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The Globe and Mail

Hockey can bring out the violence in peaceful Canadians

A rioter in downtown Vancouver, who gave his name as Sean Yates, holds a mannequin during the riots in Vancouver, June 15, 2011.


A few months ago, a Finnish ice hockey official told me a story about his young son.

One day at the supper table, junior confidently announced he would grow up to play for the NHL's Anaheim Ducks, following in the footsteps of the "Finnish Flash" Teemu Selanne. The father said "very well," and told the son that they would enroll him at a hockey camp somewhere on the Prairies during the family's cross-Canada holiday this summer.

"I told him at the end of those two weeks, a pint of blood would be spilled," the father said. "Maybe it's Canadian blood, more likely it's your blood, but mark my words, at the end of those two weeks, you will know what it takes to be a Duck. Because you will see how much hockey means to every Canadian boy."

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He shared the story because our running joke is that Canadians are the most peaceful people on Earth... until we get near a hockey rink.

That's where our violent worst reveals itself.

That's where tap-the-ankle menace and vigilante codes are justified by the participants and the public. You win by any means, and you take your frustrations out in the third period of blowout losses. Or on the streets of your own city, as was the case Wednesday in Vancouver.

Hockey is a sport that solves its problems with violence, so as much as the Canucks want to distance themselves from the mayhem in the aftermath of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, understand that the riots were not confined to an organized group of anarchists, as officialdom suggests. Perhaps started by anarchists, but not confined to them.

Some Canucks fans went bad in the hours after a 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins. Some took advantage of the situation, and vented their frustrations like Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore.

To believe otherwise is to fool yourself, because you don't need a nice-guy licence to be a sports fan.

Nearly nine million Canadians watched Game 7 on television, and not all of them are angels. More than 100,000 took to the streets of downtown Vancouver, and evidently some of them are hooligans.

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They looted, they beat up peacemakers, they targeted Bruins sweaters.

Canadians love hockey, and we should. It's part of the national identity, it shows off our best athletes, it brings us glory, and it's a rare vehicle of coast-to-coast patriotism. But Vancouver is now that Canadian town that erupts and burns when it loses the Stanley Cup. Happened in 1994, got worse in 2011.

Tough to argue otherwise against an international audience that saw the disturbing pictures. Just 16 months ago, at the 2010 Olympics, that same constituency was singing this city's praises.

Those responsible for explanations have gone to great pains to point out that it is a minority of hockey fans who participated in the destruction, and of course that's true. But the point is that Vancouver's minority is large enough to have brought the city and country shame.

The hockey world sees the ugly underbelly of the Canucks fan base, the perception now well beyond whining and conspiracy theories. So like it or not, Vancouver and the Canucks have an image problem, and when their 41st NHL season begins next fall, the theme is redemption -- and not just on the ice.

The team will have to root out its bad apples, aided by city hall, the police, and the responsible Canucks fans who deplore these lunatics in like colours.

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Because the social value of sport is that it unites citizens under a common banner, lets them express civic pride through the home team, and experience joyous environments.

Today, there is a distrust of gatherings, pride is hard to come by, and there is no joy. And if it's come to that, than it's ruined for everyone.

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About the Author
B.C. sports correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Matthew spearheads the Globe's sports coverage in B.C., and spends most of his time with the NHL Canucks and CFL Lions. He has worked for four dailies and TSN since graduating from Carleton University's School of Journalism a decade ago, and has covered the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Grey Cups, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the NBA Finals. More

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