Leafs Media Battles Are Legendary

By HOWARD BERGER 

PLANTATION, Fla. (Mar. 13) – The well-documented and turbulent relationship between Ron Wilson and the Toronto hockey media became irrelevant 11 nights ago, when the 27th coach in Maple Leafs history was fired. The tempestuous character of Wilson’s old boss, Brian Burke, assumed national prominence less than 24 hours later during the weekly Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada. Don Cherry – volatile even by his standards – lambasted Burke, ostensibly for the dearth of Ontario-born players on the Leafs; tangibly for the allegation that Burke appealed to grand poo-bahs at the CBC in an effort to silence our country’s most recognizable figure. 

To suggest an unholy alliance prevailed in the Burke-Wilson regime with members of the print and broadcast industry is to understate a pattern of conflict dating to the earliest years of the franchise. Leafs founder Conn Smythe; his son, Stafford; Harold Ballard (who took it to a pinnacle in the 1970s and ’80s), and a plethora of GMs and coaches have waged all-out war with the media – the majority of which has grown increasingly critical during the club’s 45-year championship drought. Kinder, gentler times have appeared sporadically when such non-combative people as Jim Gregory and Cliff Fletcher ran the hockey operation, but strife has been infinitely more common.

A TYPICAL SCENE LATE IN HAROLD BALLARD’S LIFE: THE CANTANKEROUS OWNER OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, WITH COMPANION YOLANDA MacMILLAN AT HIS SIDE, LASHING OUT AT REPORTERS AS HE ENTERS A LIMOUSENE.

This dynamic was outlined prolifically in what I consider the best book ever written about the hockey environment in Toronto: Inside Maple Leaf Gardens, a 1989 publication authored by William Houston, who covered the Leafs through the lost decade of the ’80s for the Globe and Mail. I’ve read the book probably a half-dozen times and it never falls short on story-telling or entertainment. Though it encompassed the 63-year history of the Leafs when it came out, the book centred on Houston’s stormy relationship with Ballard – as reporting evolved from that of a virtual extension of the team, to offering “just the facts” and, ultimately, the uncensored opinion that prevails today.

WILLIAM HOUSTON (ABOVE) AND HIS BRILLIANT DISSERTATION (BELOW) ON THE CONFLICT BETWEEN THE LEAFS OF THE 1980s AND THOSE THAT REPORTED ON “CANADA’S TEAM” IN THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE.

As evidence for young hockey fans in Toronto that discord has almost always governed interaction between the Leafs and the media, I’ve selected a number of passages from Houston’s book to share in this blog. Such strife is a bit more refined today than it was during the Ballard era, and newer Leaf fans may be shocked by the raw, bare-faced vitriol that prevailed in the ’80s. It was also a time when the Leafs could bar writers, broadcasters and other unwanted types from practices, the press box, and the arena. Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. was a publicly-traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange, but Ballard controlled more than 70 percent of shares and operated the building as he saw fit. That, combined with the wimpish reign of NHL president John Ziegler, precluded conventional media access to the hockey club – a tack that would not be tolerated by the current league administration.

I have first-hand memory, and was – in fact – involved in some of the Leafs-media hostility during the early part of my career. Through most of that time, however, I was a spectator with a front-row seat.

Here are several examples of the lunacy that prevailed a generation ago at Maple Leaf Gardens. Please be advised of obscene language, though all passages are gleaned verbatim from Houston’s book:

Upon hearing that Houston would write his unauthorized biography [a book simply entitled “Ballard”], the Leafs owner had a message for the Globe and Mail employee:

When I decided to write his unauthorized biography in 1984, I was not on good terms with [Ballard]. I had been critical over the years and was barred, at the time, from the press box. He wouldn’t speak to me except to yell obscenities. As a result, I sent him a letter informing him about the book and requesting an interview. A few weeks later, he came over to me outside the Leaf dressing room at Chicago Stadium after a game against the Blackhawks and said, “Are you writing a book about me?”

“Yes.”

