always became jealous of star players, or team success, if they deflected public attention from him. Said Stellick: “Team owners don’t get the cameras unless they want them, and Harold Ballard has to be front and centre.”

Another popular former player, Eddie Shack, said that he could not understand why Ballard clung to the Gardens and the public spotlight so long. Declared Shack: “At his age, you should go out with a little bit of class.”

Still, Eagleson said that, as a private person, Ballard was generous towards friends and charitable organizations. But he was especially generous to Leafs players, to whom he had on many occasions given two economy tickets to any destination that Canadian Airlines International Ltd. serviced. They have also received TV sets and microwaves.

Ballard’s need to be publicly identified with the Leafs may reflect the fact that his private life revolved almost totally around the team. Following the death of his wife, Dorothy, in 1969, he moved out of the family home in west Toronto and divided his time between his cottage on Georgian Bay and his apartment in the Gardens. Said board chairman McNamara: “The team and the building were his whole life. He was there all the time. He lived there.”

Ballard’s second-floor home in the Gardens is far from palatial. It merely contains a combined bedroom-living room, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a sauna. Several acquaintances and business associates said that they always met Ballard in his office, which was next to the apartment, but were never invited into his living quarters. The walls of his office are lined with photos of Ballard with Leafs players and other celebrities. On the floor beneath his desk is a bearskin rug, a gift from ex-Leaf Dave (Tiger) Williams, who shot the animal in 1975 with a bow and arrow.

Health: Before his health began to decline a couple of years ago, Ballard rarely spent much time in the apartment, according to McNamara, who added that, even at 75, Ballard continued to walk up to five kilometres daily until he was slowed down by his heart problems. Ballard gave up smoking 15 years ago and abandoned drinking 10 years ago. As to the future of his 67-per-cent share of the company that he controls, McNamara said that only Ballard, and perhaps his lawyer, knows. Said the chairman: “He would never talk about it with anyone. His general attitude was that he was not going to die, so why talk about it?”