Law and Order: Some Vancouverite Reflections

By now many of you have seen clips or photos of the criminal nonsense that afflicted the streets and businesses of downtown Vancouver following the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team in the Stanley Cup final. Less than 24 hours after the store windows were smashed, the electronics and liquor looted, and the cars set ablaze, our family was attending our youngest son’s high school graduation ceremony on the very same streets.

We saw precisely one indication of the destruction of the night before: windows carefully boarded up and festooned with friendly graffiti, declaring that “Hooligans are not hockey fans” and “This is not the real Vancouver” and, most simply, “We love you, Vancouver!” Fifteen thousand people, it has been estimated, showed up yesterday, starting at 5 a.m., to assist emergency and clean-up crews in repairing the streets, the reputation, and the psyche of our city.

So what happened to turn a happy, anticipatory street party into a scene of stupidity, selfishness, and vandalism that had to be redeemed by an extraordinary outpouring of civic spirit? Permission to do so. And that’s all some people need.

There were not enough police to stop the vandalism right away. Given that there were perhaps as many as 100,000 people thronging the downtown core, it’s not obvious how many police officers would have been needed to prevent it from happening. But it would have taken more than the Vancouver Police Department, that’s for sure. And, given that Vancouver is not a police state, it would likely have taken more officers than were available in the entire area.

For once the vandalism began, far too many of those 100,000 people refused police orders to leave the area but remained instead to take photos on their cellphone cameras and indulge in the same curiosity that the rest of us had watching the events unfold at home on TV. But those of us at home were not getting in the way of the police and not giving tacit approval to the thugs by hanging around as their audience. And that’s the difference: permission.

So something lovely and fun was distorted into something ugly and dangerous. Just like the hockey itself.

For these playoffs were refereed worse than any other I can remember seeing. I’m old enough to recall the national outrage at the terrible refereeing that marred the 1972 USSR-Canada “summit” match. But that refereeing was ridiculously, dangerously one-sided. This refereeing was terrible all the way ’round. In short, it gave permission to players to interfere illegally with the superior play of other players. Worse, it gave permission to players to physically harm other players well beyond the rules and well beyond the whistles.

Sportswriters and TV analysts scratched their tiny heads at how the pride of the Canucks’ league-leading offense, the Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, seemed to disappear for much of the playoffs and particularly the finals. (They actually were one-two in leading the Canucks in points, but given their usual prowess, they did seem to disappear for long stretches.) But there is no mystery here, even while the Sedins themselves were too sportsmanlike to state the obvious, blaming themselves instead. No, the brute fact is that their opponents were granted permission by the referees to vandalize their brilliant game of flashing skates, creative positioning, and pinpoint passing.Worse, their opponents were given permission to hack at the backs of their lower legs and punch them in the face, to attack the few places on the body unprotected by hockey pads, thus crippling and distracting two of the quickest players in the league.

The same was true, to be sure, both ways. The Canucks did not distinguish themselves, once it was clear what the referees would allow, and bashed back at their opponents in turn. So Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins’ leading scorer, was kept off the scoresheet for most of the final series as well. And both teams suffered an untold number of injuries–not just those that sent players off the ice, but those that heartbreakingly muted the blazing talent of both teams’ best playmakers.

(Full marks, by the way, to brilliant, if belligerent, Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, even as he had few rebounds to worry about as Canuck forwards were being chopped down in front of him by his ruthless corps of defensemen. And full marks also to “little blazing ball of hate” Brad Marchand, whose talents were perfectly suited to the street fighting the games sometimes became.)

It’s a pretty simple principle, but one that the National Hockey League seems incapable of grasping for long. Once in a while the league will be forced to concede that “letting the players play” by having the referees swallow their whistles is the athletic equivalent of letting the vandals smash and burn cars and business on city streets. But the league offices never grasp the principle for long. The thuggery that is the shadow side of hockey returns, and the best offense in the NHL is reduced to scoring fewer goals than its opponents in the playoffs.

Let’s make this crystal clear, friends. If you give me unlimited fouls, even I can play pretty good defense against Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, or Jerry Rice. It’s hard to be a creative artist when you’re being repeatedly punched in the face or slashed with a stick. Beauty and creativity, which is what the Sedins offer hockey fans every night they’re on the ice–hence their league-leading scoring the last two seasons–need protection. The good humour and friendly civic spirit of downtown Vancouver–evident throughout the Winter Olympics and every summer when tourists throng our town–need protection. Without protection, the permission given is all that is necessary, as Burke warned, for evil to triumph.