“Well, if there’s one word – just one word – you’ll get your throat cut.”

There was a confrontation a few weeks after [the book] was released. I was at the Gardens covering a practice when Ballard appeared, which prompted the other reporters to walk over and talk to him. [Note: Ballard, despite his loathing for media, was an attention freak and did whatever he could to ensure that his name and photo would appear as frequently as possible in the paper]. I followed and then decided to ask a question to test his reaction. When he saw me, his face turned red and the sparks started to fly.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve to talk to me! Who told you you could talk to me?” he raged. “Go on, get outta here.”

“I’m just doing my job,” I said, which was something I found myself saying a lot around Ballard. “You don’t work!” he thundered. Then he started to come after me, fists up, getting ready to swing, face turning purple by now. At the last second, a couple of reporters stepped between us. His parting words were: “They should have smothered you when you were born.”

During that winter there was constant harassment. After a game, [Ballard] would yell out, “You fucking son of a bitch!” or some other choice endearment. I was covering a governors meeting where he saw me and said, “What are you doing here? Go on, get outta here! You’re nothing but a disease.”

Then, near the end of the 1984-85 season, we had a major confrontation. Again, it was at Leaf practice, this time at the North York Centennial Centre. By this time, I was getting sick of his bullying. About halfway through the practice, Ballard walked in with King Clancy at this side. When he saw me, it was the usual, “What are you doing here?!”

“I’m covering the practice, what does it look like I’m doing?”

“Go on, get outta here!”

“You don’t own this place. It’s a public arena,” I said. “I’m doing my job.”

“You don’t work! You’re the stupidest son of a bitch I’ve ever known.”

“I’m stupid?” I said. “You’ve got the worst hockey team in the league and I’m stupid? You happen to be the stupidist son of a bitch I’ve ever known.”

Ballard was taken aback and didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he said, “Where did you get that coffee?”

Outside the dressing room, the trainers kept a large urn of coffee for anybody who might be around – a coach, a scout or a reporter. When I told him, he roared, “That’s not your coffee! Who told you you could have it?!”

Do you want some money for it?” I said.

“Yeah.”

I took a dollar [bill] out of my wallet, went over to him, and threw it at his feet. As Ballard bent over to pick it up, Clancy stepped in and said in his high voice, “No, Harold, you can’t take the money! That’s his money!”

Then Ballard put his fists up and started coming after me again. But, before he could reach me, Clancy – who seemed about half Ballard’s size – stepped in front of him and held him back with two hands. “Don’t hit him, Harold!” screamed King. “Don’t hit him!”

BALLARD WATCHES A GAME IN THE EARLY-1980s FROM HIS FAMED “BUNKER” – A SMALL BOOTH JUST ABOVE ICE LEVEL IN THE NORTHEAST CORNER OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

*  *  *  *  *

Ballard’s draconian policies at the Gardens also caused abundant turmoil, including a memorable incident I was a part of after a game in February 1987. Houston wrote:

Ballard not only disapproved of women in the business of journalism, he wouldn’t let them into the players’ dressing room at the Gardens. This went against the spirit, if not the exact wording, of the NHL media bylaw. Still, for years, Ballard had successfully barred women.

In January [1987], Helene Elliott, a hockey reporter for Newsday of New York [now with the Los Angeles Times],decided to challenge the ban. To bar Elliott and not be accused of breaking the league bylaw, Ballard and his lawyer, Arthur Gans, used a strict interpretation that read: “Those clubs that follow a policy of excluding female reporters from the room shall be required to provide separate interviewing facilities for all press media, male and female.”

In simple terms, the Leafs barred everybody – male and female – from the dressing room. Instead, the players were brought to an adjoining room for interviews after games, thus equal access. But, this was unacceptable for the players and the media. It prevented a reporter from talking to a particular player alone, which can be done in the dressing room. And when the team was on the road, it denied the players their privacy. They had to leave the room for a public area – a hall usually, sometimes with only a towel wrapped around them – and answer questions.

