SI Vault
E. M. Swift
December 11, 1978
Neither age (75) nor jail has slowed the flow of blather and bombast—or curbed the championship lust of Canadian sports mogul Harold Ballard
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December 11, 1978

A Tongue On The Loose

Neither age (75) nor jail has slowed the flow of blather and bombast—or curbed the championship lust of Canadian sports mogul Harold Ballard

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Conn Smythe, the 85-year-old hockey legend who ran the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs for 20 years, says of Harold Ballard, the present owner of the Maple Leafs, "Harold is a carnival." Yes, that is exactly what the 75-year-old Ballard is. Not a quiet carnival, nor a totally veracious one—he spent a year in jail when he was 69, convicted of 47 counts of fraud and theft involving Maple Leaf Gardens funds—but a good old-fashioned entertaining carnival all the same. The kind that P. T. Barnum might have rolled into town, pulled by giant, messy elephants, amid pomp and circumstance, trailed by dogs and kids and pretty girls bound and determined to run off with one of the tumblers. A carnival selling both cotton candy and Ma & Pa's Elixir, guaranteed to cure the gout. A traveling amusement show with Ferris wheels dedicated to fun, and sideshows dedicated to profit; where the church raffle nets enough for the pastor's new house, and merrymaking rubes are fleeced at the old shell game by con men. A real live carnival, which, despite the improprieties, leaves the town far better off for its having been there. Precious few of them are left.

Ballard, a member of hockey's Hall of Fame, is the only man to own two professional Canadian sports franchises, having purchased the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League last winter. He has been written about and quoted as often as any man in Canada, and there is no subject on which he lacks an opinion

Within the executive confines of Maple Leaf Gardens he has no ordinary office; it is an apartment. Beyond the study is the master bedroom, replete with canopied twin beds. Beyond that are the kitchen, the shower and a sauna that Ballard, eschewing all warnings of an energy crisis, keeps heated and ready for action 24 hours a day. A bearskin rug, a remnant of a bear that Maple Leaf Forward Tiger Williams killed with bow and arrow this summer in Saskatchewan, rests beneath the desk, and a framed photograph of Ballard's late wife Dorothy hangs directly behind his chair; she died of cancer nine years ago. The rest of the apartment's paneled walls are covered with various photographs from Ballard's 30-odd-year association with Maple Leaf Gardens. There's Ballard and Stafford Smythe, his late partner and Conn's son, in Beatles wigs, serving coffee to the fans waiting four days in line for the lads from Liverpool. There is Muhammad Ali pummeling George Chuvalo. There is Ballard refusing the million-dollar check that the Chicago Black Hawks once offered Toronto for Frank Mahovlich. Little artwork is to be found in the apartment, and the only visible books are Volumes I, II and III of The Trail of the Stanley Cup .

"What else did Smythe say about me?" Ballard asks mischievously.

"He said you were a credit to yourself, to hockey and to Canada for what you'd done."

"What else?"

"That he wouldn't have you working for him for 10� a week. He doesn't like your way of doing business."

"Smythe said that? He said he wouldn't hire me?"

"Among other things."

"That miserable old bastard. I made that——every cent he's worth. It costs me $75,000 a year to let him keep his office in the Gardens. I get him a new car, a new secretary, and he says he wouldn't hire me? I wouldn't work for that——anyway. I've always respected him because he's smart, but he's a miserable old bastard just the same."

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