He was never like other fathers. A huge, bear-like man with a locker-room vocabulary and a volcanic temper, Harold E. Ballard loomed like a colossus over the lives of his children, Mary Elizabeth, William (Bill) and Harold Jr. For the three of them, according to their friends, growing up in the spotlight created by their father’s checkered career was both exciting and terrifying. Their father’s sometimes outrageous behavior in both business and personal matters routinely touched off widespread public speculation about the family, which has caused acute pain and embarrassment for the three children. Still, friends say that all three remained deeply attached to him until recent months, despite the widening rifts that divided the family. In an interview with Maclean ’s last week, elder son William Ballard, 43, said that the precarious state of his father’s health was all that concerned him at the time. The ownership of Maple Leaf Gardens, over which the two were locked in a legal dispute, was secondary, he added. Said Ballard: “I’ve got other things to think about right now.”

His loyalty was remarkable in light of the rancorous disputes that ripped the Ballard family apart in recent years. Although tension between the children and their father grew after the death of Ballard’s wife, Dorothy, in 1969, last year was especially difficult for the family. It began in August when William Ballard launched a $ 170-million lawsuit against his father and brother, over the sale in June, 1989, of a vital block of family-owned shares. Later that month, William’s reclusive brother, Harold, 42, was charged with breaking into his father’s vacant home in Toronto and stealing furniture and hockey memorabilia. That case is scheduled to begin in one year. Then, in September, William was convicted of assaulting his father’s longtime girlfriend, Yolanda Ballard, after a trial that even friends said took on the atmosphere of a sideshow.

Force: The force at the heart of the conflicts: the outspoken, unpredictable and powerful personal style of the senior Harold Ballard. Said family friend William Nigh, owner of Intellectual Silk Screening Inc., which William Ballard helped him set up in the late 1970s: “They have had to do battle with the Ballard mystique—it is hard to live in the shadow of a man like Harold Ballard.”

The Ballard children have endured a great deal in recent years. There have been persistent reports of public, verbally abusive fights between Ballard and his son William. In a bizarre comment, he called his daughter, on whom he once doted, a “reptile,” and told the artistically inclined Harold Jr., who studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, that “only flakes go to art school.” His much publicized, eight-year relationship with 57-year-old blond divorcée Yolanda Ballard (she officially changed her name to his) became a source of painful embarrassment for his children and also clouded his relationship with his colleagues and employees.

Much of the tension became public again on Jan. 5 when Ballard was rushed to a Miami hospital from the Cayman Islands, located 430 miles to the south, where he had been preparing to marry Yolanda. Only two hours before the wedding, Ballard changed his mind—he was admitted to hospital later the same day.

Survived: At 86, he had survived diabetes, a heart attack, quintuple-bypass heart surgery and prostate-gland surgery. But last week, as Ballard cracked off-color jokes and posed in his Miami hospital room with Yolanda, his liveliness seemed barely diminished. Said friend and Hamilton sports broadcaster Dick Beddoes: “He’s a shrivelled-up old guy in a wheelchair, but he’s still ready to insult you at the drop of a hat.”

Many sports and business commentators, including Beddoes, say that the Ballard family feuding was severely aggravated by the hovering presence of Yolanda, who lived with her namesake in his small one-bedroom apartment atop Maple Leaf Gardens. Ballard affectionately nicknamed his companion “Yo-Yo” and became highly dependent upon her. In fact, in her absence, associates say that the ailing Ballard would require a full-time nurse. She often administered the wide assortment of drugs that he had to take and frequently spoke to the Toronto media on his behalf. As well, Yolanda Ballard commented on the on-going angry turmoil at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Although she was accepted into the family at first, Yolanda’s relationship with Ballard’s children became stormy in recent years. The children initially became suspicious of her after they learned that she had served four months of a two-year prison term in 1980 for forgery and perjury in a case involving an estate worth $3 million. Later, according to Beddoes, they came to resent what they saw as her attempt to replace their mother in Ballard’s affections and to isolate them from their father. “They detest her,” he added. “With a passion.”

Even after their father’s 1972 conviction for fraud and income-tax evasion, the Ballard children stood by him. But in the mid-1980s, Mary Elizabeth, at 47 the eldest, became the first to pull away. She challenged Yolanda’s motives and incurred her father’s wrath as a result. She stopped speaking to him in 1986 after a dispute over her then-six-year-old son, who was to play a game at the Gardens with his hockey team. Ballard reversed his approval for the game at the last moment, and then had a heated argument with his daughter over the decision.

