Postcard From Western Canada: Vancouver Flames And Calgary Canucks

FORT McMURRAY, ALBERTA — During the nine months I've lived in Canada, I've abandoned my image of Canadians as a bunch of northern Minnesotans with their pinkies extended, single-payer health care and Queen Elizabeth's plump mugshot on every single coin in their snap-purses. They truly are a more polite, more svelte and better-smelling populace than America's, on the whole, but as the riot this week in Vancouver proved, Canada's also home to just as many firebugs and shit-for-brains weekend anarchists as anywhere else on the continent.

Two good points were made immediately after the press started with the refrain, so fast and sloppy it might as well been a hot-soup spit-take, that Canucks fans took the loss hard and thus decided to stuff towels into the gas tanks of police cruisers and torch 'em. That horseshit got called out real quick. Disappointment can morph into violence, but this violence, or something similar, would have gone down even if the Canucks had won 10-0. No one brings Molotov cocktails in from East Van or Surrey (or Seattle) and waits to see how the game shapes up, any more than a drunk walks into a pub just to see what's on tap.

No, there were a blue bazillion people jamming the streets, and enough kinetic mob energy that anyone with initiative to kick a window could inspire imitators. And everyone with cell phone cameras who stood around gawking acted as human shields. Watch the video or check out the still photos: These aren't angry mobs. They're a few assholes performing for semi-involved onlookers of what the esteemed Jonathan Katz, who covered his share of riots in Haiti with the Associated Press, cut down as "the peaceful protests for straightforward demands in Vancouver." What's depressing wasn't that the riot occurred; it's that it was about nothing except how much fun it is to smash glass when the grownups have their heads turned. Egypt overthrows its oppressive government with youth revolt. Canada overthrows a London Drugs. ¡Viva la irrelevancia!

The second point, though, was that whatever you want to call the rioters, they were Canucks fans. The riot photos bear this out; there are so many Canucks jerseys you'd think the first through third lines, plus an army of Luongos, led the charge to stomp BMWs and cave in the front of Sears (honestly, now, Sears?). Vancouver is so thoroughly a Canucks stronghold it mirrors the universal fanaticism of a big college town with no pro sports nearby — think of Lexington, Ky., or Austin, Texas. You don't ask whether someone's a Wildcats fan or a Longhorns fan or a Canucks fan; it's not only assumed, it's atmospheric. You might as well ask if someone's a fan of the nearest mountain range.

It's mostly fair to say, in face, that nearly the whole country was pulling for the Canucks. Out in northern Alberta, where I'm taking a reporting sojourn away from Vancouver, I figured oil workers would root against the Canucks. Edmonton (five hours to the south) is, after all, the damn Oilers. Calgary, the province's biggest city, is Vancouver's biggest rival and its foil, sort of like if Dallas and Seattle were the nearest big cities to one another. But the first time I wandered into a bar and sat next to a retired helicopter pilot to watch the Canucks thump the Sharks, I was struck that he and others there referred to the Canucks as "we." Canada's a tight enough country, and so dog-whipped after watching the States elope with the Stanley Cup for each of the past 18 seasons, that all allegiances had turned Canadian.

Even the folks here who saw fit to root for the Bruins did so because, they said, there were more individual Canadians on the Boston roster. At the end of Game 6 I asked a guy at the lounge where I tend bar whom he was rooting for. When he said Boston, I assumed he was from the East; one of my co-workers is from Newfoundland, and quietly pulled for Boston, she said, so the Cup would visit her hometown. Instead this particular Bruins loyalist said he was from Manitoba, the definition of nowhere, and he was pulling for the Bruins because Boston, by his reckoning, was the more Canadian team. "I'm not rooting for Team Sweden," he said, an obvious reference to Daniel and Henrick Sedin, the red-bearded Scandinavian twins. When I asked another Boston-backer later why he wasn't rooting for the Canadian team in the series, he replied that he was, and did so while imitating the Swedish Chef. Canada was pulling for Canadians, even if it meant cheering an American team.

The riots were a topic here just as anywhere else. Rumor circulated here that a Bruins fan was beaten to death with a wrench. My first thought was, That's unbelievably awful. My second was, If there's a city whose fans are capable of literally insisting that you assault them, it's probably Boston. But still.

That tale, like so much else in the aftermath, turned out to be (blessedly) a phantasm. Another illusion was that brilliant image of two people apparently enamorados in the street, mob in the background, storm trooper in the fore-. When the couple was tracked down, we learned that the girlfriend had been whacked by a shield, according to the boyfriend's dad, and the boyfriend was comforting her. What we'd all hoped was a moment of flippant amorous protest — Eros razzing Thanatos — was instead just another instance of senseless pain. Vancouver being a small town, as Canada is a small country, she and I happen to be Facebook friends, and her wall says she's fine. You can't say the same for the hundreds of other people who were injured Wednesday night. Maybe this was all unavoidable, given the tectonic pressure put on Game 7. But here's a suggestion for the Canucks once they get back to the Stanley Cup finals one day: Win, or do the truly Canadian thing and get swept, politely.