Former Leafs Owner Pal Hal Wrote The Book That Donald Trump Follows Today
I was spinning hockey yarns with friends in the business recently, and the name Harold Ballard came up. The former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs died 27 years ago, but the memories of his dyfunctionality are as sharp today as ever.
As we went from one Ballard story— remember when he wouldn’t let women reporters in the dressing room because Borje Salming was…. ahem, endowed?— it struck me that if you’re looking for the person who best captures the zeitgeist of Donald Trump. Ballard is probably the best model. While some say former Toronto mayor Rob Ford is the forerunner of Trump, his addiction issues set him apart from both Ballard and Trump, whose weakness is themselves, not substances.
Yes, Trump leads the most powerful nation inn the world. While Pal Hal was not running a nation, he was the owner of the most powerful NHL team in English Canada— back in the days when there were just two NHL teams in Canada. Everything he did was magnified beyond all proportion. Being in Toronto, the media capital only made things worse. When he spoke, people listened, and the media freaked out.
Like Trump, Ballard knew how to use the media to control his own wacky narrative. And how it drove mainstream reporters crazy. No story seemed to follow from the last. Using Toronto Star reporter Milt Dunnell as his Sean Hannity pipeline, Ballard was always foiling the established media. Kind of like you-know-who.
One story early in my career stands out. Ballard had scheduled a presser at the Gardens to announce the signing of a first-round draft pick. But that week the RCMP revealed Ballard had been charged with having unregistered weapons in his apartment atop the Gardens. When the press conference started all the questions were about the guns, not the young player.
A vexed Ballard proceeded to rip the media assembled, using every curse word alone and in combination with other F-bombs. Saying we were products of that model school (Ryerson’s media school), he compared us to slime, slugs and other bivalves. All as the cameras rolled. Remember, this is the ‘80s, when you couldn’t say “damn” on the air.
When Hurricane Harold blew himself out we adjourned for lunch. Then, as we headed to the street, Harold was there to greet us at the door. With a broad smile he thanked us for coming and “for supporting the club”.
It was hardly a unique moment. There was the time he promoted his 30-year-old PR guy Gord Stellick to GM of the Leafs. There was the famous national interview with CBC’s Barbara Frum in which he proclaimed “Women are best in one position – on their backs.". There was his purchase of the Hamilton Tiger Cats, whose logo he put smack at centre ice in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, there Cats’ biggest rival.
Like Trump, Ballard got his money from his father and, through fits and starts, built a bigger fortune. Trump had bankruptcies and Trump University. Ballard went to jail for 18 months for defrauding Maple Leaf Gardens (he incriminated himself by drawing a mapof his cottage where employees were to deliver stolen supplies).
Like Trump, Ballard was a septuagenarian who was only taking his own counsel. And he revelled in aggravating people. Hall of Fame goalie and author Ken Dryden described Ballard in his book The Game "like [a] wrestling villain who touches the audience to make his next villainy seem worse.” Sound like anyone we know who lives in the White House?
While Trump’s tastes in female companionship run to former models, Ballard’s love interest was a blowzy grifter named Yolanda, who moved in with Ballard in his final decade to nurse him and his money, whichever came first. Just as there is a Donald Trump Jr., there was a Harold Ballard Jr. And the family couldn’t stay out of the news either. Son Bill Ballard was charged with assault for taking a shot at Yolanda.
The family drama when Ballard died in 1990 was worthy of Dallas or Dynasty. Reporters from all the Canadian media haunted the doorway of the Miami hospital where he drew his last breath. Who would get the Maple Leafs? Would Yolanda het the money? A nation awaited news.
Most of all, Ballard and Trump represent a challenge to the established way of doing things. Hockey owners were supposed to be like the patrician Molson family in Montreal. Tanned and urbane, the Molsons were folks the media could wrap their arms around. Ballard was a brash clown who wore a jacket that was half Maple Leafs/ half Tiger Cats logos.
Despite their money, Trump and Ballard are seen as declassé, a lower order of hillbillies beyond the pale. You think Trump is hard on the media? Ballard called writer Jim Hunt a bastard— live on air. “He then told TV host Dave Hodge that his comments were about someone whose last name starts with one of the first three letters of the alphabet. Hodge responded by saying Jim Bunt. Ballard responded by saying the name started with the letter C."
Trump, however, got his laugh by winning the presidency. Ballard’s Leafs never cam e close to winning a Stanley Cup post-1967 but the Ti-Cats won a Grey Cup.
If you need one more reason to connect the two outsized personalities, they shared one more distinctive trait. They both had orange hair.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)