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A case in point is the pugnacious Tiger Williams. How can you not love a guy who will give you the skin off his bear's back? Several years ago, Ballard announced, "I'm looking for a guy you can toss raw meat to and he will go wild." Enter Williams. Since 1975 Tiger has averaged more than 300 penalty minutes a year, and has infused the Leafs with some much-needed courage. Ballard loves him. "They're all scared of him," he says. "You can't hurt the sonofabitch, and you never know what he's thinking."
Williams' admiration for Ballard is no less enthusiastic. "If you're good to him on the ice, he's fantastic to you off the ice," says Tiger. "I've got his Maple Leaf tattooed on my butt."
Every year Ballard spends some $30,000 on Christmas presents for his players, team officials and their families—one year microwave ovens, the next year plane trips for two anywhere on the continent. And he doesn't pinch pennies at contract time or during the season. Three years ago, after he had been particularly abusive toward the Leafs for several weeks, Ballard gave the team two days off in Las Vegas. He explained the move in classic Ballard fashion, dismissing modern athletes as pampered kids who expect such frills. "If I was making $100,000 a year, you could give me crap every day, by the spoonful or the bucketful, and I'd just laugh," he said.
Crusty, vituperative Harold Ballard was a naked newborn in 1903. His father founded Ballard Textile Machinery Co., a supplier of machines and parts and repairs to the knitting and needle trade. Among the company's divisions was the Ballard Skate Company, one of the continent's original tube-skate manufacturers; by 1933 the company was selling half a million pairs of skates a year. As a youth Ballard held Canadian speedskating championships in both the 440- and 880-yard events, and in the 1920s he set a Canadian record by driving a powerboat 63 mph on Ontario's Rice Lake. Ballard played junior hockey in the early '20s, but decided that his future in the game was at the executive—not playing—level. In 1932 he managed the Sea Fleas, sponsored by the National Yacht Club, to the Allan Cup, emblematic of the best senior amateur hockey team in Canada. Ballard later moved on to the West Toronto Nationals junior team, and between 1936 and 1940 he twice managed them to the Memorial Cup, which goes to the best junior team in Canada.
Following World War II, Ballard became manager of the Junior Toronto Marlboros; the coach of the Marlies was his future partner, Stafford Smythe. Then, when Stafford's father Conn bought the Marlies in 1948, Harold Ballard moved into Maple Leaf Gardens.
Ballard became president of the highly successful Marlboros in 1957 and a director of Maple Leaf Gardens the following year. It was at this time that he and Stafford Smythe befriended John Bassett, publisher of the now-defunct Toronto Telegram and a member of the Maple Leafs' board of directors since 1952. The three of them set about gaining controlling interest in the team.
After a bitter struggle, the triumvirate succeeded in 1961 when Ballard swung a loan of $2 million from a local bank. The Ballard-Bassett-Smythe team bought out the elder Smythe for $2.5 million, thus gaining control of the Maple Leafs—a team that has not had an unsold seat at any of its games since 1946—as well as Maple Leaf Gardens, which was built in the height of the Depression, 1931, for $1.5 million and has been called the most famous building in Canada. Today those properties, owned 90% by Harold Ballard, are worth around $40 million.
Under the Ballard-Bassett-Smythe troika, the Maple Leafs promptly won three straight Stanley Cups. Ballard, in the meantime, set about squeezing liquid gold from the Gardens' very old stone. The first thing he did was tear down the immense portrait of Her Majesty the Queen that the patriotic Smythe had always featured at one end of the Gardens—in order to add more seats. "If people wanted to see a portrait of the queen, they could have gone to an art gallery," Ballard says. "Smythe didn't like me kicking her tail out of here, but what the hell, she doesn't pay me anything. I pay her. Besides, what position can she play?"
He tripled the Leafs' television revenues from $450,000 to $1.5 million, expanded the seating capacity of the building from 12,500 to 16,307 and increased advertising rates inside the Gardens. Sponsors shelled out without a murmur. Ballard also began booking the Gardens for as many dates as he could schedule—religious shows, ballet, rock concerts, wrestling, ice shows—and within two years profits had tripled, from the $350,000 the building made when Conn Smythe ran the show to over $1 million. Within four years, Ballard and Stafford Smythe paid off the $2 million they had borrowed to buy into the Gardens.
While the fortunes of the Maple Leafs took a downward turn after they won their last Stanley Cup in 1967, running the Gardens remained a highly profitable and visible venture for Ballard. Bassett and Stafford Smythe gave Ballard a free hand in managing the building and booking the shows, and Harold quickly earned himself the reputation of a modern-day P.T. Barnum.