Hockey is a big deal here in Canada. As many as 1 in 3 people wear their favorite Vancouver Canucks player's jersey on game days, an impressive show of support and a rare, almost surreal, sight on the streets. Seas of blue and green clad Vancouverites flood the downtown core to catch the game from outside the sports arena on game days; broadcast on a half a dozen theater-sized screens on the closed streets.
This is the first time in almost 20 years that the Vancouver Canucks have had their shot at the Stanley Cup, and the fans wanted it. Bad. People were near the end of their ropes as tension built throughout the playoffs, with Vancouver and Boston coming in neck and neck in the finals, tied 3-3 in the seven game series. The final game was to take place on home turf, and over 100,000 hopeful Canucks fans flocked downtown from the greater Vancouver area to see history in the making.
Only this time, the history wouldn't be something worth celebrating.
In order to get a seat at a pub with a view of the game, hockey fans had to arrive around noon. I even got off work an hour early so Rachel and I could experience the once-in-a-lifetime level of excitement downtown. Many other fans took the whole day off - six hours of drinking combined with a shut down score of 0-4 enraged the ever-passionate Vancouver Hockey fans, mostly young men, who then took to the streets. The following depicts our experience of the 2011 Vancouver Hockey Riots.
Rachel and I watched the first two periods at home and then walked downtown to see the fabled crowds and the end of the game. It was a beautiful day. This event had really taken hold of the city's residents - the sun was shining, which is rare in Vancouver, especially this year, and yet, there wasn't a single person at our usually overflowing tennis courts..
..nor on the seawall..
..nor in the streets. The Canucks were down 0-2 when we left home. I said to Rae, "I hope we don't have to see a bunch of sad faces, I want the Canucks to win just for the general happiness it will bring to the city!" We had no idea about the kind of crowd we were about to face off with.
Then we found them. People were already leaving as we arrived, the score was 0-3. Boston. The mood was general disappointment, but not rage or anger. Most of the crowd reminded me of kids at a homecoming game, nothing more exciting than that, just on a grander scale.
We watched a few plays on the screen at Canada Place before heading to the Georgia and Granville intersection - I wanted to see what 100,000 people all wearing the same shirt looked like.
It was mostly young kids, people under 20. They were all proceeding home quietly and civilly. I assume they were dispersing early to get on public transportation before the crowds. The game wasn't over yet - but the fans knew it was over - there's no coming back from 0-3 in the last 5 minutes.
The first Police presence we saw were a handful of officers with video cameras on poles. This started to entice the young crowd a bit, but nothing you wouldn't see in a Middle School hallway. One group of teenagers jokingly chanted "riot! riot! riot!" - if they only knew...
Out of nowhere, a Police van erupted into the crowd. People had to leap out of its way. The climate was turning.
It was a SPECTACLE. Before this vehicle arrived, people were proceeding home like herded cattle. Suddenly, they had something to tweet about, and the teens and young adults swarmed the Police Van taking photos out of a sense of fear or disbelief or awe. 6 or 8 officers emerged from the vehicle, completely clad in riot gear, and immediately set off a flash-bang, whose smoke you can see in this photo. Rachel was getting a little bit scared at this point, so we decided to try to take refuge at our friend Karl's house a few blocks away.
The flash-bang had frenzied the young crowd, this was the beginning of the riot. I know now that the Police Vans had been dispatched throughout the area, responding to a flipped vehicle a few blocks away. Some fans were angry and began throwing things at the officers and tipping over portable restrooms. The oppressive and aggressive sight of the police really changed the crowd's attitude - I can't emphasize that enough - but the Police did nothing to provoke this new behavior. The police drove to the heart of these crowds to 'control' them, but the result was the exact opposite. In the distance we heard some very loud yelling and saw smoke start rising - in the same direction as our 'safe house' at Karl's.
We retreated towards Karl's down Georgia street. The smoke was a black, sooty, billowing mass; flames were almost two stories high at this point. We decided to circumvent the chaos and take a detour around the block. I was in a state of awe, I COULD NOT BELIEVE this was happening. Because of Hockey? Unfathomable.
Like I said, it was truly a spectacle. Later I would find out that this was the epicenter of the 'riot' - this one burning car on Georgia street. I had no idea we were that "in-the-thick-of-things" - after all, only 5 minutes ago the crowd was docile and proceeding home. Now, most people just wanted to get a glimpse of what was going on from a safe distance, enabling the few drunken young men breaking things and generally tarnishing the city's reputation whether they knew it or not. (my guess is not)
Garbage was everywhere. Yet, it was not a scene of utter chaos. More like a freeway accident where things slow down so people can get a glimpse and then be on their way.
After our detour, we looked back up towards the burning car. The fire department was able to extinguish it without issue, and we were almost to Karl's.
Nobody could believe what was going on. We heard countless young kids saying "people are so stupid" and "oh my God!" - the majority of the crowd could not believe what was happening before them, and was captivated by the chaotic behavior exhibited by the minority.
The game attendees hadn't even finished exiting the stadium and one car was already burned to a crisp metal hull.
Karl wasn't home, so we made our way back to the West End along the outskirts of downtown. On our way, we saw firsthand the overtaxed public transportation. This was one of the biggest problems - people hung around downtown watching the chaos because they couldn't get home. Minutes later, we saw a dozen Police vans speeding down the bike lanes and back towards Georgia followed by a cavalry of Mounted Police Officers. We later learned that storefronts had been broken and looting had began. Unbelievable.
We were relieved to be home, and took a moment to reflect by Lost Lagoon. Little did we know we had seen the spark that started it all - that burning car on Georgia Street. In less than ten minutes as we walked as many blocks, we witnessed a harmless crowd dissipating from a sporting event turn violent and crazed. The Hockey Riot would continue for six more hours and into the early morning.