As a recent Canadian, born and raised just outside Boston in the era of Orr and Esposito, I watched this Stanley Cup series much more closely than I ordinarily would. As someone well-acquainted with vandals (from my work with juvenile delinquents), I also took a keen interest in the aftermath. Hockey is not really my game, but for the past two weeks it was: I bought the magnet; I wore the hat; I had the butterflies, and – to the alarm of my young children – I exhibited those violent, involuntary physical responses so many fans had to all the appalling moments this series offered up. Downtown with my family for Game 5 – the last good time Canucks fans had – we were all impressed by the trash, and by the overwhelmingly positive fan vibe reverberating through the city as we whooped, chanted and high-fived our way through the crowds on Georgia and Granville streets. Was this a city capable of rioting? Sure. But, with the exception of Singapore, what city isn’t? If I had paid seven large to see Wednesday’s game, I might have felt like rioting, too.
But seriously, what followed had little to do with fans or the game’s outcome. Rather than being some sinister revelation about the city’s character, I’d say Vancouver’s (second) post-game outburst was banal mayhem, nothing more – just a louder echo of the hooliganism of ’94, amped by sheer numbers and blow-by-blow social media. All in all, these events struck me as eerily passionless, as contrived as a tantrum. So, what does it say about our city? Nothing that can’t be said about most other North American cities. I’m just glad nobody died.
The fact remains that there are those among us who, to quote one of them, just like to bust stuff up. So they did. Both vandals and berserkers maintain a place in the spectrum of society; judging from what I saw over the last seven games, the NHL tacitly rewards the latter, and many fans crave to see them in action. To ignore the fact that the game of hockey appeals to and enflames an impulse toward entropy is to ignore an elephant in the living room. I know this from the feeling in my own guts, and from watching my children’s faces. Call it NASCAR on ice, but you’re lying if you’re not secretly hoping to see a good crash. I was at Daytona when, after a 20-car eruption of steel and rubber, the young man next to me, said, verbatim, “Now I’ve been de- de- de-virgin-ized!” Hockey’s not so different: when else are you going to hear a gentleman and devoted father growling, “Hit him! Hit him!’ in front of his own daughter? Outside of professional wrestling, hockey is the most violent, rabble-rousing spectacle on TV. Boxing is tame by comparison – at least it has consistent rules.
Win or lose, hockey or curling, I think the hype, hope and numbers anticipated Wednesday night sent a notice to hellraisers and wannabes throughout the Lower Mainland that this was their moment. Alleged gaps in security – a welcome feature of a free society – allowed the gas, hammers and other ‘riot gear’ into downtown and, because most of humanity are followers by nature, the drunken some followed the instigating few while the feckless many caught it all on camera.
Vandalism is a negative ad for yourself, and the damage done was, frankly, bush-league. When you don’t have a life and otherwise can’t get laid, breaking things can briefly fill the void. Social media has created a platform for these lifeless ones, providing instant, unearned notoriety on the thinnest of pretexts; i.e., because they posted it. Even so, I think this post-game havoc would have happened anyway – Facebook or no Facebook. If this “riot” – an overstatement – says anything about Vancouver, it is “mediocrity.” But I’m not reading that much into it. ’94 made a mess and so has this; the biggest difference is that, this time around, many more Vancouverites – and Canucks fans – stepped in to manifest their pride and help clean up their city, and that is powerful. That, I believe, is the takeaway from Wednesday night.
Vancouver writer John Vaillant is the author of the award-winning bestseller The Golden Spruce, and, most recently, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, a No. 1 bestseller and winner of this year's BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.