Release the Canucks: Remembering Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot of June 2011

Jun 15, 2021, 10:51 AM | Updated: 12:40 pm

It was exactly 10 years ago, on the evening of June 15, 2011, when the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins at home in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. The riot that followed left injuries and damage in its wake, and with the Seattle Kraken taking the ice later this year, it’s worth looking back at what happened north of the border.

The game – and the riot – were shown on live television by the CBC, Canada’s public broadcasting service, which was available on many cable systems in Western Washington. Many people in the Seattle area who had watched the game probably stayed tuned for what came after, and the violence and destruction on the streets of Vancouver was just as sad to see as similar events here at home.

Audio from CBC Radio coverage of the excitement leading up to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals paints an optimistic picture of what was to come. The game was played in downtown Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, and the city set up several fan zones with big screens showing the game outside. Estimates were that 155,000 people showed up – families, couples, and, as it turned out, a fair number of young men.

Along with the excitement, there was also a certain amount of tension, which is understandable in any winner-take-all pregame situation. Adding to this was the fact that 17 years and one day earlier – on June 14, 1994 – the Canucks had played the New York Rangers on the Rangers’ home ice, and lost Game 7 of that Stanley Cup final series. And what had happened? A riot in downtown Vancouver that did about $1 million in damage, and left two people severely injured.

But 2011 was a lot different than 1994, mainly because Vancouver had played host to a very successful Winter Olympics in 2010, and confidence of city leaders was running high.

Around 4 p.m. on the afternoon of the 2011 game, CBC Radio host Stephen Quinn spoke to Vancouver City Councilmember Heather Deal. Deal reassured Quinn that the city could handle whatever happened with the Canucks.

“But what if the Canucks lose tonight? Do we have a strong enough force of police, including the ones we borrowed, to maintain order if this thing goes sideways?,” Quinn asked.

“I believe we do,” Deal replied. “We’ve brought in a lot of people from around the region. And again, we’ve seen the crowd growing every single night. We’re over a hundred thousand now, we know how to deal with a hundred thousand. If it’s 120 [thousand], we’ll deal with 120 [thousand]. If they’re cranky, we’ll deal with cranky. But again, we’ve got the experience, we’ve done it during the Olympics, we’ve done it all through the playoffs season, and I’m confident that people will make their way through to celebrating no matter how it comes out. We’ll all be proud of our Canucks.”

As it turned out, the Canucks choked, and lost to the Boston Bruins by a score of four to nothing. It was a warm sunny evening, but the mood outside quickly turned sour for hundreds of people, many of whom, a police report later said, were intoxicated young men.

In short, they got “cranky,” and authorities were forced to deal with “cranky.”

Violence broke out in several spots. CBC Radio’s Matthew Lazin-Ryder was in front of the main post office in downtown Vancouver when he gave a live report:

“A car has been turned over in front of the post office. It’s on fire. It’s a very large fire. People are surrounding the fire, just kind of looking at it. It’s an overturned car, and every once in awhile, small explosions and flares come out of it. It looks extremely dangerous but it doesn’t look like there’s any way for the fire … oh, there is a fire truck trying to come through now …”

Longtime CBC broadcaster Rick Cluff retired in 2017, but Cluff was in Rogers Arena for Game 7, and was on the air trying to sort out what had happened in the aftermath.

“What I remember most was the disbelief that this could happen in my city,” Cluff told KIRO Radio. “The speed with which it grew, the intensity with which it grew. And some of the things you see in Hollywood movies started to happen – cars being turned over, a police car set on fire, windows being smashed.”

“It was totally senseless violence for no reason other than vandalism for the sake of itself,” Cluff said.

In an effort to head off potential trouble, authorities had forbidden alcohol sales in downtown Vancouver at 4 p.m., an hour or so before the start of the game. But, the 4 p.m. last call was well-publicized in advance, which may have given people intent on continuing to drink alcohol the opportunity to make other arrangements.

Popular wisdom a decade ago was that Vancouver’s light rail system – the SkyTrain – was at least partially to blame for the trouble, because people could keep drinking all through the game in the distant suburbs – where no 4 p.m. liquor ban was in place – and then come speedily downtown via highly efficient mass transit.

Rick Cluff confirmed this for KIRO Radio.

“Absolutely true,” Cluff said. “People from as far away as Surrey, which would be 25 or 30 miles, were here in a matter of minutes. You have to realize the SkyTrain in this city is an automated system, there’s no driver on board. So, you pay, you get on at a station.”

