COLUMN: Team and fans seek redemption

With the Canucks once again entering the NHL playoffs as a Stanley Cup favourite, Vancouver has revealed new plans for the riot-in-waiting.

With the Canucks once again entering the NHL playoffs as a Stanley Cup favourite, the City of Vancouver has revealed new and improved plans for the riot-in-waiting.

I was there in 1994, when the first Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver shocked Canadians. I lived just off Robson Street and only became aware of the carnage after tear gas flowed through my third-storey apartment. Heading down to street level, I remember seeing my neighbours angry about choking on pepper spray and seeing cops in riot gear outside our homes.

The police themselves were noticeably confused and fearful, Clearly it wasn’t a good mix. Fortunately the mood quickly dissipated along with the last of the tear gas. Soon, the residents and officers were enjoying free coffee together, courtesy of the corner Blenz store.

It was a surreal time, for sure. The rumour accompanying the rounds of cappuccinos was that small groups of thugs were to blame. Apparently they co-ordinated their looting with cellphones – still something of a novelty in 1994 – and cases of empty wine bottles, which were smashed to manipulate the police response and, in turn, disorient the crowd.  I should be clear that official reviews I’ve read of the riot don’t mention these specific tactics. For all I know, these conspirators only existed as a way for people to make sense of what we had just experienced.

After the anger and fear, it’s reassuring to have someone to blame.

The same thing happened last year, but, in keeping with the times, the new bad guys resembled characters from reality TV.

A young, water polo protegé was one of the first to face the lynch mob, followed shortly by a former Miss Congeniality.

The city’s new plan tries to balance a crackdown on booze in the downtown with concerns about coming off as a place that doesn’t know how to have fun. A thoughtful report, co-authored by Winter Olympic boss John Furlong, was released a few months after last year’s riot. Reading between the lines, there’s a sense that a lot of people made mistakes – from excitable kids caught in the moment to a city hall that thought it had seen everything after hosting Gold Medal hockey. But the Olympics are not pro sports.

Riots after club teams win championships are relatively common in North America, whether it’s for the NBA Lakers in Los Angeles, MLB Tigers in Detroit or the NHL Canadiens in Montreal.

The difference with Vancouver is that riots happen after the team loses. To be a Vancouver fan requires you to suppress a certain level of denial. Unlike the sad-sack Leafs or even the re-born Senators, fans of the Canucks can’t point to a time long ago when the team earned the right to hoist The Cup. You can tease an Oilers fan all you like, but you can’t take away the smugness that comes with cheering for a former dynasty. When Boston fans goaded Vancouver fans, it struck a chord with a primal immaturity with which many young men struggle.

When the Canucks crapped out in Game 7 4-0, fans lost their right to the swagger that comes with backing a winner. The sense of humiliation was palpable and, unfortunately, it seems too many fans tried to save face by lashing out where they could. It was a sign of a general immaturity among Canucks’ fandom that manifested itself in the worst possible way. Seeing images of a burning cop car makes it tough to think of a riot as a growing pain but hopefully last year was cathartic enough that such extremes don’t have to happen again.

Of course, something even more important has been lost in the debate over whether young morons or inadequate policing is more to blame. The riot itself, with damages estimated around $4 million, was a relatively minor event. It happened suddenly and was cleaned up quickly. It became bigger than life because of the comprehensive television coverage and unforgettable photos – I’d bet that infamous shot of the kissing couple is worth almost $4 million to Vancouver’s international reputation.

Here’s hoping the Canucks have a long and ultimately successful run once the playoffs get underway on Wednesday. Like many fans, I’m cheering for both a Stanley Cup championship and a chance to show the world we can celebrate without the mayhem.

Jim Zeeben is an Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks fan and an editor with Black Press in Greater Victoria.

jzeeben@blackpress.ca