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A message written on the plywood covering the windows of the damaged Hudson's Bay Company store in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday June 16, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press)
A message written on the plywood covering the windows of the damaged Hudson's Bay Company store in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday June 16, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press)

What went wrong in Vancouver? Add to ...

Vancouver's mayor and chief of police are disavowing any failure on their part to avoid the biggest riot in the city's modern history, even as security experts - including one who wrote a postmortem on the last Stanley Cup riot in 1994 - raise questions about complacent and inadequate preparations.

Mayor Gregor Robertson laid the blame for the Wednesday riot on a small group of determined vandals who had a scheme to rampage through Vancouver, with his office saying police had identified several violent protesters from the Olympic Games. The mayor and police base that assessment on the gear some people brought into the Stanley Cup celebration zones in the downtown, including hammers, balaclavas, and lighter fluid.

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"That group was at the core of it. They are the hoodlums who started the problem. … They were there to commit crimes and wreak havoc," Mr. Robertson charged.

But the co-author of a B.C. Police Commission report on the city's last night of sports infamy said more than violent vandals are to blame for the destruction: Police failed to learn the lessons from that earlier rampage.

"Complacency, apathy, denial, that's what I saw last night," Bob Whitelaw said.

He said he is disappointed at the time it took for police to react to the initial outbreak, and that vehicles and potential projectiles should have been removed from the areas where crowds were expected to mass. Another security expert, Steve Summerville, president of Ontario-based Stay Safe Instructional Program and a former Toronto police staff sergeant, questioned why more officers weren't on the ground.

Vancouver police, however, are refusing to issue a precise count of how many officers were deployed, saying only that "hundreds" were deployed for a crowd pushing toward 100,000. Asked why more riot police had not been assigned downtown, Mr. Robertson said the number was based on two months of experience policing the outdoor crowds. But Mr. Robertson said what happened Wednesday night was a "very different beast."

Unlike the Olympics, Mr. Robertson said, police did not have a billion dollars worth of security that could do intelligence work ahead of time.

Television footage and witness accounts of Vancouver's riot on Wednesday do show some vandals outfitted with the arsenal of anarchists, but there were also hundreds armed with nothing more than impromptu weapons, including ice-laden drinking cups.

Heading into Game 7, Vancouver had a pair of collective memories: the joyful outdoor celebration of the 2010 Olympics, where thousands commingled in celebration; and the dark experience of 1994, when, then as now, a Stanley Cup loss plunged the heart of the city into chaos.

Critics say the city should have been better prepared for the second scenario and, as Mr. Whitelaw notes, wonder whether the Olympic experience instilled a false sense of security.

Until Wednesday night, the city had handled - without serious incident - vast downtown crowds of up to 100,000 people, watching the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup on jumbo video screens in fenced-off fan zones.

The overwhelmingly peaceful results when the hockey team won echoed the spirit of the throngs in the streets during the 2010 Winter Games.

Using "meet and greet" tactics that worked successfully during the Olympics and run-up to Wednesday night's game, which had police mingling with the crowds and high-fiving celebrants, police were confident they had turned the corner at avoiding violence.

But always, lurking in the background, were fears of a repeat of the 1994 outbreak of violence that also followed a loss by the Canucks in the seventh game of a Stanley Cup final.

Today, the mayor, along with much of the city, is suffering collective shame and embarrassment as media across the world pick up on Vancouver's second outbreak of hockey hooliganism. In order to avoid a repeat, the city will search for an explanation from a confection of factors: rampant alcohol consumption, large numbers of excitable young men crammed into a fenced-off space, an emotional loss, too few police officers - and an over-reliance on the positive outdoor experience of the Olympics and previous playoff games.

Unlike the Stanley Cup riots in 1994 that followed a similar final game loss by the Canucks, trouble started the moment the game ended.

A car was quickly overturned and torched - the first of several - fistfights broke out, and port-a-potties trashed. There was no slow start to violence. It was immediate, and escalated for hours.



With reports from Sunny Dhillon and Mark Hume

Follow us on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh, @justine_hunter

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