Vancouver’s Hockey Riot: How to Understand It

How do we understand the burning cars, broken glass and injuries that stand as an enduring coda of their game seven defeat at the hands of the visiting Boston Bruins? Having communicated with several dozen people in “the most livable city in the world,” I think I have a modest perspective on why the Canucks’ 4-0 loss was followed by fire.

One thing was made abundantly clear to me, please disregard the “analysis” of TSN’s Bob McKenzie a k a “The Hockey Insider” who blamed “left wing loons” for the rubble. Mackenzie tweeted that he was sure responsibility lay with “anarchists and some organized extremists…many of the same people and groups who orchestrated riots in Toronto last summer at the G8.” This is unsupported and profoundly irresponsible garbage with no basis in fact. Vancouver activist Harsha Walia said to me, “It’s ridiculous that even a hockey riot needs a scapegoat. A deliberately created media circus of sports fervor, millions of alcohol advertising dollars and City-sanctioned street party zones all over downtown will unsurprisingly lead to a massive street brawl.”

Let’s also dispense with the fiction that this was the fault of all “Canuck fans.” The fans on the whole were actually in fine form after the game. They gave Conn Smythe winner, Bruin goalie Tim Thomas, a standing ovation and also rose and cheered for every Bruin from Vancouver, British Columbia. Of the millions of Canuck supporters, this was a minuscule mob. As Shiema Ali of Vancouver wrote to me, “I live in Vancouver and left the downtown core just before the game started. There were tons of people coming into the city who were already drunk and rowdy (in a bad way) —win or lose those people were ready to riot.”

What happened after the game was neither in the spirit of people at the arena not the spirit of those who bravely protested the G8. As activist and hockey fan Derrick O’Keefe said to me, “Sometimes a riot is the ‘language of the unheard,’ in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. But sometimes a riot is just an expression of young male stupidity and violence— this was the case last night in Vancouver.”

Another person said to me, “There were lots of [LGBTQ people] down there, some got roughed up, some dental care needed. There are also attempts to pin this on ‘black bloc’ and references to ‘protesters.’ There are lots of frustrated young men for sure lashing out at authority but no analysis of what might be spurring this.”

I did receive this incisive bit of analysis from Dru Oja Day, an editor at the Media Co-op. “If you ask people to pour all of their emotions and anger into a game, then a major event (Montrealers have rioted after first round game 7 wins!) is going to occasion some outbursts. Hockey commentators like Hockey Nights’ Don Cherry are constantly associating hockey with the troops overseas (he went to Afghanistan and fired a live shell, for chrissakes) and promote fighting and big open ice hits. We shouldn’t be surprised.”

John Ward-Leighton also pointed out on his blog the role that the liquor lobby placed in turned an entire area around the arena into a branded “Entertainment Zone” larded with bars and free-flowing liquor.

“It was clear that a lot of of the participants in last night’s riot and looting were at the very least impaired and looking for trouble,” said Ward-Leighton. “This ‘zone’ has nothing to do with entertainment and much to do with the almost criminal profit taking of the proprietors of the establishments who far from ‘serving it right’ pour drunken idiots into the streets nightly to brawl and drive drunk….The fault for last night’s idiocy was not about losing a hockey game or the police response, the bomb had its fuse lit with the myth that the only way you can have fun is to get stinking drunk.”

And yet the action —or inaction of the police is garnering attention as well. Alex Kerner, a law student and activist said to me, “How the police dealt with this riot compared to the G20 in Toronto last summer is instructive. While the destruction of police cars, property and lighting of fires was much more extensive this time, the police tended to focus only on those who committed the acts of vandalism. Some tear gas was used, but for the most part the targets were the actual rioters. Contrast this to the G20, where police used much more limited property damage by anarchists during the protests to sweep through the entire protest and arrest a record number of participants, irrespective of their actions. This sends a pretty sharp message from police that being around a pointless hockey riot is much safer than being at a protest with an actual purpose.”

It’s also worth noting that of the dozens of people who have needed medical attention, the overwhelming majority have required treatment for “exposure to tear gas or pepper spray” from, of course, the police. In addition, the push from police and the media for people to “post on Facebook” pictures of rioters so they can be identified and prosecuted signifies some kind of queasy step toward “social media as police state” that we should reject. Today a sports riot, tomorrow a demonstration.

One aspect that’s not getting nearly the publicity as the riots themselves are the people who risked danger, going in the street doing volunteer cleanup, while the streets still raged. As O’Keefe said to me, “Here in Canada, we’re dealing with a federal government hell bent on cutting back public services—they’re about to legislate postal workers back to work—but these are exactly the working people who tended to the wounded and put out the fires that night. In a way, we could thank the testosterone-laden morons for reminding a hockey crazed city that the real heroes in society don’t play a game for money; the real heroes fight fires, drive ambulances, treat the sick and clean up garbage.” The real heroes are also those who try to connect with the angst and alienation that leads to such destruction and channels it into protesting the very people “hell bent on cutting back” the services we so dearly need.

As one of those real heroes, Harsha Walia said to me, “There is a sense that people rioted over a ‘stupid apolitical hockey game.’ While I too wish people were motivated by social justice issues, the hockey game is not apolitical by any means. The riots were a fundamentalist defense of a type of nationalism, most evident in the beatings of Bruins fans in Vancouver last night. NHL hockey is not simply a game, it is representative of obedience to consumerism and is part of the state’s attempt to forge a false identity—despite vast differences and inequalities across race, class and gender, through the spectacle of sport.”

The state does reap what the state sows. We should remember that as the hand-wringing by police and government officials commences in the wake of Vancouver’s Great Hockey Riot. 

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation, from which this article is reproduced with the author’s permission.