VANCOUVER – The last time he came to Rogers Arena was June 15. It was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. The Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins, and all hell broke loose. He walked up Georgia Street, saw the crowd, saw the fire, saw the smoke, then turned left and got out of there.
Now here he was coming back less than four months later, walking down Georgia toward the rink, past the Bank of Montreal where the windows had been shattered, past the Canada Post building where the first vehicle had been burned, back into what had been the epicenter of the ugliness.
"It's a bit of a black eye," said Cole Mattila, 35, a local resident. "But I mean, look around the city. Do you see anybody who's looking like they're going to riot? It's beautiful."
It was beautiful on Thursday. It looked back to normal – a vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis going about its daily business; a passionate, Canadian hockey town looking forward to a fresh new season. Workers headed home. Fans headed to the game. Not only was there no violence, there was an anti-war protest in front of the CBC building at the corner of Georgia and Hamilton. A choir sang a song of peace.
But this city is still coming to grips with what happened that day, while the team tries to move on from that season – both its greatest accomplishment and biggest disappointment.
"This is the jersey I wore to Game 7," Mattila said, showing off his white Ryan Kesler(notes) sweater, a 40th-anniversary throwback from last season, "and I'm wearing it tonight to kind of like … I'm just trying to shake the demons."
Earlier Thursday evening, the Bruins celebrated before their home opener against the Philadelphia Flyers. They actually paraded the Cup around the ice before raising their championship banner to the rafters at TD Garden.
This is what the Canucks did before their home opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins: The players lined up along the blue line. The seven trophies they won last season sat on display at center ice, and each was introduced – the Presidents' Trophy, the Campbell Bowl, the GM of the Year Award, the Jennings and Selke and Lindsay and Art Ross.
Then the public address announcer acknowledged what happened June 15. He didn't say the word "riot". He didn't have to. He said it "disappointed and saddened all of us." The team brought out two policemen, a firefighter, an emergency medical technician and some notable citizens who tried to stop the riot, helped during it or cleaned up after it. One of them, Rob Mackay, dropped the first puck.
Ward Grant was interviewed on the scoreboard screen during the first intermission. He put up a sign the on the boarded-up windows of The Bay department store on June 16. It said: "On behalf of my team and my city, I'm sorry." Others followed by writing their own messages on the plywood. It became known as the "Wall of Hope."
"That's the message I wanted to send to the world," Grant told the crowd. "That's the Vancouver I know and love."
It was supposed to be the Canucks' turn last season, finally. They racked up 117 points – 12 more than they ever had before, 10 more than any other team in the NHL. They led the league in goals scored and goals against. Though they had made the final twice before, in 1982 and '94, they had been the underdogs and lost. This time they were the favorites.
But not only did they lose again, they saw people in Canucks jerseys and T-shirts trash the city – people with names like Luongo and Kesler and Sedin and Burrows on their backs lighting fires and jumping on cars and fighting each other and knocking things down and breaking windows and looting stores.
"It bothered me, obviously," goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) said. "There was obviously a lot of disappointment to begin with because of the game, and going home and watching that … It was tough to watch. You don't want to see things like that happen to your city."
The riot remains a hot topic. Newspapers ran stories Thursday about the possibility of allowing TV cameras in the courtrooms for the upcoming trials. The Vancouver Province ran a story about how Vancouverites are more likely to blame the city and police than they used to, but still put most of the blame on the crowds who had gathered downtown to watch Game 7 on giant TV screens.
Some people came to cause trouble. There is little doubt about that. As I walked through the end of the riot that night, I saw rioters wearing surgical masks. You don't bring surgical masks to watch a hockey game. Hockey wasn't the cause; it was the excuse.
"It was planned, man," said Jag Sandhu, 20, of Surrey, B.C., who was at Game 7, got a face full of tear gas and came back for the home opener Thursday. "Even if we won the Cup that night, they were still going to do the same thing."
But the troublemakers were only the spark.
There was an expectation that something might happen, because there was a riot after the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Cup final in 1994. There was a large group of young people and a lot of alcohol. Some got caught up in the mob mentality and joined in. Others egged it on. Others gave the idiots an audience, taking pictures and videos with their smartphones. The police were overwhelmed, and it got out of control.
One hundred and forty were reported injured. Nine were stabbed. Though 117 people were arrested initially, more could be arrested soon following a police investigation that reviewed hundreds of hours of video.
"Even watching the videos now on YouTube, it's a big shock," said Sid Mahra, 19, of Victoria, standing on Georgia Street, wearing the blue Alex Burrows sweater he wore to Game 7 for the first time since that day. "You get a tear in your eye for the loss, but then you see the riot, and you're like … You lose the tear. You're like, 'What the hell happened?' "
"It was stupidity, and it was just a negative thing on the city," Sandhu said. "And this city's not about that."
At least most of it isn't. To say none of the rioters were Canucks fans and all of them were hoodlums is denial – and dangerous if anyone is ever going to learn anything and keep it from happening again. But to say they represent the majority of Canucks fans or the city itself makes no sense.
Mattila works in an office toward a few blocks up Georgia from Rogers Arena. The morning after the riot, he came to work and found volunteers cleaning up the streets. It wasn't long before the mess was gone.
"There's bad people out there sometimes," winger Alex Burrows said in the Canucks dressing room. "That's their way to show their anger towards society, and obviously we weren't very proud of them doing that to our city. We're going to remember all the people that helped out and cleaned up and were trying to prevent the riots, and those are the people we really want to talk about."
Actually, what the Canucks really want to talk about is hockey. Like anyone coming off such a deep playoff run, they will have to push through months of games that just don't mean as much as the ones they played in June. They will have to fight fatigue. They will have to stay engaged. It won't be easy.
"Aaah … I don't think … You move on," Sedin said. "That's what you do. I think it's always in the back of your mind – and it should be, because being that close to something that big, it's going to hurt."
But this is still an outstanding team in a weak division. The Canucks could cruise somewhat and still win the Northwest easily. Come spring, they will be back in the playoffs again, and if they aren't the favorites this time, they will be contenders at least. If they make the Cup final, they will have another chance.
So will Vancouver.