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Hockey Riot Vancouver: Myth and Fact

Time to set record straight on why a melee broke out last time Canucks made the finals.

Mark Leiren-Young 27 May

Mark Leiren-Young attended the two longest overtime games ever played on Canucks' home ice. He co-wrote the song "Hockey Nut in Canada", which was played at Vancouver home games throughout the '94 playoffs.

The moment Mark Messier hoisted the Stanley Cup, my friends and I turned away from the TV. We didn't need to see the celebration, hear the post-game post-mortem, watch players in the wrong jerseys pour champagne on each others heads. We left the apartment, took the elevator downstairs and walked the dozen or so blocks to Robson and Denman.

Walking up Robson Street it was clear this was a funeral, not a wake. A few people were drinking in the streets, mostly people were wandering aimlessly, looking a bit like zombies -- although none of them appeared to be searching for brains to eat. Not yet.

Then we reached what is now the corner of Starbucks and Starbucks -- Robson and Thurlow -- and I saw a uniformed police officer grab a beer can from someone's hand and dump the amber ale on the pavement. The officer came off as aggressive, abrasive and nervous and behaved exactly the way I'd expect a police officer to behave if he saw someone drinking in public. . . if there weren't tens of thousands of other people on the street, many of whom were now glaring at him. And that was when I realized what I wasn't seeing. . . The riot squad.

I started looking around Robson, Thurlow, the other side streets. We were at the epicenter of the city's street scene on a night when police not only expected tens of thousands of people downtown, they'd invited them -- a night that a local underground newspaper had jokingly or not called for looting. Where the hell was the riot squad?

Toronto the good?

Less than a year earlier I'd been in Toronto when the Blue Jays won their second World Series. I'd watched the last few innings -- and Joe Carter's heroic hit -- on a big screen TV at pretty much the dowtowniest part of downtown, the corner of Yonge and College. The police were everywhere. But it wasn't just ordinary police everywhere -- the riot squad was lining Yonge Street. There were officers on horseback, officers with Plexiglas shields and the uniformed officers I saw near people drinking in the streets all seemed to be looking the other way.

I saw fans climb on cars, shimmy up flag poles, drink -- a lot. I saw the police watch -- except when it looked like someone might get hurt.

There were estimates that over a million people were on Yonge Street that night and that night the city retained and reinforced its reputation as "Toronto the Good."

I wandered through the street celebration for hours. I knew next to nothing about baseball and wouldn't have recognized Joe Carter if he hit me with his bat, but it was one of the most amazing waves of euphoria I'd ever experienced. But I never doubted for a moment that part of the reason everyone behaved was because the riot squad was visible and the police officers in the crowd were completely calm.

It struck me that night that the point of a riot squad wasn’t to handle rioters, it was to use their presence to make it clear that rioting was a very bad idea.

As I heard the officer who'd grabbed the beer scold the now surly fan, I took one more glance around and saw only a handful of other officers -- and no riot squad. Then I turned to my two friends and said, "Let's get the hell out of here now before this gets ugly and they break out the tear gas."

My friends thought I was being paranoid, but I hadn't just been at the Jays victory party, I'd written a play about the Penticton Riot and a feature on the Gastown riot and I was absolutely certain that if crowd control on Robson consisted of frustrated beat cops dumping beer on the sidewalk things were going to get ugly fast. I was on the Cambie Bridge when I heard on the radio that the tear gas was flying in downtown Vancouver.

Not a hockey riot

Since that night Vancouver hockey fans have worn an international reputation as some of the sorest losers in sports history. Virtually every reporter in every medium covering the Canucks’ fantastic run this year has made at least one crack about rioting "hockey fans."

But what happened on Robson Street was not a riot by hockey fans upset about losing a hockey game, any more than the Black Bloc's attack on the Hudson Bay during the Olympics was a riot by Olympic fans frustrated because Canada didn't qualify for a slalom event.

In 1955, Montreal's Maurice "Rocket" Richard was suspended after getting into a fight with a linesman. NHL President, Clarence Campbell, attended the first game after the suspension and the crowd attacked him. The riot at the Forum led to a riot on the streets of Montreal. According to the hockey nerds at Wikipedia, "The riot caused an estimated $100,000 in property damage, 37 injuries, and 100 arrests."

In 1994, Canucks superstar Pavel Bure -- who went on to win the Rocket Richard trophy -- was thrown out of game three for pretty much the same infraction that only earned Rangers superstar Mark Messier a five minute major. If hockey fans were going to riot, that was worth breaking some windows over.

Mayor Phillip Owen used the riot to justify creating Vancouver's reputation as "No Fun City" -- the only city in the world that couldn't be trusted to hold a celebration on Y2K because of "the hockey riot."

When the global media cut from celebration to celebration, from time zone to time zone to show the millennium midnight madness the clock ticked 12 in BC and the world's eyes were on. . . Nanaimo. . . because we were the only city on earth that couldn't be trusted to set off fireworks without burning our fingers.

In January, 2000, Craig Jones wrote a story in the Sun about the Vancouver police and Philip Owen warning people not to publicly party downtown. "And if you disagree with them, you're met with something that in some ways is worse than a whack on the head: self-righteous lectures. "My God, man! Don't you remember the STANLEY CUP RIOT???" Philip Owen, our very popular Mayor and (not incidentally) the Chair of the Police Board, trots out that hoary old gem whenever his authority is questioned. Don't like the police unlawfully searching you downtown? REMEMBER THE RIOT!! Not fond of police moving you along Robson Street even though you’re not breaking any laws? THE RIOT, MAN! THE RIOT!!!!

