LOS ANGELES – It took only a few hours for Vancouver to stain itself as a city of sore losers. Never mind what a great host it was for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games or that the city is one of the most gorgeous metropolitan areas in the entire world. The mass of stupidity on June 15, 2011 – the burning cars, the broken windows, the cops deployed in riot gear all because the Canucks lost a hockey game – is the indelible image that cast the city as just a bunch of thugs.
Presumptuous, no, not when it's happened before – back in 1994 when the city rioted following another Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup final – and not when the Vancouver Police deemed it necessary to formulate an anti-riot strategy for this year's NHL playoffs.
Vancouver earned its reputation, even if the perpetrators are in the minority, and the only way to clear the city's name is to prove differently, which brings us to Wednesday night.
For 82 games this season, no team in the NHL was better than the Vancouver Canucks. They finished the regular season with a league-best 111 points, earning them their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy, the Western Conference's No. 1 seed and, most significantly, roused the hopes of a fan base desperate to celebrate its first-ever Stanley Cup title.
Only now, barely a week into the postseason, the Canucks are on the verge of elimination, having fallen behind the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Kings 3-0 in their best-of-7 series. Game 4 commences Wednesday when, if the Canucks lose, the focus will immediately shift to the streets of Vancouver to see how the city reacts to its team being bounced from the playoffs.
It's a legitimate curiosity considering what happened a year ago and an unfortunate one at that for a town that's got a lot going for it that doesn't involve hockey hooligans. Between the neon-lined Granville Street, the visual explosion of glass-dominated architecture, Chinatown, an eclectic assortment of restaurants and the immensely expansive Stanley Park – one of the most magnificent urban parks in all the world – Vancouver is a destination city.
And yet here we are talking about riots.
"We will have a small enhanced presence in the downtown core [Wednesday night]," said Vancouver Police spokesman Lindsey Houghton. "We don't anticipate any crowds at all. If people come down, we will have officers downtown waiting for them."
Last April, Canucks fans were fired up from the drop of the first puck. This time around they've taken a much more subdued approach, according to Houghton, tempering expectations after last year's disappointment. Now, three losses in, blogs and Twitter fodder suggest that restraint has given way to an overall malaise.
"Canucks are like the ex-boyfriend you always take back thinking they'll change," one female Canuck fan tweeted.
"On the plus side, all of Vancouver is now too despondent to leave the house, meaning The Bay won't have to replace all their windows this year," deadpanned Vancouver Sun blogger Daniel Wagner, who in an email to Yahoo! Sports said the city very much wants to clear its name.
"It was a black mark on Canucks fandom that the vast majority of Canucks fans did not participate in and don't like being associated with," he wrote. "While I wouldn't say that those who participated in the riots were not Canucks fans – though not all of them were – it's still upsetting for Canucks fans to see people outside Vancouver view them in that light."
There's only one way for the city to flip the switch on that: show the rest of the world it can celebrate responsibly. Losing graciously isn't necessarily something to brag about, because let's be real: not rioting fits in the same category as paying child support or not beating your kid – these are things you're supposed to do.
This is why Vancouver needs the Canucks to win it all – to give the city a shot at redemption. Until then, what went down last June will continue to define the city as something it doesn't want to be.