A Terrible Night after A Terrible Hockey Defeat
VANCOUVER--All that was gained, lost.
What sport did for Vancouver last year, it did to Vancouver last night. And if this gorgeous, wealthy city was more than happy to benefit from the goodwill, joy and prosperity delivered by the Olympics last year, it has to now accept that the rioting and widespread lawlessness that struck the city core in the wake of the Canucks' Game 7 loss to Boston cannot be completely disassociated from sport, either.
The temptation will be to say this was a small group of people causing trouble, and that it had nothing to do with hockey.
Well, yes and no.
First, it wasn't a small group. We're talking hundreds, probably thousands, of citizens involved in the ugliness that erupted even as Gary Bettman was handing the Stanley Cup to Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Having been around other sport "riots," I can tell you this was a whole other level.
Vancouver was an ugly, dangerous city last night, and people got hurt. Frightening. Not just police cars on fire. Not just looting and tear gas. Stabbings. Vicious, fights. Wanton violence accompanied by the joyful whoops and hollering of young people who apparently believed they were part of something exciting and were having a great time.
The game ended at about 7:45 local time, and by midnight weary riot police were still trying to disperse crowds. As I watched from my hotel balcony on Burrard St., a line of riot cops walked up the street, police dogs barking, police sirens wailing, a police helicopter overhead shining a light down on the street.
When Montreal "fans" went wild two years ago after a first round playoff victory over Boston, it was contained to a small area of the downtown. Passersby watched it almost as a surreal sport unfolding, but unless you were in the middle of it, there seemed to be nothing to fear. It was over quickly.
Not this last night in Vancouver. It went on for hours. At one point, there were four separate areas where police were trying to stop violence and looting. People were left lying on the street covering in blood. Crazed young men smashed windows of stores and business, ignoring police commands to disperse, seemingly uncaring that they were being videotaped and photographed, as if they believed they were untouchable.
It was like the city had lost its mind. Over a bloody hockey game.
It was anarchy, and somehow, it was not just about Vancouver, a place where fans are encouraged by local media to believe there is a conspiracy to deny them ultimate success, but also about the Canucks. Everywhere you looked those who were committing crimes did so while wearing Canucks jerseys with Kesler, Sedin and even Bure across the back of the shoulders. Cop cars on fire with goons wearing Canuck sweaters dancing nearby. Just as Oakland Raider garb was once the choice clothing for California gangstas, now Canucks jerseys will be associated with this terrible night, a night which locals insist was much worse than what occurred 17 years earlier after Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers.
Last year after the Olympics, many of us felt the peaceful, joyful crowds that assembled every night in the downtown streets were the real story of the Games. I'll always remember the long yet happy lines outside The Bay, people waiting for hours just to get a chance to buy a piece of Olympic memorabilia. Last night, that same store was under siege, left with smashed windows, as if it had become a target rather than a peaceful gathering place.
There will be many questions to be answered about the police presence and how this was handled, or mishandled. It will be the big story, bigger than the shocking collapse of the Canucks, a team that sat atop the NHL all year and then was flattened in the Cup final by a determined Boston team. City officials promised they were ready and in control, but reports suggested the police presence was too light, and that police were simply overwhelmed by fast-moving mobs as they started fires and looted Sears, Chapters and London Drugs stores. How could they have been caught by surprise - again?
But more important will be what this, the riots and the ugliness, says not just about Vancouver, but about the Canucks' place in it. You can hardly blame the hockey team for what happened, yet at the same time its the Canucks who seem to be the match that lights the civic lawlessness in this city.
There's a strange mentality here that the NHL is out to get the Canucks, to deny them their rightful victories, and it's propagated by some very prominent media voices. There's always booing when Bettman tries to present the Cup, but it was deafening at Rogers Arena last night, an apparent expression of a belief that the NHL screwed the Canucks, that suspending defenceman Aaron Rome, for example, was unfair and unjust and part of some grand conspiracy.
People really believe this stuff. Even after the game, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault bitterly talked about a Boston "plan" to defeat the Canucks that was based on illegal hits after the whistle, implying the league had done nothing to keep the games fair.
It goes back to the hysterical reaction to the Steve Moore hit on Markus Naslund that precipitated the Todd Bertuzzi attack on Moore, one of the ugliest pieces of violence in NHL history. There's this suspicion that everything isn't above board, that Canuck players are treated more harshly. Even last night, there were wild rumours that Boston's Nathan Horton, injured by Rome's headshot earlier in the series, was going to play in the game, thus proving that his injury had simply been a pretence to deprive Vancouver of its chance to win the Cup.
There are many here who also fervently believe Toronto, and the rest of Canada, hates Vancouver and wants the Canucks to lose, which again fuels this bizarre sense of paranoia that permeates the hockey atmosphere in this town.
Did that paranoia create last night's riots? No. But its part of the story here, part of the anger and bitterness here, part of why a local reporter, angered that they were still blaring the music inside the arena last night long after the teams had left the ice, remarked, "Bloody Bettman" when he was told the music had to continue under orders from arena management.
Idiots and criminals created last night's ugliness. But hockey and this town's hockey atmosphere were part of it as well. You cannot pretend otherwise.