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The Globe and Mail

Win, lose or draw, a riot was all but certain

Riot officers keep a perimeter around two burning police cars in downtown Vancouver June 15, 2011.


Whether the Vancouver Canucks won or lost, the ingredients for a riot were present in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday night.

The cocktail for an extreme outburst of public disorder includes ready access to alcohol, a huge, young crowd pumped up on a sporting event and troublemakers who came armed with intent to start something.

"Sports are something that elicit strong emotions in people; we get caught up in the pride of our team. Win or lose, they lead to high arousal levels in people," said Toni Schmader, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. "When you have a few people who decide to start something, the crowd feeds on it like oxygen to a fire."

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In the aftermath of the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, a series of reports looked at what went wrong. Taken together, the conclusion was that inviting tens of thousands of people to watch a sporting event at uncontrolled outdoor venues is tough to control.

Large crowds can embolden people to misbehave in ways they would not otherwise. "Our research shows that in crowds people feel anonymous, it can make people feel less accountable," noted Prof. Schmader.

The makeup of the crowd counts. Solicitor General Shirley Bond was downtown on Wednesday before the game and observed "a very young, predominantly male crowd" that looked nothing like the family mix attending the packed but generally peaceful Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics celebrations.

Sports events like hockey that incorporate a degree of violence are more likely to arouse aggressiveness in those watching. "In sports such as tennis … crowd violence is unknown," noted a City of Vancouver report into the 1994 Stanley Cup riot.

That same report concluded that outdoor events are problematic. "Without specified access points, it is very easy for an event at an open site to get out of control as it is difficult to check for alcohol and control attendance and there is no way to evict people from the site."

Although the government did attempt to limit access to alcohol by closing liquor stores downtown at 4 p.m., bars and restaurants downtown were packed for hours in advance of the game, and liquor stores in other parts of town were busy, with high demand for purse-size liquor.

Ian Tostensen, president of the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association, said there are controls on over-serving liquor in bars, but the outdoor events had no such limits.

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"I thought the Olympic experience showed we had matured," he said. But in retrospect, he said Boston had it right when it moved to shut down the city to any kind of street parties on Wednesday night. "I don't think we are ready to have unsupervised, big parties in open areas."

Would the outcome have been different on Wednesday night had the Canucks won? Probably not.

A riot in 1990 in Detroit after the city's basketball team won the NBA title left seven dead. In 1992, the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship and 200 people were injured in the aftermath. In Montreal in 1993, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup and 168 people were injured.

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