Alan Good

WHILE Greece’s anti-austerity protests spark fury and dissidents dodge furious crackdowns in the Middle East, Vancouver burns because it lost at ice hockey.

Rioters looted shops, flipped and torched cars and generally caused mayhem in the downtown core of western Canadian city on Wednesday night, making international headlines along the way, after the Vancouver Canucks copped a 4-0 thrashing on home turf by the Boston Bruins in the decisive game of the Stanley Cup.

The scenes went against the grain of the harmless Canadian stereotype; as someone who spent time living in Vancouver a couple of years ago and remembers a so-laid-back-we’re-almost-horizontal vibe prevailing throughout, it jarred me too.

In many ways, this riot shouldn’t come as a surprise; similar scenes tarnished the city when the Canucks lost in similar fashion to the New York Rangers in 1994. Police chiefs insisted lessons had been learned about crowd control; Vancouver successfully staged a Winter Olympics last year largely without incident.

However, they seemingly failed to factor in a lethal cocktail of mob mentality, booze, a collective cause (the Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup in their 40-year franchise history) and the renowned Canadian passion for ice hockey, as a minority of thugs ruined it for the ‘real’ fans, most of whom sucked it up and trudged home.

Is it really that simple, though? The bad losers theory doesn’t always wash. Recent history in north American sports shows that a losing outcome isn’t necessarily the spark; there were riots in Los Angeles in 2009 and 2010 following NBA championship victories for the LA Lakers, and in Boston in 2008 after a Celtics triumph.

Christian End, an expert in sport fan behaviour at Xavier University in Cincinatti, Ohio, explained in 2005 that people in a crowd experience a process of “de-individuation”, and the Vancouver riots showed little has changed in that regard.

“When we’re less accountable we tend to behave in ways we wouldn’t,” he said. “If I’m among thousands of celebrating people and I were to throw a beer bottle against a brick wall, you’d have a hard time picking me out.”

Any armchair economist can also tell you about the wisdom of crowds. James Surowiecki’s tome of the same name shows that the aggregation of information of groups can lead to better decisions than could be made by any individual within the group — think ‘ask the audience’ on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

It’s that same power of a crowd than can make it exceptionally dumb in the wrong circumstances however. Look at the pictures from the Vancouver riots, and you’ll see a terrifying amount of onlookers smiling and laughing at the violence unfolding in front of them. Reinforcing and condoning the behaviour, pulling more people over to the dark side.

This notion is checked out by End’s dismissal of the notion that alcohol lubricates the desire to perpetrate violence among sports crowds.

“Alcohol plays a role, and sometimes it’s pointed out as the ultimate villain, the sole contributor. But there are a lot of other things going on. They serve alcohol at church socials and in the theatre, but you don’t see these kinds of behaviours.”

Vancouver has its fair share of social problems — anyone who has lived there will have seen the lines of junkies openly injecting heroin into their toes on the Gastown streets — but you certainly wouldn’t have termed it a dark or an ugly city. This already-infamous photograph shows that one couple were intent on making love, not war during the riots, while in sporting terms, its icons are as clean-cut as they come — think NBA star Steve Nash — and the Canucks were many an ice hockey fan’s second team.

Whether the city and its image takes a long-term battering over this remains in question; locals are already doing their bit to clean up both by coming out in droves to tidy up downtown today, many defiantly sporting Canucks jerseys.

What’s more certain is that after two hockey-related riots in less than 20 years, Vancouver’s movers and shakers could be forgiven for hoping the Canucks spend some more time in the Stanley Cup playoff wilderness.