And, Cluff says, those intoxicated suburbanites “were hopping off at the Stadium Station in downtown Vancouver and becoming part of the demonstration.”

Before the Game 7 riot – and for all the preceding playoff games, which drew tens of thousands of people to watch peacefully on big screens – the Vancouver Police Department had taken a mellow, de-escalating stance toward the crowds, which meant a lot of high-fiving people, posing for photos, and handing out stickers. This approach had worked during the Olympics, which, in retrospect, was probably a very different kind of event, or series of events, drawing a different audience to the downtown area.

Once the Canucks had lost yet another Stanley Cup Game 7 and a riot was underway, the high-fives and stickers went away, and it didn’t take long for police strategy and tactics to shift to riot mode.

“The image I will never forget is when the mounted units with police in riot gear and long batons – the horses – came down the street, shoulder to shoulder, marching down slowly and pushing the crowd back,” Cluff said. “When it was all over, you sort of look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘What the hell was that? Over a hockey game? Really?’”

The 2011 riot lasted about five hours, from around 7:30 p.m. to not long after midnight. There were 100 arrests, and damage and extra costs were estimated around $3.8 million (or about four times as much as 1994, not adjusted for inflation).

According to prosecutors who led the legal efforts after the 2011 melee: “During the riot, there were 112 businesses damaged, 122 vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and 52 assaults were reported against civilians, police, and emergency personnel. On the night of the riot, 1,035 emergency response personnel were deployed to the downtown core of Vancouver.”

In a report issued following a months-long study of what happened, the Vancouver Police Department laid the blame at the feet of hundreds of drunk young men:

“The main finding of this review is that a convergence of factors that contributed to the disorder that occurred on June 15. None, on its own, directly caused the riot to occur. In short, a riot occurred because hundreds of instigators, many of whom were young intoxicated males, decided to riot. Another group joined in while the majority of people acted as an enthusiastic audience who encouraged and unwittingly aided the rioters by insulating them from the police by refusing to leave the area. These circumstances were exacerbated by the phenomenon of thousands of attendees using camera phones to record what many seemed to view as ‘entertainment.’”

Rick Cluff says that camera phones and social media were contributing factors in 2011 that obviously had not been present in 1994. Social media images – and traditional media images as well – were collected by prosecutors, and Cluff says that after the 2011 riot, the Vancouver Police Department became much more aware of social media and more savvy about using Twitter and Facebook as policing tools.

And though the Canucks haven’t been back to the Stanley Cup finals since 2011, Cluff says that memories of the riot persist a decade later.

“For the city and the people who live in the city – Vancouverites – it’s certainly a black eye and they won’t soon forget it,” Cluff said. “It’s things that Vancouverites don’t want to talk about.”

Looking to the future, one easy way to avoid Game 7 riots, Cluff jokes, is to simply avoid winning. So far, this strategy has worked for Vancouver’s NHL team.

“The Canucks, unfortunately, haven’t been in the position to be close to a championship again, so that’s sort of dormant,” Cluff said. “But I think if the same situation were to arise, security would be much different, and I think people would be better prepared.”

On a happier note, Cluff says Canucks fans in Vancouver are excited about the potential for a rivalry with the Seattle Kraken, and he thinks it will be a friendly one.

“It’s just the natural rivalry,” Cluff said. “I think there’s a lot more between Vancouver and Seattle than a lot of people realize.”

And Cluff says Vancouver and Seattle have more in common than Vancouver and its closest big city neighbors in Canada in the adjoining province of Alberta – Calgary and Edmonton.

“The Rocky Mountains are more than just a physical barrier, they’re almost a cultural barrier,” Cluff said. “And so one of the things that Vancouver fans are looking forward to is the natural rivalry that will develop between the Kraken and the Canucks. It’s only a matter of two hours’ drive up and down in between the cities, so you’ll see a lot of Vancouver fans, and I hope Seattle fans come the other way when there’s a game here.”

In the meantime, next up for the Kraken is the Expansion Draft on July 21. Let’s hope we get some great players, and if and when the Kraken get to Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals and finally revive Seattle’s hockey-winning tradition, let’s keep our fingers crossed that Seattle’s mass transit system is never as efficient as the SkyTrain.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Release the Canucks: Remembering Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot of June 2011