Saturday, June 18, 2011

In the Aftermath of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot

Repeat visitors to this blog will know that I'm not shy about using opportunities to show off the local scenery. By now the images from Wednesday's night Stanley Cup aftermath will have spread around the world... and even though it the mayhem was the work of core group of hooligans, none of us in the Greater Vancouver area felt any pride in our city the day afterward.

To know Vancouver's history is to also know the anxiety we feel about large public gatherings and unrestrained demonstrations of community pride, and by the end of Wednesday night, history had repeated itself in the worst possible way.... which was to say that it was even worse than before.

A little bit of local history. Vancouver loves hockey. There can be no truer fact. Vancouver also loves the Canucks...when they don't hate them. This is an unfortunate fact. Over the 40 years of history, there have been three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, but nothing to show for it. The last time was 17 years ago, just after a game 7, after a season of so much promise. Just like this time.

Only it was so much more innocent back then. As the Canucks advanced through the playoffs, more and more people congregated into the downtown core, looking for a place to celebrate with other people.. looking for a greater sense of shared community. Vancouver doesn't have a place like this... we don't have a Times Square like new York or a Shibuya like Tokyo. The lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery has seen many spontaneous gatherings over the years, but we really don't have a place that says "This is where you go when you want to be there for that big thing." So we make up our own places. We congregate at the corner of Robson and Thurlow. We camp out on the stairs of the Library. We flood the club district on Granville street.

And so it went during 1994, until that fateful Saturday, when people came into the downtown core early to stake their spot, often at whatever watering whole they could find. So by the time the game had finished, there was this toxic combination of booze, disappointment and rowdy people all gathered at once. And to be honest, "riot" is a misnomer. The events of 1994 started off as a celebration. It degenerated into a riot, but people where there to genuinely cap off a memorable Cup run. But alas, the night dragged on, and so did the mayhem and disappointment.

Plenty of other cities have had sports riots. The damage from ours lingered for a very long time. If you've been to Vancouver, you'll know it's a very international city. It's a mix of all sorts of Europeans, Chinese immigrants, Japanese and Korean language students, Australians on working vacations, and tourists from all over the world. There's a deep desire to be a world class international metropolis... the Geneva on the Pacific, if you will. At the very least, we ought to put Toronto in their place.

At times it borders on be neurotic, almost needy, but if you've been here, you'll know that we pretty much have little choice. We have to be world-class because the world is already here. But mixed in with that is good old Canadian self-doubt about what our place in the world really is.

For a long time afterward, there were no more large gatherings of note. The next time New Years Eve came, no civic celebrations were planned and the police were out in force... the year ended in a depressing and rainy somber note. The summer fireworks festivals went on, but always with the dark hint of the Stanley cup riots lingering on the city's psyche. Mass crowds always attract hooligans and booze, and every fireworks night ended up with some sort of mayhem, no matter how localized or well controlled. Yet, in all of that, the world was still watching us. These were international fireworks competitions after all.

And then came the Olympics. It was not only about hosting the world, it was also our chance to vindicate the error of 1994 and prove that we had matured as a city. What happened last year was nothing short of spontaneous, it was the same old feeling again, of the early days of the cup run and people just wanting to be with each other in the downtown of one of the most beautiful places on earth. It was a more innocent crowd as well. Not just party revellers and kids looking to get trashed at the local nightclub, but families, and children and tourists and visitors. And an outpouring of patriotic red and white laid bare for all to see. We weren't just out there to own the podium, we were there to claim back a part of ourselves that we had lost on that Saturday night in 1994. Vindication.

Expectation. This year's team was on paper and on ice, an even better team than the one in 1994. Except for a heartbreaking end to the final series. But to be honest, in the aftermath of both cup runs, it doesn't matter. Both teams were pretty special. Vancouver still has a special memory for the underdog team that went to the finals in 1982 and which subsequently got trounced by the Islanders.Maybe we got complacent. I think there was a naive hope that the goodwill from the Olympics that we had turned a corner for good, that Vancouver was forever a changed city. We didn't just let people wander into the downtown core, we encouraged it. On the night of the final game, more than 100,000 people came to watch the game outside of the stadium on temporary screens. 100,000 fans. But even before the game was finished, the hooligans broke out. It all happened so fast. The families and sensible people got the hell out of dodge. That left the hardcore hooligans and the people who didn't know any better to start the fray. But you've seen enough pictures of that by now.

I wanted to show you what happened afterward.

The day after, people started organizing Facebook groups to share pictures and photos of the perpetrators. While the city was waking up to one of the most depressing days ever, a Facebook group had organized to get volunteers out to help clean up mess. I have a friend in city works who was very appreciative of this. Then people started writing messages... of condolence, regret, hope, encouragement... on the boarded up windows of the the flagship Hudson's Bay store. Lots of messages. Thousands of messages...

There are a lot of out of town visitors in the crowd above. A lot of them had the joyously bemused "What is going on?" look that so many visitors had last year during the Olympics. This morning the police found one of their cars covered in yellow sticky notes with messages of thanks for serving on the night of the right. The officer that was interviewed on the radio was choking up with emotion. Throughout the day the stickies kept piling on, until they hoisted the car off the street until it became a little makeshift shrine.


It wouldn't be completely the true to say that the Canucks are just another pro sports team with a rabid following. We had an NBA franchise at one time, and the fans really did try to make it work, even if the league didn't have it's heart in it. Imagine New York without the Yankees, or Chicago without the Bulls. That's what this team is to us. And they give back generously as well, putting in ample amounts of time of community outreach and service.The squad from 94, even though they didn't bring the hardware home, are still cherished figures to this day. As their marketing has said, "We are all Canucks", and darned if we haven't bought into that.

The bad memories of this riot will likely stick around for another 17 years. Our Canucks may not get as good a chance at the cup for some time. If we would do it over again, I'd have us win game 7 every time, but if I'm honest, I think we would have only ended up happier. Despite the bitter aftertaste, we have been wiser for every time that we didn't win Lord Stanley's Cup.

But not much more than a year after the Olympics, Vancouver is once again seeing a great historic moment on it's feet, and who knows what more will be in store as the city picks itself up off the ground. If there is one thing we've had to be, it's that we've had to find reasons for celebrating other than winning, and meaning in things other than being number one, because that doesn't happen too often in this city. As the police said on Wednesday night, "The situation is still fluid."

1 comment:

  1. It’s scary and frightening how people can react when a team wins or loses a big game. It’s just sports! I hope every fan who caused all of that property damage is held civilly and criminally liable. The courts must send a message that violence can’t be tolerated.