Scott Morrison, hockey writer for the Sun and Toronto chapter chairman of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, sent letters to the NHL head office stating the dissatisfaction of the Toronto writers. But, nothing was done by the league. Finally, the hockey writers and sports editors of the three Toronto newspapers met to discuss the problem. It was decided they would test the ban.

So, in February of 1987, after the Leafs had defeated the Los Angeles Kings, 5-4, about 20 reporters walked into the dressing room after the game. [I was part of the group, still more than a year prior to joining The Fan-590]. The reaction from the players was one of shock and amusement. “What are you guys doing here?” said one. “Is this Christmas?” asked another.

The reporters and players chatted for perhaps a minute before Ballard stormed in. In seven years, I had seen Ballard furious many times, usually at me, but I had never seen him as upset as he was that night. But, instead of turning on the reporters, he berated Bob Stellick, brother of Gord Stellick, who had replaced [the late] Stan Obodiac as Leaf public relations director. Stellick had been powerless to stop us, but he faced the full force of Ballard’s wrath.

“What are these assholes doing here?!” Ballard roared. “Come on, get ’em the hell out of here! If you like working here, get ’em the hell out! Get the whole fucking bunch out. Grab ’em by the ass and throw them out! Take that camera and push it on the floor!”

Ballard was still screaming when Stellick asked the visitors to leave. As they walked out, not a word was said by anyone, so I decided to use the old line, “We’re just trying to do our job.”

“You don’t work!” Ballard roared. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back, you four-eyed cunt!”

SILLY OLD HAROLD A YEAR BEFORE HIS DEATH IN APRIL 1990.

*   *   *   *   *

The Leafs general manager through much of the ’80s was Gerry McNamara, a man that quite possibly despised reporters more than his boss. I had gotten to know McNamara and his family a few years earlier and found him to be a very nice man. So, I rarely had difficulty with him, though I wasn’t yet in the mainstream of Leafs coverage. McNamara could get angry with the best of them, but he took pride in never swearing. His relationship with the Globe and Mail was similar to Ballard’s, as Houston wrote:

McNamara would become offended if anyone suggested he swore. There was a somewhat comical exchange in 1984 between McNamara and Trent Frayne, who was a columnist for the Globe. A year earlier, Frayne had written a column supportive of McNamara in which he had been asked if Ballard interfered. McNamara was quoted as saying, “Not a damn bit.”

When they ended up standing beside each other in the press box, Frayne looked over and said, “Hello Gerry.” There was no answer. McNamara looked straight ahead. Frayne tried again. “Hello Gerry.” Still no answer. Finally, Frayne reached around; looked McNamara in the face, and said in a loud voice, “HELLO GERRY!” McNamara’s response was to turn away. Frayne said, “What’s the matter with you?” For some time, there had been tension between the Globe and Leaf management.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with you people,” McNamara said.

“Do you mean me; newspaper people in general, or the Globe?”

“Your lying newspaper,” he said. “You just make a lot of lies, you people.”

“Well, you’ve got one of the worst records in the league,” said Frayne. “You goals-against is terrible. What do you want us to do, pat you on the head?” Frayne also reminded McNamara of the positive article he had written a year earlier.

“You misquoted me,” said McNamara. “You had me uttering an oath.”

“It couldn’t have been too awful,” said Frayne, “or it wouldn’t have been in the paper. It might have been a hell or a damn…”

“I don’t use that kind of language,” snapped McNamara. “We don’t use that kind of language in the organization.”

Frayne could barely suppress a laugh considering Ballard was one of the most foul-mouthed people he knew.

GERRY McNAMARA, WITH LEAFS 1979-80 HIERARCHY (ABOVE-LEFT) AND SITTING WITH GM JIM GREGORY IN 1976 DURING PRACTICE AT NORTH YORK CENTENNIAL CENTRE.

