Vancouver riots: a new Canadian’s hockey initiation


Photo by Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky

A friend in California told me that when she saw the images of our riots on TV last week, she asked her husband if that was Syria.

“Nope,” he said, “Vancouver.”

“What’s gotten into those hippies?” she asked.

“Hockey,” said her husband.

“Oh. OK,” she said and went back into her office.

Somehow I thought coming to terms with the monarchy was my final stumbling block to becoming a Canadian.

I’d forgotten all about hockey. How, you ask? Who the hell knows?

And with this year’s Stanley Cup, I was feeling foreign, very foreign. So it was time for me to learn about this essential part of Canadian culture.

As I watched the finals and learned about power plays and slap shots and icing, I realized what I’d suspected all along: it’s more than game, much more.

 “It’s all about the money!” said my friend Bernie, who’s 75 and was raised in Ontario.

“But that’s not what brings fans to the games,” I said.

“Oh no,” he said. “That’s about being loyal to your country.”

More than a game or even a multi-million dollar industry, hockey has something to do with Canada’s identity and values. Akin to what baseball represented to my father’s generation in the States.

For my Dad, baseball was about innocence, fairness, sportsmanship. It was a game for everybody, rich and poor. Something that even small, rural communities could participate in. Something a nation could be proud of—together. And I suspect hockey means or has meant something similar, especially to older Canadians.

Clearly, hockey ain’t what it used to be. A friend of mine in Maine, who’s in his 90s, said he lost interest in the Bruins long ago. In the days when there were many fewer teams and just one league, fans knew a lot about the players, he said.

“The Canadiens were the ones to beat; they were invincible! And they seemed like nice guys. Some of them were probably SOBs, but hockey just wasn’t the source of fighting—on or off the ice—that it is today.”

And yet it’s a rough sport. Always has been.

One of my neighbors, Larry, takes issue with people who claim to be fans but who’ve never been “bloodied by a puck” or come away bruised from playing in a game.

So there’s an initiation here, a Canadian rite of passage, a sense that true hockey lovers earn their right to be called fans.

Everybody has an opinion about what went wrong last Wednesday night—both inside and outside the stadium.

What struck me about the riot was, first of all, a sense of incredulity. I was not living here in 1994, so I didn’t know what to expect. When my friend and I took his dog on a walk after we’d watched the game, we saw the black smoke rising from downtown, but there were no sirens; in fact there was no noise at all.

We went back upstairs to the television and that’s when my jaw dropped. I literally had no place in my mind for the images that were on the screen. Now I have. Things like this didn’t happen in Vancouver. Now they do. And they have before. The point is, I hadn’t seen them and didn’t know that this sort of thing is not only a part of Vancouver’s past; it’s what some Canadians expect from Canucks fans.

“Detroit, Vancouver, Montreal,” says a friend, counting off on his fingers the cities where hockey riots are something of a tradition.

But this is not the image Vancouver has of itself, not at all the image Vancouver is so busy trying to project. It’s as if Vancouver woke up from its languorous dream of a (mostly) genial Olympics when it turned into a nightmare of past trauma.

There are any number of interpretations of what happened, and they are all an important part of our collective process. Still, one question keeps nagging at me. What is it in the psyche of this city that was expressed in the streets last Wednesday night that could not find expression in any other way?

In a men’s circle the next day, one of the guys described walking home through the riot. When he saw what was going on, he was angry, so angry he wanted to hurt the people around him. Then he realized that he was in the grip of the same impulse, the same energy, which only made him angrier and then humiliated.

That’s when it came home to me. It’s not only in “them”; it lives in us all—this whatever it was—rage, a sense of defeat, disenfranchisement, envy. And it is as much a part of Vancouver as its conspicuous wealth and Hollywood beauty.

Even though I’d had nothing to drink the night before, I woke up the morning after the riots feeling hung over. That same sense of shame and bewilderment I’d felt, waking up from a drunk as a young man, wondering what I’d done the night before, where my car was, wondering who in me had acted so irresponsibly, wondering what exactly had left me feeling so angry and ashamed.

In the days that followed, I talked to other Canadians, not only in Vancouver, who felt the same way.

So this is a part of my initiation, I thought: to share in the collective shame of the country I now call my own.

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