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Priestley’s ‘Offside’ paints a complex portrait of former Leafs owner Harold Ballard

Known for his attention-grabbing outbursts, the irascible Ballard inspired many different takes
Director and narrator Jason Priestley, right, interviews former Toronto Maple Leafs player Jim McKenny about former Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard for a new documentary in this undated handout photo. Priestley, the narrator and director of “Offside: the Harold Ballard Story, wants Canadians to draw their own conclusions on the irascible sports magnate who also owned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Lone Eagle Entertainment, Sam Lim

Jason Priestley wants Canadians to draw their own conclusions about Harold Ballard, the controversial former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Priestley is the narrator and director of “Offside: the Harold Ballard Story,” which will make its CBC debut on Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Priestley said that as he researched Ballard and interviewed former Maple Leafs and sports reporters from Toronto, he was struck by how everyone had a different take on the irascible sports magnate who also owned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“I felt like the most responsible thing to do was to lay out all the information that I got from all of these people, and let the audience make their own determinations about who they thought Harold Ballard was and why he did the things that he did,” said Priestley.

“Because for me as a filmmaker, to make that determination for them I felt was irresponsible.”

The 90-minute documentary follows Ballard’s rise to power in the late 1960s, the controversies that swirled around him in the 1970s, and then his sharp physical decline in the 1980s before his death in 1990. Widely disliked for how he ran the Leafs and his misogynist, racist, and homophobic outbursts, “Offside” executive producer Michael Geddes said he believes it’s important for people to remember Ballard as a cautionary tale.

“It’s like (former U.S. President Donald Trump) almost took a page out of Ballard’s playbook because there’s some similarities there,” said Geddes. “Harold revelled in keeping the world around him off balance, because I think he was off balance.”

Featuring archival footage, “Offside” includes a collection of interviews with sports reporters like Stephen Brunt, Mary Ormsby, and Wayne Parrish as well as former Leafs greats including Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Rick Vaive, and Lanny McDonald.

“All those guys were super forthcoming with their honest feelings about their experiences with Harold,” said Priestley. “Wendel Clark? Loved the guy. Rick Vaive? Super angry about his time here in Toronto.

“As a filmmaker, I’m super appreciative of those guys, for giving their time to us and being as forthcoming as there were.”

Perhaps most surprising are the appearances of two other controversial figures: Don Cherry and Alan Eagleson.

Cherry was fired as a commentator from Hockey Night in Canada in 2019 after he made remarks implying that Canadian immigrants benefit from the sacrifices of veterans but do not wear remembrance poppies. Eagleson was disgraced and had several honours detracted — including being removed from the Hockey Hall of Fame — when he pleaded guilty to several counts of fraud and embezzlement in 1998.

“I think it’s very important to include them, regardless of their backgrounds, because they knew Ballard personally,” said Geddes. “There’s very few of those guys around.”

—John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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