Friday July 31st, 2009

There's a chilling scene at the end of Tod Browning's 1932 classic film Freaks in which the titular sideshow denizens welcome a new, if somewhat unwilling, member to their extremely closed society.

"Gooble, gobble, we accept you," the freaks chant. "We accept you. One of us."

One of us. After a tempestuous meeting Wednesday in Chicago, any slim hope that Jim Balsillie still held of earning that outsider's welcome from the NHL's Board of Governor's was effectively crushed.

Not that the outcome of the vote, a resounding 30-0 defeat, was all that surprising. The process was all part of the legal dance around the money pit that is the Phoenix Coyotes. In order to play nice for the courts, Balsillie had to apply for admittance to the club. The league, to protect its own interests, had to stand united in opposition. No shock that everyone's ducks remained neatly in row.

No, it was the enmity of firing squad he faced. These guys didn't aim a single bullet to the heart. They set the guns on automatic and kept the triggers depressed.

Sources have reported that George Gillett, the soon-to-be-ex-owner of the Montreal Canadiens and a man not counted among Gary Bettman's inner circle, led the charge, excoriating Balsillie for leaking word last November to a Montreal paper that the Habs were on the block. He even went so far as to blame Balsillie's loose lips for pulling the rug out from under the team, leading directly to their flop of a season.

Guess that lets Carey Price and his glove hand of cement off the hook. Same with the long, lifeless stretches from Alexei Kovalev. And Bob Gainey for constructing a team ill-suited to compete against the best in the East. Seriously, those guys should send Balsillie flowers.

The failures of his team aside, Gillett did have reason to be angry. It's thought that he himself told Balsillie of his intentions to sell the club during a conversation initiated as part of a reaching out effort by the BlackBerry billionaire. Now, the logic of sharing information that delicate with someone he barely knew can certainly be debated, but it was Balsillie's betrayal of Gillett's trust that created the storm of wrath.

The anger of former Nashville (and current Minnesota) owner Craig Leipold was similarly based. Leipold felt Balsillie burned him by misappropriating the logo of the Predators and by soliciting ticket sales in Hamilton, Ontario, before any deal was completed. Again, a reasonable point of contention.

So while Balsillie may be the most financially sound suitor sniffing around the near lifeless Coyotes (not that that's been a concern in the past to a league that's approved scam artists like Boots Del Biaggio, John Spano and others of questionable fiscal health), he himself laid the groundwork for their dismissal of his character and integrity. He can point fingers at Bettman and the league's supposed anti-Canadian bias all day long. It was his stubborn belief that a big enough number on the check bought him the freedom to go his own way that made Wednesday's vote a formality.

I have to admit here: I've been pulling for Balsillie to get his hands on an NHL team for a long time now. It's nothing against the fans in Phoenix, whose team would be packed into a fleet of U-Hauls before the ink dried on the transfer agreement if he miraculously emerges victorious from this ridiculously plotted soap opera of a court case. Just like it wasn't a knock on the good folks of Nashville or Pittsburgh when he was pursuing their franchises.

It's certainly not the rah-rah nationalism of his "Make It Seven" campaign or any particular desire to see a team in Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo or wherever he eventually decided to plant the Fightin' BlackBerries.

It's just that a league filled with a dozen Jeremy Jacobs clones desperately needs a maverick like Mark Cuban. Granted, the man has made himself a lightning rod for criticism. He's a lousy dancer, he needs to lay off the ref-baiting, he has an embarrassing haircut (like I should talk on that point) and his occasional journeys outside the bounds of acceptable behavior have financed a new wing at the league's headquarters.

But there isn't an owner in the NBA, maybe in all of North American sports, who cares as passionately about his team, about winning and about creating new fans as Cuban. And for all his arrogance and ham-handedness, there's little doubt that Balsillie would be just as dedicated to the cause. Any fan of a team owned by him could go to bed at night dreaming of a chance at a title instead of what prospect they'd be drafting with that top-10 pick.

But passion --or increased franchise value -- isn't as prized as playing along with the men who pull Bettman's strings. And so, to no one's surprise, the BoG unanimously approved Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reindsorf and his consortium at the same meeting.

And why not? Remember, this is a man so intimately devoted to the future success of the Coyotes that his bid includes not one single dollar from his own deep, personal coffers. A smart play given the financial situation in Phoenix, but a curious one from a man who reportedly told then-MLB commissioner Fay Vincent that he despised him and NBA commish David Stern because they had no money invested in the sport. And also a man who felt so much affection for his Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls that he said he'd trade all six of his NBA championship rings for just one World Series title.

Even though he finally won it in 2005, one can only imagine how highly he would prioritize a property that seems destined to face considerable hardship both on the ice and in the accounting offices for the foreseeable future.

But hey, to the members of that exclusive fraternity, he's viewed as one of them. After all, he's good enough for the more exclusive MLB and NBA clubs. Plus, he's an anti-union hawk and also the leader of the coup that ousted Vincent from the MLB commissioner's office back in 1992. That's good people!

Still, after all this, nothing has been decided, and like that villager being carted away during the Black Plague scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Balsillie isn't quite dead yet. His fate still lies in the hands of Judge Redfield T. Baum, whose concern is how best to serve the interests of the Coyotes creditors, not preserving the integrity of the NHL's clique. His next step is to consider the postponement of the auction scheduled for next Wednesday among bidders who wish to keep the team in Phoenix.

Expect that to happen. And expect Balsillie to keep fighting. But at this point, you have to wonder why he'd still want to be part of a club that so obviously does not want him as a member.

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