VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The first time I saw trouble, I was at center ice. I was standing smack dab in the middle of Rogers Arena, as the Boston Bruins were wrapping up their Stanley Cup celebration, when I ran into a photographer friend. He introduced me to a security officer, who whipped out his smartphone and showed me a picture.
It was of a car enveloped in bright orange flames.
This is what everyone had feared. The last time the Canucks made the Cup final, it was 1994. They lost to the New York Rangers in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, and a riot broke out back in Vancouver. Now it was happening again – another Game 7 loss, this one at home, and another riot, this one perhaps worse.
As I walked just outside the Vancouver dressing room, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was walking the other way on the left, head down. On the right was a TV monitor. Usually it shows postgame interviews. Now it was showing a car aflame and people were huddled around, listening to the news updates instead of interviewing players.
I know better than to judge a village by its idiots. I grew up in the Detroit area. When I was 8 years old, my parents took me to Game 5 of the 1984 World Series.
In a sense, it is one of my happiest memories, one of the moments which made me fall in love with sports. The Detroit Tigers beat the San Diego Padres. They won it all, and I was there. But in truth, I don't remember much about the actual game. I remember the fans charging the field after the final out, tearing up the grass and throwing it into the air. I remember my parents putting their jackets over my head as we rushed to the car. A lot of people remember the photo of a beer-bellied guy named Bubba waving a pennant in front of an overturned, burning police car.
That image became part of the image of Detroit, and the riot jokes still haven't stopped, even though the city has celebrated several championships peacefully in the years since. But Bubba and the other fools that night didn't represent me or my family, and I know the troublemakers I saw Wednesday night don't represent Vancouver. I fear, though, that they have stained the city just the same.
"Why are they doing this?" said Bill Gee, 70, of Vancouver, standing in front of his apartment building on Hornby Street. "You just can't believe that this could happen. I mean, why? What thrill could they possibly get?"
"Have you seen anything like this before?" I asked.
"Yeah, 1994," he said. "I was here in 1994. I used to be a broker then, and I came up the street about 5 in the morning, and it was just littered in glass. All the storefronts were broken."
He looked around.
"I think this is quite a bit worse, actually."
Witnesses said the trouble started late in the third period. Tens of thousands of fans had gathered downtown, a sea of them watching the game on a giant screen on Georgia Street, just blocks from Rogers Arena. As the clock counted down on what would be a 4-0 loss for the Canucks, people threw bottles at the screen. Fights broke out. A truck was overturned and set on fire. So were two police cars.
As I wrote my column in the press box, the televisions overhead showed images of the riot – one man in a Canucks sweater screaming at an officer in full riot gear, the officer batting him back with a shield. When I got back to my hotel, people were gathered outside the Irish pub across Burrard Street, watching news coverage of the riot instead of highlights from the game.
Kallista Meyers, 25, and Dominic Finbow, 29, said they had seen people trying to pull small trees out of pots, throwing bottles at storefronts, pouring drinks over each other, fighting with one another, looting Sears and the Chapters bookstore.
"Why would they take books?" Meyers wondered. "They're not going to read them."
Meyers and Finbow went home for a moment. They watched the media coverage and thought it made the riot look worse than it actually was. They heard a loud noise. They looked outside and saw someone had pushed over a small Smart car.
"There doesn't seem to be nearly enough police," Finbow said. "Considering what happened in '94, that's a joke."
I walked down Robson Street. I saw firefighters hose down a burning trash can amid a restless crowd. I ran into a guy in a Ryan Kesler(notes) sweater and asked what he thought. I was shocked by what he said.
"It's the Canucks' fault," he said. "They basically ruined themselves. I don't know. It's hard to say right now. I just think it's kind of sad."
"It's no excuse for this," I said.
"It's not. I don't know. What did they expect was going to happen? Obviously, something bad was going to happen if they lost, so basically it is what it is. What can you do about it except for just be a witness or whatever?"
"What's your name?"
"I'm not going to tell you my name."
Yeah, of course not.
This was not about a hockey game. This was about some people looking for trouble and a hockey game giving them an excuse. A few rioters wore surgical masks to guard against tear gas. They came prepared. This was premeditated.
This was also about a lot of people looking at the spectacle – hanging around, taking pictures with their smartphones, tweeting and talking about it.
"It's not really a good depiction of Vancouver right now," said Andy Jukic, 19, of Vancouver.
"You know what I really think it is?" said Mike Booth, 20, of Vancouver. "I think we tried to one-up ourselves from '94. We tried to one-up ourselves."
As Jukic and Booth spoke at about midnight, a mob moved down Hornby Street, pushed ahead by a line of riot police thumping clubs on their shields, backed by a line of police on horseback. A couple of guys knocked over some newspaper boxes. A mailbox was left standing, so someone else knocked it down.
"Let's go stand 'em up," a man said.
The man, who declined to give his name, stood them back up along with Gee.
"If you want to see something, go walk up Granville," Gee said. "You can walk up there now. There's stores without one thing left in them. There's a luggage store there. Nothing. It's all gone. There's a swimsuit store. All gone. The streets are littered with shoes and hangers."
Gee wiped a tear from his left eye. He said it was from the tear gas.
Hearing booms and cracks coming from the nearest intersection, I tried to cut through the apartment building to get back to my hotel safely. But as soon as I stepped out the back door, I hit tear gas or pepper spray – not sure which, or if it even matters. It burned my eyes and throat. I shut the door, went back out the front and found another way.
"Stop it, buddy!" I heard one guy yell. "Don't [expletive] throw [expletive]!"
He was trying to stop someone from breaking a window.
"Come on," he said more softly, trying a different tactic. "Please."
When I walked in the front door of the NHL's official media hotel, they were cleaning up glass in the lobby. Someone had broken the front door.
I flipped on the news in my room and heard reports that more than 100 people had been treated at a hospital for injuries including fractures and stabbings. I saw a clip of a man jumping on top of a burning BMW and escaping, throwing his hands up as if he had won something when everybody lost. I sighed and flipped my computer back on. I came here to write about a hockey game, and here I am writing about a riot late into the night, still hearing sirens outside my window.