*   *   *   *   *

When Leafs began the 1986-87 season with a surprisingly good record of 6-2-3, McNamara appeared on TV with host Ron MacLean between periods of a Nov. 5 encounter at the Gardens against St. Louis [MacLean had yet to replace Dave Hodge on Hockey Night In Canada; he’d been hired, initially, to work the Leafs’ mid-week telecasts] . Despite MacLean’s effort to discuss the team’s performance, McNamara felt it was pay-back time and he tore a strip off his many critics in the media, as Houston remembered:

McNamara started by saying the rebuilding of the team had been a long and painful experience. Then he quickly moved to the subject of Toronto sports journalists. “The media has taken a pretty good run at me, and a pretty good run at the hockey club. I can tell you, ah, heh, heh, I don’t take too many things lying down. I never have. I never will. And I can tell you I’m going to have my day.”

Then MacLean interjected with: “When the reviews were bad, you said ‘to heck with it, I’m not going to read them.’ Now that you’re winning, aren’t you curious?

“No, not really,” said McNamara. “Because it doesn’t make any difference what they say. First of all, when I look and see a piece in the paper – if I happen to read it – I take a look at who’s writing it. And I know quite a bit about these reporters; much more than they think I know about them. I look at the credibility of those reporters and I can tell you I can’t find too much credibility in a number of them. So, I look at myself and say ‘what do I worry about’? I’m still here. Some of those guys aren’t here any longer and they’re not writing hockey any longer. They’re missing. And, right now, they’re missing a good thing.”

MacLean attempted to get McNamara away from the subject of media by discussing the young players on the team.

“Once again, this didn’t happen overnight,” McNamara said. “Our scouts have done an excellent job; have been beating the bushes for five years. Once again, the media jumped all over those people and were really unfair – especially a national paper that heads out all over the country. Those scouts are out there on the road and they read about how bad they are, and it’s a tough thing. It’s tough to swallow. You know, it’s the old story: when I get wound up some day, we’ll, heh, heh, take the gloves off and we’ll go at it pretty good. I’d like to do that maybe in the future. I don’t think tonight I’d like to do it, but I’ve got lots of ammunition, believe me, and I’m not going to take it sitting down.

“I mean, there are lots of people… I see them around here. One thing I can tell you, there’s a lack of crows in the air these days. For whatever reason, they might even put a limit on them that you can take, because there are not many in the skies these days. There are lots of people eating crow, believe me. One, in particular, has a claw stuck in his throat because I see a big lump there. And, I’m going to get pretty nasty, I can tell you, and don’t think there’s anyone who can get as nasty as I can.”

Again, MacLean tried to lighten things up. “Don’t you think while you’re winning it might be best just to enjoy it and -“

“It’s got nothing to do with winning!” McNamara loudly interrupted. “This team is a good team. It’s all the things that happened. All these players who came along – not one has gone through without being heavily criticized, and that’s including Wendel Clark [chosen first, overall, in 1985].We were heavily criticized for taking him in the draft. All you have to do is look back in the papers and read what they said. You don’t see them saying that anymore. For some reason or other, those people have slunk – or probably slithered – into the background. And, we don’t see them anymore. And I know this: they’re going to take runs at me, but I could care less. I weathered the storm – believe me, I have.”

[After a commercial break, McNamara resumed his anti-media diatribe]. “Well, Ron, I think that all of you people, if you’re watching, and I don’t know whether you’re interested in what I say or not, but you wait and see the number of runs they’re going to take at me now. But, that’s okay. I’ve come through the worst of it. I’ve weathered it pretty good. And, my family has weathered it pretty well. It’s been extremely tough on my family. But, that’s okay. It’s time now for me to get my shots in, and I can tell you that nobody knows how to do that better than I can. If they think they have a pacifist by the tail, they don’t.

“I mean, watch the papers. They can take as many shots as they want. I’ll tell you – I’ll get my innings in.”

For the record, the Leafs won again that night to improve to 7-2-3. But, the club went 25-40-3 the rest of the way and finished 1986-87 fourth in the old Norris Division. Toronto upset St. Louis in six games in the opening round of the playoffs and then nearly advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals with a 3-1 lead over Detroit in Round 2. But, the Red Wings stormed back behind superb goaltending from Glen Hanlon to win three straight and the series in seven.