Acrimony: The family acrimony burst into the open last June in a trial that pitted Ballard against Ballard and splashed the details of family infighting into the media. William, a lawyer and a millionaire in his own right as a result of his partnership in the most successful concert-promotion company in North America, Concert Productions International (CPI), found himself criminally charged with assaulting Yolanda, following an incident in his father’s office a year earlier.

By the time of the trial, none of the children were on speaking terms with their father. And in a rare public appearance, Mary Elizabeth, Harold Jr. and William gathered outside the courts and allowed themselves to be photographed in a show of solidarity.

Despite uneven and conflicting testimony by Harold Ballard and Yolanda, William was convicted of the assault and ordered to pay a $500 fine. His father had already banned him from the Gardens and following the sentence proclaimed that his son “deserves jail.” For his part, William told reporters after the trial that he did not “want to be bothered by Yolanda or Harold ever again.”

Family relations were further poisoned by a struggle for control of Maple Leaf Gardens. In happier times, when his children were still teenagers, Ballard created a trust for them that equally divided control of the shares of a holding company called Harold E. Ballard Ltd. (HEB). Under the 1966 arrangement, which helped minimize estate taxes, the elder Ballard retained voting control over the shares of the holding company, which owns Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., the operating company that runs the arena.

That arrangement ensured that the senior Ballard would control the operation of the Gardens until his death, but that the Ballard children would own HEB through the trust agreement. The trust provided that, upon the senior Ballard’s death, ownership of the Gardens would remain with the children.

But as the estrangement among the Ballards grew, the elder Ballard sought to bring the ownership of HEB back into his own hands. In January, 1989, Mary Elizabeth sold her one-third share to him for $15.5 million. Then, on June 20, 1989, Harold Jr. sold his one-third to his father for $21 million.

Control: For the first time in 25 years, Ballard held a majority position, 67 per cent, in the holding company that owns the Gardens. His new ownership position helped ease any fears he may have had that he would lose control of the Gardens to such potential buyers as Molson Cos. Ltd. (page 38).

For Ballard, a major stumbling block remained, however. Son William filed a lawsuit against his father and brother alleging that they both violated an option agreement between William and his brother.

William claims that the agreement gave him the right of first refusal on Harold Jr.’s shares until June 30,1989. If the suit is successful, majority ownership of HEB could go to William Ballard. The suit enraged the elder Ballard, and since August, 1989, when it was filed, CPI, which in the past brought in such rock superstars as Paul Simon and the Amnesty International benefit concert with Bruce Springsteen and Sting, was shut out of the Gardens.

Turmoil: Amid the legal and financial turmoil, there were signs that the human cost for the Ballard family and Gardens employees also increased in recent months. One who may have suffered the most is Harold Ballard Jr., often described as the most sensitive of Ballard’s children. Last Aug. 19, Harold, by then also estranged from his brother, appeared in a Toronto courtroom. The previous day, he had allegedly broken into the vacant Ballard home and removed tables, chairs, pictures and old hockey trophies.

He was charged with breaking and entering and also with assault and resisting arrest. The arresting police officers said that Ballard, who is divorced and has not worked at a steady job since he was employed by a North York car dealer in the early 1980s, allegedly choked them, pulled their ties and ripped their shirts.

As the family troubles multiplied, many Ballard watchers said that they were convinced that the elder Ballard was sinking under the weight of ill health and that he was guided largely by Yolanda. Former Gardens treasurer Donald Crump, who worked for Ballard for nine years before quitting last week to become commissioner of the Canadian Football League, said: “When I started working for him, he was sharp and a good employer. But in the last five years, his health deteriorated. The lady influenced his decisions and his mind.”

Shocked: Indeed, just before Christmas, Ballard shocked many colleagues and employees by firing 57-year-old Henry Hayek, who had worked at the Gardens for 15 years. For the last two of them, Hayek took care of many of Ballard’s personal needs, including pushing the wheelchair to which he was confined, as well as eating and watching television with him. Hayek insists that he did nothing to deserve the firing and that it was actually Yolanda who caused it to happen. Said Hayek: “All she has to do is turn around and complain about you to Mr. Ballard, and that’s it.”

Meanwhile, despite their past differences, at week’s end a reconciliation between Ballard and his three children appeared to be unfolding when Mary Elizabeth travelled to m Miami, where she met with her father, who reportedly asked to be brought home.

But, as in most families, emotions run high. Breaking away was likely the most difficult task of all for the Ballard children. Said family friend Nigh: “During the conflicts, the kids would never extinguish that little flame, that hope that, inside, he’s okay. When you’re the kid, who wants to think that your dad doesn’t love you?”