Canadian filmmaker Jason Priestley has always been a huge hockey fan. But it was only through the lens of making the documentary, Offside: The Harold Ballard Story, on former Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard that the Vancouver-born actor gained an insight into the most controversial figure in Canadian history.
Priestley was excited to bring his documentary that he directed to the Whistler Film Festival in December, where the film premiered on opening night. The 54-year-old didn’t just want to make a documentary, but instead wanted to figure out the mystery behind Ballard. His fascination with Ballard and his sincere approach to making this doc comes across easily in our conversation.
Offside: The Harold Ballard Story, which premieres on CBC and CBC Gem on Sunday, January 22, isn’t just for hockey enthusiasts. The way Priestley tells the story is nothing short of entertaining — he lays the groundwork by explaining the key players in Toronto’s history of Maple Leafs and then brings in interviewees as he narrates the documentary.
We caught up with Priestley to discuss the documentary, the figure that was Harold Ballard, his career goals, and personal style.
I’ll start with the most important question, are you a hockey fan?
Yes, I grew up playing hockey here in British Columbia and BCAHA. I, of course, grew up as a Vancouver Canucks fan. Back then in the days of Harold Ballard, the Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the same conference so the rivalry was deep. But in my experience with the Leafs, I was always on the other side. So it was a great learning experience for me to make this documentary because there was so many things about the Leafs that I didn’t understand being an outsider, I just knew that for me as a young man, I knew how good the Leafs were in the ‘70s and then how bad things were in the 80s, and I didn’t know why. So for me making this documentary was a great education on all of the inner workings when it comes to what went wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I guess there was no one quite as interesting as Ballard on the Vancouver Canucks.
(Laughs). I mean, the Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the great storied franchises of the NHL, going back to the original six. Then everything after 1967, everything started to go wrong and you can point to one person being the cause of that, and that one person is Harold Ballard. Through the process of making this documentary, I really started to put those pieces together. and hopefully in watching this documentary, people will really start to understand what it was that he did, how he did, the impact that it had on the people that were working for him, playing for him and the long lasting effects that it’s had on the team, even since his passing in 1990.
You mentioned that you started this during the pandemic. Was making a Harold Ballard always something you wanted to do?
No, it wasn’t at all. This project grew out of another project that me, Michael Geddes, and Chuck Tatham (two of the other producers on the project) were working on together. We found that no one had done a full length documentary on Harold Ballard. And so we all looked at each other and went, ‘Maybe we should do this!’ We went to CBC and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking we want to do a documentary’ and the CBC said, ‘We’ll buy that.’
What surprised you in making this documentary?
There were a lot of things that surprised me. We try in the documentary to present the good and the bad about Harold. Obviously, there was a lot of bad. But we also tried to show the good as well. I didn’t know about the charitable side of him. He donated a lot of money to charity while he was alive, and his foundation still donates a lot of money to children’s charities. I had no idea about that, but that’s part of what made him such a walking contradiction in a lot of ways. He was such a not nice guy, in a lot of ways, he was a sexist, and he was a racist, he was xenophobic, but on the other hand, he would do all of these charitable things and get all this money to go to children when they need it, and not want to not want to take credit for it. That sort of contradiction. We were always trying to figure out how to balance it though.
How did you try to bring all these different facets together and balance it without really leading the audience with what you think he was but rather showing what other people had to say about him?
Yes, that’s always the challenge. I mean with this documentary, we didn’t want it to be too “inside hockey”, right? So we had to make it accessible for everybody — people who don’t necessarily like hockey, people who don’t necessarily like sports films. This is a film about a man who had it all and lost it all. It’s also a movie about a man whose greed destroyed everything that he had, right? So we had to make sure that it’s a movie for everybody. So in telling the movie, we had to make sure that that in the first 20 minutes of the movie, we lay all the groundwork of here’s the history of the Leafs, here’s the history of Maple Leafs Garden here’s all these people… You know all the players and now you can just watch this story about this about this great tragic-slash-comic-slash just very destructive figure who did this crazy awesome thing, and died a lonely tragic figure in Florida. You know what I mean? That’s kind of what we tried to accomplish and I think I think we did a pretty good job.
It surprises me that he’s Canadian because we do have the stereotype that everyone’s really nice.
Yeah, he’s a very non-Canadian Canadian. I tried to get to the bottom of why he did the things that he did. Was he a con-man? Was it his ego? I couldn’t figure out why he did the things that he did. And so I was constantly trying to get to the bottom of it with the people that I was interviewing. And hopefully, I laid out enough information for people that they’re able to take away their own opinions.
Were you able to get an answer to that question through the interviews?
Well, I sort of got a lot of different answers from a lot of different people because I feel like Harold was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Harold seemed to fit a lot of different roles for different people.
Given that he’s such a controversial figure, was there anyone who did not want to talk to you when you approached them for interviews for the doc?
Harold’s family didn’t want to talk to anyone. We were in discussion with them for a long time. We really wanted his surviving children to be a part of the documentary because we were really interested to hear from them about what it was like to grow up with Ballard as your father. We thought that maybe they were going to talk to us for a while, and then eventually they just didn’t want to be a part of this, which was sad. We really wanted their inclusion.
So seeing how much you love being a director, how does this experience sort of satisfy you in your creative and artistic pursuits?
You know, making movies is super fun. This is what I love to do — making movies, telling stories. It’s another great story to tell. I love telling stories, and hopefully people will be entertained by the story. I found it super entertaining.
You have another movie in the works that’s always about hockey!
Yes, Keeper of the Cup. It is a Toronto Maple Leafs story but it’s not a documentary. Hopefully we will get it together. We’ll shoot it this spring. It’s actually a very funny story. It’s a comedy. It’s about three friends who get tired of waiting for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup, so they go steal it.
And then what’s next for you? Is there something you haven’t done that you would like to do?
A sci-fi movie maybe? On the directing side. I’ve done a little bit of sci-fi, but maybe more sci-fi. I really like working with visual effects. I haven’t had the opportunity to do much of that yet. And I do enjoy that. I like the challenges.
And lastly, what’s your personal style, like, and has it changed during the pandemic?
Nope. That didn’t change. Pandemic didn’t change me at all. No, you have jeans, boots, sweater, scarf. I don’t have a stylist.
How would you describe your style?
Lazy? (Laughs) Stuck in the ‘90s?
You have any style icons?
Yes, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen.
Offside: The Harold Ballard Story will premiere on CBC and CBC Gem on Sunday, January 22, 2023, at 8 p.m.
Jason Priestly headshot courtesy of Manfred Baumann; Harold Ballard images courtesy of Lone Eagle Entertainment.