Joining the Leafs' ownership group in 1957, Ballard took full control of the team 1971, emerging as the sole survivor of a bitter boardroom struggle. For the next two decades, the Toronto Maple Leafs were a model of infighting, mismanagement and mediocre hockey.
The team had been in decline since its Stanley Cup championship of 1967, and the process accelerated under Ballard. His first major crisis came in the early seventies when the World Hockey Association, a new pro league, began raiding NHL teams for talent. Ballard let WHA clubs walk away with some of his best players, including the beloved captain, Dave Keon.
The on-ice product suffered for it, but management began rebuilding with a core of good, young players. Ballard did not interfere, as he spent much of 1973 in jail for tax evasion. He served one year before resuming his post and driving the Leafs to the bottom of the NHL. The Ballard legend grew as strange tales began to emerge from Maple Leaf Gardens. Team employees told stories of verbal harangues, arbitrary firings and drunken sprees involving Ballard and his pals. A staff member was once fired for refusing to walk Ballard's dog. Coaches were fired and re-hired, sometimes within hours.
When scoring star Lanny MacDonald was traded, several Leafs' players trashed the locker room. Ballard once told reporters that Swedish forward Inge Hammarstrom "could go into the corners with half a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break one of them." Fan favorite Tiger Williams was a "goddamn little stubble-jumper from Saskatchewan." One of the most popular Leafs of all time, Darryl Sittler, was labeled a "cancer" on the team before being dealt away. The trades rarely worked out well for Toronto.
The owner's personal life was equally turbulent. Ballard was estranged from much of his family, and once cancelled a youth game at Maple Leaf Gardens after discovering that his grandson was to play in it. He carried on a string of feuds and vendettas with the local media. In one interview, he told CBC journalist Barbara Frum that it was "a joke" to have women on the radio, adding "you know where they're at their best, don't ya... I let them up once in a while."
By the 1980s the Leafs were the butt of jokes throughout the hockey world. Ballard's reckless and parsimonious ways - the team's top farm clubs had long been sold off, and the scouting staff was a shambles - had turned a marquee NHL franchises into the most poorly run operation in professional sport. Only Ballard's death in 1990, at the age of 86, allowed the team to emerge from the dark ages. Within four years of his burial, the Leafs had made back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Vintage Harold Ballard: Hear the infamous Barbara Frum interview.