Sunday, 13 November 2011

No Penalty For Interfering

There's no denying that I love good hockey personalities. The stories with some of hockey's more famous personalities run deep, and it's amazing to think that these men lasted as long as they did without being killed by teammates and colleagues. One such man was Harold Ballard of the Maple Leafs, pictured to the left. From his reluctance to put names on the back of uniforms to his "thriftiness" when it came to player demands, Ballard was a different personality altogether. It has been said that the lean years during the 1970s and 1980s were entirely due to Harold Ballard's interference in running the club and his love of money, so I went looking for examples of this. After all, how could a man with one of the most storied clubs in NHL history not want to glorify his ownership with championships?

I turned to the Sports Illustrated Vault once more as I've found that the writers there, at least in the past, were superb in their objectiveness. The writers spoke their minds while bringing a story to life, and I really appreciate the vast number of stories available through the SI Vault. One such story was written by the legendary Jack Falla and published on November 25, 1985. In his article, Mr. Falla looks at the Leafs at the midpoint of the 1980s, and exposes some harsh realities for hockey fans, especially Leaf fans.

"The traditional thinking is that the Leafs' myriad problems are spokes leading to a common hub, that being cantankerous 82-year-old owner Harold Ballard. Ballard has taken his team from best in the league to worst. The Leafs' decline dates from 1967, the last year they won the Cup. The next year they didn't even make the playoffs. Ballard was only a part-owner then; since he became full owner in 1972, the Leafs have reached the semifinals only once. Ballard, who loves the spotlight and who flaunts an it's-my-money-and-I'll-do-as-I-damn-please attitude, has a history of alienating his best players, meddling in trades, hiring and firing on whim and either not getting the right people to run his team or not leaving them alone so they could.

"It was Ballard who called ex-Leaf captain Darryl Sittler 'a cancer' on the team and who refused to meet Sittler's increasing salary demands and so badgered him that Sittler asked to be traded in 1982. Earlier Ballard had approved a deal that sent Sittler's best friend and the team's second best player, Lanny McDonald, to Colorado. Last year Ballard denounced Vaive, who scored more than 50 goals in 1982, '83 and '84—he's the Leafs' only 50-goal scorer ever—as a mediocre player."
Sittler was anything but a cancer to the vast number of fans that packed Maple Leaf Gardens. Sittler was one of the all-time greats who wore the blue-and-white, and is still regarded as one of the best today. The Lanny McDonald trade turned an unhappy Sittler into a belligerent Sittler, and was entirely foolish in that McDonald was an excellent player as a member of the Leafs. The problem was that the outspoken Leaf players were discarded as quickly as one throws out garbage regardless of how talented those players may be. Ballard, however, didn't appreciate his players voicing their opinions, and those problems were erased quickly.

As for Vaive, he is still the only player in Leafs' history to have multiple 50-goal seasons as a Leaf. He was the first Leaf player to hit the 50-goal mark, and he still has the most goals in one season as a Leaf when he tallied 54 in '81-82. But he's just "mediocre" in Ballard's eyes. I guess Greztky was just "average" in Ballard's eyes as well. Vaive went on to have more productive seasons in Buffalo instead of being a Leaf for life.

E.M. Swift, another talented Sports Illustrated writer, penned an article about the Leafs' struggles that was published on November 21, 1988. Ballard is again painted as an interfering owner if nothing else.
"[Gord] Stellick was just 30 years old when owner Harold Ballard promoted him to general manager last April, making him the youngest to hold that title in NHL history. He follows Jim Gregory, Punch Tmlach and Gerry McNamara to become Ballard's fourth G.M. in the last 10 years (the Leafs have also had seven coaches in that time), which goes a long way toward explaining why it has been a decade since Toronto finished with a .500 record. The cantankerous Ballard, who is 85, lives in an apartment in Maple Leaf Gardens and is described in his own press guide as 'an of the most loved and most hated people in Canada.' He is certainly one of pro sport's most meddlesome owners."
Not quite the best light to be profiled in, right? A "meddlesome" owner for one of sports' most recognizable franchises means that the team and the league itself will suffer. It would be like the New York Yankees running their club like the Kansas City Royals - the game of baseball would be worse off because of their futility. To prove that his influence on the franchise actually hurt the club, stocks in Maple Leaf Gardens rose as Ballard was on death's door.
"Last Jan. 3, Harold had a heart attack while vacationing in Palm Beach, Fla. As news of the old man's condition spread, the price of a share of stock in Maple Leaf Gardens, which is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, rose from less than $30 to $36 in the next two weeks. It was up to $39.50 on July 22 when he underwent quintuple bypass surgery, rose in the next few hours to $42, then fell below $39 when it was announced that the operation was a success."
If that isn't indicative that Ballard's influence on the club was substantial, I guess nothing will prove it. The man was near death, and the publicly-traded stocks for his arena rose over 25% as he struggled, rose another few dollars as he was in surgery, and then plummeted once it was announced that he would make it. The proof is in the dollars and cents if you're asking me.

Much like "Dollar" Bill Wirtz in Chicago, it seems that owners who meddle in the day-to-day running of their clubs are some of the most hated owners in sports. It's not like George Steinbrenner had a ton of fans, and he was constantly involved in the Yankees' operations. There's no better example of this than the constant pokes Seinfeld took at Mr. Steinbrenner's expense.
While the late Mr. Steinbrenner had a much better track record in terms of championships than Mr. Ballard, it's still clear that owners who meddle in the operations of their team are dooming their clubs to seasons of failure. Mr. Ballard's work in the 1970s and 1980s are clear and concise proof that hands-on ownership plus an unwillingness to invest in talent is a perfect recipe for disaster.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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