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Vancouver Canucks fans watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe/The Canadian Press)
Vancouver Canucks fans watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe/The Canadian Press)

Gary Mason

Busting myths of Vancouver's destructive Stanley Cup riot Add to ...

Let's start with myth number one about the worst riot ever seen in the history of Vancouver: it was caused by a handful of hooligans.

No it wasn't. The mayhem we witnessed in the downtown core Wednesday evening and into the early hours of today was not the work of a few bad apples. There are thousands of people who are culpable for what happened - thousands.

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Yes, maybe it was only hundreds who were smashing and lighting cars on fire and breaking store windows and then stepping inside to take whatever they could. But behind them were thousands of mostly 20-something males who were cheering them on, who were shouting at police at the front of shaky barricades.

Many of them started fights, which consumed police and ambulance attention also.

And, behind all these people, were thousands more who weren't necessarily breaking the law but whose presence became a factor in how the police responded to the lawlessness. They were the curiosity seekers, the kids who were merely watching what was going on but wanted to take it in so they could tell their buddies about it all in the morning.

They were the ones with their camera phones out, taking pictures of themselves in front of burned-out cars. They wanted to place themselves in a historic moment. To think they were all going to go home because the police told them told them to is naïve.

To say this was a disgraceful, shameful moment for the city is stating the obvious at this point. But let's also be clear about another thing here: the people wrecking the city Wednesday night after the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins came from all over the region.

I talked to dozens who said they were from surrounding municipalities. To think this wouldn't be the case is stupid. Yes, it's the City of Vancouver with the black eye this morning, but it was delivered by thousands of morons who descended on the downtown core from all over.

How could this happen? How could the police appear to be so unprepared for what happened?

I think the Olympics lulled us all into a false sense of security about mass gatherings. For two weeks large crowds gathered downtown during the 2010 Games and nothing happened. The police strategy of "meet and greet" was widely applauded.

That's the concept where the cops take a more passive response with revellers and try to form an almost cordial relationship in the hopes it dampens prospects for violence. And as we saw, it worked to perfection over a year ago.

But the Olympic crowd was completely different than the fans that came downtown to watch the Canucks games. And please, please don't say: these weren't Canucks fans. They were Canucks fans, as much as people may wish that they weren't. And Canucks fans, I'm sorry to say, are quickly gaining the reputation for being the equivalent of English soccer fans.

And the police always have to bear that in mind.

From where I stood, amid the braying mob, the police did the best they could given they were massively outnumbered. They took action with some of those who were looting and car burning when they could get their hands on them. But charging into a crowd made up of thousands of people who were mostly onlookers was never going to be a winning strategy.

There are many who wish they'd had. And if some of those so-called innocent bystanders got hurt, if their curiosity cost them a broken arm or leg, well maybe that's what they deserved for ignoring repeated police requests to go home.

But you can imagine the outrage that might have generated as well.

When it comes to riots, police are almost always in a lose-lose situation.

Their strategy for policing this riot will be analyzed to death - and it should be. But the role that thousands of others played in this disgusting event needs to be scrutinized too.

It was certainly one of the darkest days in this city's history.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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