WENDEL CLARK: CHOSEN FIRST OVERALL MY McNAMARA IN THE 1985 NHL DRAFT AND ONE OF THE LEAFS ALL-TIME MOST POPULAR PLAYERS.

*   *   *   *   *

Ballard, who could be as racist as anyone, pulled rank whenever he saw fit. Houston wrote:

One day, in early-1981, Ballard sat in the stands at North York Centennial Centre watching his team practise when a man in a suit and overcoat – carrying a briefcase – walked into the arena and sat down with two reporters: Frank Orr [of the Star] and Suneel Joshi, who was working for CFRB radio. Ballard turned to Curly Davies, who operated the arena, and said, “Curly, who’s the fucking Indian?”

Davies said, “That’s Suneel Joshi. He works for CFRB.”

“Not that Indian,” said Ballard. “The other fucking Indian. Who let him into my practice?”

The man was Norm Caplan, an agent from Montreal. He was Jewish. When Ballard was told Caplan had received permission from [GM Punch] Imlach to attend the practice, Ballard said, “Punch Imlach does not pay the bills around here. I pay the bills and I don’t want any agents conducting business on my time. Tell [Caplan] to open a business on Bathurst Street or rent a room somewhere. Just get him out of here.”

Davies took Caplan to his office, where he remained until the practice was over.

*   *   *   *   *

Though Leaf battles with the media have continued through the years, it is difficult to imagine such nonsense being tolerated today. Of course, coverage of the team bears no resemblance to the pre-laptop/Internet era. Prior to the late-’90s, hockey fans got their information on radio during the day; television at night, and in print the next morning.

Toronto always had three newspapers: the Star, the Globe and Mail (distributed nationally) and either the old Telegram or its late-1971 tabloid-offspring, the Sun. The National Post joined the party in October 1998. TSN inaugurated all-sports TV in Canada in 1984 and CJCL AM-1430 in Toronto became The Fan-590, our country’s first all-sports radio station, in September 1992.

Before the sports-broadcasting genre, virtually all of the prime television and radio stations in Toronto covered the Leafs – CKEY (at the old AM-590 band) and CFRB-1010 sent reporters to Leaf home games and practices; offered regular sports updates during the day, and did extensive recaps in late-evening and early-morning. On the television side, CBC’s Toronto affiliate, CBLT Channel 5, and the flagship CTV outlet, CFTO Channel 9, also staffed workouts and home games, as did Global in later years.

Today, virtually all electronic coverage of the Leafs is handled by rivals at Rogers and Bell Media – Sportsnet-590 and TSN-1050 on radio; Sportsnet and TSN on television. Competition for listeners and viewers has perpetually increased over the past decade-and-a-half; a trend that offers no evidence of deceleration, though it will be fascinating to see how the climate might change if the unlikely Rogers-Bell coalition overcomes scrutiny by the Competition Bureau of Canada and is allowed to purchase Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Email: howardlberger@gmail.com

Twitter: Berger_BYTES

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4 comments on “Leafs Media Battles Are Legendary

  1. There are as many good stories,( the charities he supported ), as there are bad stories. Many people have a very rough exterior and a very soft interior ( Burke and Cherry ). People should be jjudged when things aren’t going their way – Burke with the loss of his son and Cherry with the loss of his wife – what did both bullies do? Burke gets involved with the right to play and Cherry starts up Roses House – go figure. As for Ballard his will went to charity, actions speak. Rant of the day; LEAF NATION > LEAF OWNERS > LEAF PLAYERS > LEAF MEDIA. ALL ON THE SAME = WINNING

  2. Great article Howard!
    The laughs were loosers in 80’s and bigger losers today..how sad..yet predictable.

  3. Great article Howard. I had heard about the Houston issues, but you laid it out pretty clearly. Nicely done!

    Cheers, Rick

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