Sports Talk all night

When I got home that night I called Dan Russell's Sports Talk to babble about the hockey game, the bad reffing, Trevor Linden's heroic effort. And while I was on hold rookie sportscaster, now Canucks play-by-play man, John Shorthouse spoke. If memory serves he had been on a rooftop and was tear-gassed. I remember him saying that if this was what it was like to win a Stanley Cup he hoped Vancouver never got one.

Then I heard Dan say he was taking "one last caller" before calling it a night and when the producer put me through I told him I was, "a first time caller, long time listener" before sharing my thoughts on what I believed I'd seen -- a riot that started because there was no police presence on Robson to deter it. Dan was hosting from New York and he couldn't believe what was going on in his hometown.

I told Dan he had to stay on the air as long as he could, that he had to give people a place to vent, to talk, to grieve, to hear they weren't alone. I'm sure I wasn’t that articulate, but apparently I was that convincing because he decided to keep taking calls until the morning show remaining on-air as the city's trauma counselor for seven straight hours.

Years later I interviewed Dan, asked him about his most memorable show and he told me about staying on all night. He looked pretty shell-shocked when I told him I was the caller who told him he should keep talking.

The day before game seven in '94 the "our word' column in the Province had smirked, "Two cities. Two very different scenes. . . A reporter is driving a colleague from Toronto back to his downtown Vancouver hotel, the easterner having previously questioned if people would ever truly become passionate about the Canucks-Rangers series. Upon arriving at the hotel, the two notice a long, orderly lineup weaving through the lobby and out onto the street. They are hockey fans wanting a glimpse of the Stanley Cup on display, it is past midnight. Contrast that against reports on the street scene in New York last week. Metal objects being removed for blocks around Madison Square Gardens. Hundreds of police on duty or on call, lined up dozens deep outside the employee entrance. Two snapshots of two very different cities. . . "

Crowd uncontrolled

The morning after the riot I found out where the "crowd control" squad was when things were starting to get unruly -- at the Robson Square Media Centre -- nowhere near the crowds, where the only people they were likely to deter from misbehaving were people looking for the ice rink.

I always wondered if the only reason we'd had chaos in the streets that night was because even though New York had riot police on display someone decided it wouldn't look good to see riot police on TV in Vancouver.

Instead we saw over 100 arrests, nearly a million dollars in damages, approximately 200 people injured -- including one man who was hit by a rubber bullet and ended up in a coma for so long that by the time he woke up Mark Messier had switched hockey teams.

Philip Owen blamed, "hooligans" and "societal issues." I blamed Philip Owen.

In his PhD thesis Crime and Policing in Front of the Television Camera, Aaron Doyle (now a professor at Carleton) notes that the police had been forewarned there could be trouble that night and that this was the first real action the city's crowd control unit had ever been involved with. Doyle cited Sun columnist Malcolm Parry's account where he said he was, "mingling with prudence but little fear at the centre of the crowd until an unannounced tear gas barrage drove us, blinded and retching, along Robson Street. Most present likely will agree that crowd violence suddenly escalated about the police squad's unannounced and disorienting action."

A witness at one of the three post riot inquiries – a dentist -- stated that despite police claims to the contrary, not a single window on Robson was broken before the tear gas flew.

But Doyle noted that the three reviews of the riot, "were structured to deflect blame from police. . . In fact, the reviews were structured so that television itself instead came to be a convenient scapegoat, case as one of the culprits responsible for the riot. (p. 139). . . for the City, the media was apparently a much more acceptable scapegoat politically than the police."

According to a story in the Vancouver Province (Feb. 9, 1995), "The Vancouver police department's 200-page report stated that, "the police loud-hailer failed, communications crashed, police ran out of tear gas and the call-out system used to bring in extra members was caught in a voice-mail runaround."

Learning how to party

After Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal for Team Canada I squeezed into the wall to wall high five vortex at Granville and Robson surrounded by more people than I realized lived in BC. I didn't see a riot squad, but I did see police. . . everywhere.

And a few nights ago after leaving GM Place still in shock at the goal Bieksa scored with a puck every bit as mischievous as the Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream -- and with the same magical ability to vanish into thin air -- I joined the joyous mob on Granville. Once again, police were everywhere – part of the celebration, but watching it too.

Since the Olympics this is a city that has learned how to play downtown and learned how to party. Instead of Mayor Owen's approach to Y2K, the city is hosting a party throughout the Finals. Fans – actual hockey fans – can watch the Finals on Hamilton Street at CBC Plaza, there are party zones and street closures and the away games will be televised live at Rogers Arena so everyone can be part of the action.

The "joke" about Vancouver "fans" is that we only riot when we lose.

I don't believe for a moment we're going to lose the next round and considering the way the Canucks usually dominate eastern teams and how the east's two allegedly unbeatable goalies are floundering, I'm not even convinced that we're going to lose a game in the series. I also don't believe that if the police are as visible, friendly and professional after the Canucks' next big night as they were when we celebrated sinking the Sharks that this city's ever going to see another "hockey riot."  [Tyee]

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