The Visionary and the Vanquished
Conn Smythe built the Gardens, Harold Ballard nearly destroyed it
By BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun
Legendary Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach once wrote an autobiography titled Heaven and Hell in the NHL.
Unintentionally, Punch was describing the two main men who ran Maple Leaf Gardens for the vast majority of its history: Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard.
The personalities of these men dominated both the Maple Leafs hockey team and the building it called home. Both men were stubborn. Both were colourful. Their legacies, though, are vastly different.
Smythe oversaw the rise of the Leafs. Ballard oversaw their fall.
It was Smythe, a fiercely proud Canadian who had fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War, who gave the Maple Leafs their patriotic moniker in 1927, renaming the NHL team known as the St. Pats.
Smythe, a man small in stature but big in determination, had a highly successful stint working for the New York Rangers before returning to his home town of Toronto. He rounded up some investors to buy controlling interest of the struggling St. Pats, with the understanding he would be installed as manager.
The St. Pats had been playing at the Mutual Street Arena, which seated about 8,000 rather uncomfortably. Smythe, a successful businessman who earned his fortune in the sand and gravel trade, began to dream of a new, upscale arena that would help his efforts to turn around the Maple Leafs.
Despite the crippling Depression, Smythe got his wish. His bullheaded ways got the financial ball rolling and the Gardens was built in 1931. It stands only a stone's throw from where Smythe was born.
In many ways, Conn Smythe was Maple Leaf Gardens, and Maple Leaf Gardens was Conn Smythe. There was a palpable sense of dignity in the atmosphere, despite Smythe's oft-repeated motto, "If you can't lick 'em in the alley, you can't lick 'em on the ice." Royalty visited. There was a dress code for patrons. And the hockey team became successful.
Sadly, the Second World War changed Smythe's life forever. Having recruited his own "Sportsmen's Battery" to fight the Nazis, Smythe was struck in the lower back by a fragment from some exploding ammunition in 1944. His bowel and urinary tract were pierced and never again was he pain-free.
Upon his return to Canada, the wounded veteran almost immediately was greeted by a challenge to his Gardens reign by some directors who had become tired of Smythe's dictatorial style. But Smythe had enough fight left in him to beat off his adversaries, and by 1947 he had acquired enough shares to be named president of the organization.
Smythe always was suspicious of Harold Ballard, but the latter befriended Smythe's son, Stafford, in the 1930s, when Stafford was just a teenager and Ballard was in his 30s. Perhaps Ballard saw Stafford as an opportunity for advancement.
By the 1950s, Ballard, the son of an innovative machinist and self-made millionaire, had wormed his way into the Leafs organization. Together, Ballard and the younger Smythe ran the junior Marlboros, Stafford in charge of hockey and Ballard in charge of business.
By the late '50s, Conn Smythe -- now in his 60s and bothered by his war wounds -- had become less and less interested in the day-to-day running of the Leafs and the Gardens. The crusty Smythe began to bury himself in the world of horse racing and charities dedicated to helping physically challenged children.
Stafford, meanwhile, was chomping at the bit to have more say at the Gardens, believing the organization was being run in an alarmingly old-fashioned way, both on and off the ice. It was Stafford's suggestion, for example, that the Leafs hire Punch Imlach in 1958. Imlach subsequently coached the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s.
By 1961, the elder Smythe had grown so sick of Stafford's badgering that the transfer of power became official. There are conflicting stories as to whether Conn thought he was selling the bulk of his shares to Stafford alone, but the fact was a three-headed monster took over: Stafford, Ballard and John Bassett Sr. were equal partners. And importantly, each had a right of first refusal on the others' shares.
The Gardens changed in the 1960s, becoming less about tradition and more about balance sheets. For example, about 3,500 extra seats were crammed into the place. But the hockey team was successful, so most sins were forgiven by the fans.
The law was not so generous.
Stafford and Ballard got so used to running the Gardens as their own personal licence to print money, they started to get a little too creative with the books. Tax-evasion charges in 1969 were followed by theft and fraud charges in 1971.
Bassett made a play to gain total control of the Gardens from his besieged colleagues, but was denied and wound up selling out. Then Stafford got sick, the pressure of his legal woes ultimately breaking him.
When Stafford died in 1971, Ballard swooped in despite his own legal predicament. Exercising his right of first refusal on Stafford's shares, Ballard took control of the Gardens ... and then, at the age of 69, he went to jail in the fall of 1972.
Ballard was sentenced to three years and served one. When he returned to the Gardens in autumn 1973, he had changed from a man who didn't give a damn what people thought to a man who really didn't give a damn what people thought.
Having spent almost two decades in the shadows of the Smythes, Ballard went about systematically erasing their legacy. Links to the past were destroyed without a touch of sentiment. From that point on, no player, no general manager, no coach would be more newsworthy than Harold Ballard. He wanted to be the star.
Unfortunately for Leafs fans, the egomaniacal Ballard fiddled while the Gardens burned -- if not literally, then figuratively.
His stunts became legend. He demeaned his own players and staff -- everyone except longtime pal King Clancy, Ballard's usual partner in the Gardens "bunker," Ballard's private box at the northeast end of the rink. Ballard said outlandish and ridiculous things. He ran the organization on a shoe-string budget. He carved out an apartment inside the yellow Gardens walls and lived there, roaming the corridors late at night like the Phantom of the Opera.
The hockey team, meanwhile, went south. Ballard always said he wanted to win. And maybe he did at some deep level. The thing is, he never did much toward that end. In fact, his decisions often guaranteed failure.
On Ballard's watch, the Leafs had only one brief surge of competence, in the late 1970s. But the high-water mark merely was a semi-final appearance in 1978, and in the next few years Ballard went about systematically dismantling that squad.
It was almost fitting that Conn Smythe died in 1980, as the Leafs franchise plumbed new depths in the ensuing decade. Not that Ballard wasn't highly amusing at times -- he was. But longtime Leafs supporters never believed that the odd chuckle at Ballard's antics was enough to erase the fact that the franchise had become a joke around the NHL.
By the time Ballard's health started to decline in the late 1980s, his life had taken on a soap-opera quality, complete with a leading lady -- companion Yolanda MacMillan -- and fights with his three kids. Ballard's death in 1990 led, not surprisingly, to a lengthy legal battle for control of the Gardens, which ultimately was won by Steve Stavro.
But Stavro is nothing like Harold Ballard. And Stavro is nothing like Conn Smythe, either. These are the days of multi-layered ownership. There's a corporate feel to pro sports franchises.
The NHL era at Maple Leaf Gardens is over, as is the era of the one-man ownership show.
There won't be another Conn Smythe or another Harold Ballard.
For better or for worse.