Face Off: Jason Priestley Discusses Taking on Harold Ballard, Hockey’s Most Infamous Con Man, in New Doc
Jason Priestley lighting it up during his cover shoot for Zoomer’s commemorative Summer 2017 issue celebrating Canada 150. Photo: Chris Chapman
It’s hard to to imagine a more unlikely pairing of Canadian icons. In one corner is Jason Priestley, the affable actor-director who will be forever famous as Brandon Walsh, the virtuous teen heartthrob of Beverly Hills 90210. In the other corner is Harold Ballard, hockey’s most infamous con man, who took possession of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s and ruined the team while turning the franchise into a cash cow. Under his watch, a team that had won 13 Stanley Cups began a 48-season drought: Decades after Ballard’s death in 1990, the Maple Leafs still seem cursed by his ghost. Now, Priestley has conducted a full-court exorcism, as director and narrator of Offside: The Harold Ballard Story. The documentary, currently streaming on CBC Gem, takes a deep dive into Leafs lore and makes hockey’s most successful loser strangely relevant.
“He was Canada’s Donald Trump, before Trump became Trump,” Priestley says in a video interview from his home in Nashville, Tenn. “As he was driving the team into the ground, he was still making tons of money.”
Like Trump, Ballard mastered the art of the backhanded deal, as a fat-cat cheapskate who decimated the Leafs while upstaging them with publicity stunts — like firing and rehiring coach Roger Neilson, then trying to force him to wear a bag over his head behind the bench. Ballard even turned his 1972 prison sentence for fraud and theft into a media circus. “He said and did outrageous things weekly, if not daily,” says Priestley. “He was above the fold in the sports section of every newspaper in Canada for two decades.”
Though the Ballard legend is well known, the film’s barrage of interviews and archival clips illuminate his misogyny and racism in eviscerating detail. “He could never exist today,” says Priestley. “He’d get cancelled so fast. But I think it’s important to go back and look at characters like this and try to figure out what made them tick, and what made us as a society accept that kind of behaviour, even back then.”
Priestley began developing Ballard’s larger-than-life story as a drama, until he realized no one had done a deep-dive documentary. “We looked at this as a way to do more research,” he says, adding that the drama project remains on the back burner. Meanwhile, he stars in an upcoming TV series about the late Leafs legend Börje Salming, in the role of Gerry McNamara, the talent scout who discovered Salming in Sweden and persuaded Ballard to sign him.
Priestley has hockey in his veins. As a teenager in Vancouver, he was an avid Canucks fan. As a thirtysomething celebrity, he raged through Manhattan in nights of wild partying with his New York Rangers pal Theo Fleury. In our interview, he honours his new hometown team by sporting a Nashville Predators cap. He’s played all his life and still skates in the odd pick-up game. “I played hockey with Matt [Perry] for years and years,” he says, marvelling at how well Perry hid the fierce addiction documented in his recent memoir.
Now 53 and raising two teenaged children with his wife, Naomi, Priestley has left the fast lane far behind. Unlike Perry, he didn’t crash and burn from substance abuse. Instead, he drove race cars until 2002, when he hit a wall while travelling 300 km/h at the Kentucky Speedway. He woke up three weeks later, spent three months in hospital and a year recovering from brain injuries. These days, he’s happy to get his thrills on the golf course and the ski hill.
He has also adjusted to a lower-octane grade of celebrity. “My kind of fame is very different than it once was,” says Priestley. “My fans are older. It’s much easier to navigate because they’re no longer screaming, hormonal teenagers. Adults are just cooler, right?”
Of course. Unless we’re talking about Harold Ballard.
A version this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 2023 issue with the headline ‘Face Off’, p. 60.