Riot town: Why did Vancouver lose its cool again?

The parallels between the June 15 hockey riot in Vancouver and the one that took place on June 14, 1994, are uncanny, writes Ian Hanomansing, but there were also differences.

For the second time I've seen a riot break out.

On June 14th, 1994, I was at Robson and Thurlow covering what was supposed to be a street party after game seven of the Stanley Cup Final. Last night, it was another Vancouver street corner: Georgia and Hamilton. The parallels between the two were, at times, uncanny.

A seventh game in both finals ending in disappointment. Dozens of people among a crowd of thousands throwing bottles, breaking windows, confronting police.

And that same sense of disbelief. Is this really downtown Vancouver?

But there were some significant differences, too.

In '94, the trouble built slowly. Thousands of people converged at Robson and Thurlow after the Canucks lost in New York. They stood in the streets with nothing to do, nowhere to go.

Then order began to unravel. A few acts of vandalism. A couple of fights. One person, then another, started a bizarre tightrope walk on the transit lines across the intersection.

When one of them fell, we inched closer to a riot. An ambulance was driven slowly into the crowd and then swallowed up. A police officer radioed that he was trapped and needed help. When the crowd control unit — the riot squad — marched in formation to quickly clear the intersection, the fight was on. And for the next couple of hours police struggled to regain control.

Vancouver literally wrote the book on avoiding riots, based on the investigation into the last riot in 1994.

Last night was different, it all happened so quickly.

Bottles were thrown at one of the big screens as the game ended. Someone, possibly a few people, threw firecrackers in the air. Then suddenly a car burst into flames. Thousands of people, packed shoulder to shoulder, had come to enjoy a hockey game and many stayed even as the mayhem broke out — some taking pictures.

Vancouver literally wrote the book on avoiding riots, based on the investigation into the last riot in 1994. Many of those lessons were tested during the Olympics and the city was proud it could have massive street celebrations with no significant problems.

So what happened last night?

It can't be as simple as the crowds were happy with a gold medal win and angry after a Stanley Cup loss. Was there an organized plan to exploit the post game mood with violence and vandalism? A lot of people will be searching for answers in the coming days.

And what happens the next time thousands of Vancouverites want to celebrate their favourite team?

Make no mistake: Before the riot last night, something remarkable happened in this city. Tens of thousands of people were not just swept up by the Canucks' successes, but wanted to gather downtown and cheer. There were young families, older couples, a crowd as diverse as Vancouver itself. Win or lose, it should have been a celebration of a city coming together behind its beloved hockey team. 

Instead, we had a replay of 1994.

Seventeen years ago, the city responded to the riot in part by discouraging big street parties for years. This morning, the mayor said the investigations have already begun. But he's already vowed large downtown gatherings will not end.

I'll always remember an anguished woman watching the looters 17 years ago, saying " What's happening  to this city? This is not my Vancouver." It is a question many are asking again.


Ian Hanomansing is the co-host of The National. Since 1986, he has had a wide variety of assignments for CBC as a reporter, anchor and interviewer. He also has a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax.