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Book Excerpt: Leafs AbomiNation Part Four

Leafs Stink! Thank God they don't suck. Bunch of doodyheads.
Leafs Stink! Thank God they don't suck. Bunch of doodyheads.

When news of this book first came out the response was...ummm...visceral to say the least and understandably so. I received a copy to review (out next week) but over the weekend I'll provide you the excerpt of the first chapter. Read it at your own risk. Full disclosure: The hour and a half I spoke with Michael Grange turned into about 5 pages worth of me defending our honour. Also, I HAVE to put up the book cover every time but each time will have a new joke. 

Chapter One: Blame History

Money, of course, was at the heart of the sickness that infected the Leafs after Conn Smythe gave up the reins. Stafford Smythe was also charged with plundering the Gardens' treasury, though he would die before the trial at age fifty. (Bassett would eventually bow out after repeated disagreements with Ballard.) And at one point Ballard found himself running the club from a minimum-security prison outside Kingston, where he was doing time after being convicted of using the publicly traded Gardens' money as if it were his own. He was found guilty of forty-eight counts of fraud and theft, but he was never brought before a judge for running the Leafs into the ground.

Ballard's anything-for-a-buck lust knew few boundaries. Concerned about a loss in revenue from program sales when the NHL mandated that teams emblazon jerseys with the players' surnames, Ballard obeyed the ordinance to the letter: he saw to it that white letters were sewn on the backs of white jerseys, so fans couldn't possibly read them. He sold the Stanley Cup banners that hung from the Gardens rafters. He once made inquiries with the arena superintendent as to how many cucumbers would fit in the 30,000-gallon tank that held the mixture that circulated through the refrigeration pipes beneath the rink floor. "He said he wanted to make dill pickles to sell at games," rink managerWayne Gilespie told the authors of the book Forever Rivals. "He'd dream up these schemes-anything to make a buck-then he'd forget about them."

Part petulant mogul, part malicious buffoon, Ballard seemed capable of just about anything. His quirks were many. A speed boat racer in his youth, in his old age, when he lived in an apartment in the Gardens and would occasionally stumble into employees wearing only his underwear, Ballard was said to occasionally indulge in the sport of nude Zamboni driving. And his bluster was often beyond belief-no surprise from a man who counted "Bullshit baffles brains" among his favourite maxims. "Pal Hal," as he was known by those who admired him-and there are always willing admirers of sports owners, no matter how wayward or bizarre the honcho may be-once promised to trade his entire team. Another time, he chalked up centreman Laurie Boschman's slump to the player's faith as a born-again Christian. He called the Soviets "savages," and at one point barred them from his building. He called players who defected from the Eastern bloc "traitors," yet still employed them. He banned women from the locker room, defying league rules and common sense. "Women will be allowed to go in the locker room if they undress first," Ballard quipped. He once tussled in a phone interview with Barbara Frum, the esteemed CBC radio broadcaster, punctuating the call with an assertion that women belonged "on their back." When journalist William Houston informed him of his intention to write his biography, Ballard approached Houston after a game in Chicago in 1984 and said, "If there's one word about me, you'll get your throat cut." Houston wrote the book and lived to retire from his job as a Globe and Mail columnist some twenty-five years later, though that should not be taken to mean that Ballard got along well with reporters, or even that he wanted to. The team's media guide described him as "one of the most loved and most hated people in Canada" and "master promoter and manipulator of the media."

But writing about Ballard was a walk in the park compared to being related to him. His youngest son, Harold Jr., was once arrested for breaking and entering at his father's family home-after old Harold had kicked the boy to the curb. In another tender family moment, Ballard cancelled a peewee tournament scheduled to take place in the Gardens when he discovered that his estranged daughter's son (yes, his grandson) was on the roster of one of the teams. And his oldest son, Bill, was once fired by his dad from the Gardens board. But then, Bill had his own role to play in the family drama. In 1989 he was convicted of assaulting his father's "companion,"Yolanda, whose place in Leafs lore would come to be recorded with the kind of contempt usually reserved for Yoko Ono or Tammy Faye Bakker.

She had previously pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and perjury after it was alleged she had schemed with an accomplice to bilk a wealthy ageing man of some $3 million by altering the old sod's will. Ballard once accused Yolanda of "trying to pull the same thing on me." And indeed she may have. In 1987 she did legally change her name to Ballard from MacMillan, though she and her bumptious paramour never did tie the knot. In fact, while Ballard was recovering from a heart attack in 1988, he had the locks changed on his home, and had Yolanda's possessions hauled away. Though the ugly soap opera continued until Ballard's death, Yolanda was not invited to the funeral or the read ing of the will-thus ensuring that the drama would continue even after he was in the ground. Not to be so easily outmanoeuvred, Yolanda sued the Ballard estate for $381,000 a month, in part, so the rumour goes, on behalf of her dog.

Given Ballard's tempestuous relationship with members of his family, Darryl Sittler should have heard alarm bells go off when the Leafs owner called him "the son I never had." Though Pal Hal never called the police to arrest the best player of the Ballard years, he did trade away heart-and-soul forward Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies in a move deliberately calculated to upset the Leafs dressing room-and Sittler in particular-a provocation that worked all too well. Sittler ripped the captain's "C" from his sweater in protest, and was eventually traded away himself. The Leafs sent their captain, an eighth-overall pick, Team Canada sniper and prototypical power forward whose name appeared in the scoring race alongside the likes of Guy Lafleur and Brian Trottier, to the rival Philadelphia Flyers for some guy named Rich Costello and a couple of draft picks.

But then, Ballard often treated his coaches and players with similar disrespect. And the better the player, the rougher the ride. Dave Keon, the Leafs' perennial scoring leader, winner of four Stanley Cups in blue and white and of a Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable playoff performer in the Leafs' last Cup run, was not only not re-signed in Toronto in 1975-he was essentially barred from playing anywhere else in the NHL because Ballard was demanding so much in compensation from any team that signed him that other teams had no choice but to shy away. Keon ended up suiting up for the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association, and had little difficulty lighting up the new league. But when the franchise ran into financial trouble, and Keon tried to get back into the NHL, Ballard, who still controlled his rights, blocked him once again. He finally ended up playing out his career with the Hartford Whalers, but only after Ballard had killed a deal between Keon and the Cup-contending New York Islanders.

To this day, the Hall-of-Famer who was ranked 69th out of the top 100 players of all time by The Hockey News in 1998 still has nothing but contempt for the team that has botched not only its own legacy so badly, but also the lives and careers of its players. Thanks, Harold Ballard. 

Excerpted from Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk Michael Grange Copyright © 2009 by Dave Feschuk Michael Grange. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.