So here’s a toast to the 15,000 people who came to clean up the city. And here’s a toast to the Sedins for refusing to blame the refereeing. But here’s also a toast to the parents of those high school students I saw walk across the stage yesterday on their way to university, or community college, or trade school, or a first full-time job. The parents received the usual token applause during the ceremony, but you and I know that successful students usually come from environments constructed and maintained at considerable cost over years and years. The students did the creative work, and it was a joy to celebrate their blossoming. But the garden was originally carved out of the earth, planted, watered, and protected by the gardeners.

Here, then, is a toast to everyone who works today and every day to build and maintain spaces in which others can grow and develop and produce. Here’s to the good directors, the good managers, the good supervisors, the good shift leaders. Here’s to the good parents, the good teachers, the good caregivers, the good counselors.

Here’s to the good legislators and good bosses who make good laws that set out the framework in which shalom can be pursued best. And here’s to the good cops, and the good judges, and the good referees who enforce those laws, and who thereby provide the order the rest of us need to flourish.

How much better would the NHL playoffs had been if the referees had ensured that the best players could play their best? How much better would our workplaces be, our families be, and indeed our churches be, if those in charge of law and order made good rules and then enforced them well?

Law and order aren’t everything, of course. They’re nowhere near our chief values. But without them, there is only frustration, waste, and devastation, whether in the hockey rink or on the streets of Vancouver, let alone in the abusive home, church, school, business, or society. “Letting the players play” is simple moral cowardice. Step up, referees. And the rest of us, with our craning necks and cellphone cameras, too.

0 Responses to “Law and Order: Some Vancouverite Reflections”

  1. Tim Cairns

    I have to say I find myself disagreeing with your views on most occasions! However, I have to say you have articulated my sentiments precisely. I know my agreement means nothing, but thank you! This is the most insightful and best thing I have read, not only on the rioting, but the hockey as well and how it is really a wider reflection of society. Thanks.

  2. Code Monkëy

    It’s a downside to the new No Fighting game. Without the old school enforcers, the star players keep getting bullied. Would Gretzky be half the player he was without Semenko out there crushing anyone that so much as looked at him?

  3. Gordon Tisher

    Wow, is the fear of punishment really your primary basis for ethics?

    The issue of refereeing is completely orthogonal to the results of the final series: the Canucks demonstrated the capability to defeat the Bruins three times, despite the quality of the refereeing. That they fell down in the final game is a testament to their inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances. All the art in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t adapt it to take advantage of your environment.

    I’m sorry, but to default to “we need more police” in the face of a (sub)cultural deficiency is the first answer of tyrants and oppressors everywhere. I know this from personal experience, having grown up in a totalitarian dictatorship. To conflate St. Paul and Napoleon, why not just go all the way and mow down the rioters with automatic weapons fire? That would have solved the problem right quick.

    It seems clear to me that the whining, rationalizations, blame-shifting and outright public anger that this loss in a sporting contest has brought out in a large number of people, many of them purporting to be Christian leaders, is different only in degree, and actually much less honest, than the actions of the rioters.

    • Kerry Fraser

      Agreed. The referring was orthogonal. Wait… was it orthogonaler for Vancouver or Boston?

        • John Stackhouse

          Thanks very much, Gordon, for allowing me to clarify the basis of my ethics (!): I have done so at length in my book, Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (OUP, 2008). That’s a big book, but I’m pretty sure I never say in it that “the fear of punishment” is the basis of my ethics.

          You and others are quite mistaken in your analysis of the final series. The refereeing was demonstrably different in the games in which the Canucks won and both teams adjusted accordingly to the variance in refereeing. But the Bruins were better suited to a less refereed, more thuggish game (giving full recognition to their genuine skills as well), while Vancouver was better suited to a properly refereed game–as witness in fact their regular season record. In the more tightly refereed games, the Canucks won and in the anything-goes games they lost, and I don’t see it being more complicated than that.

          As for suggesting that I think the answer to Vancouver’s street riots is simply more police, I have no idea how you derived that from my post. Indeed, my brief reference to “police state” was in line with your own judgment, I think, that having “enough” police would have been highly problematic in other respects, as would the police taking a much more violent approach than they did.

          As for your last paragraph, I have no idea what you’re saying there. You’re obviously angry and disgusted–I got that. But whether you’re accusing me of whining, etc., and being less honest than the rioters–what were they being so commendably honest about, one wonders–I can’t be sure, so I’ll assume you’re not doing that.

  4. Jen

    It is widely accepted and known among hockey fans that the Stanley Cup finals are refereed differently than the rest of the year, and the rest of the playoffs. No referee wants to be “blamed” for a premature call. There are even polls on Sports TV shows asking whether or not the finals should be refereed differently. Whether or not more strict refereeing would have worked to the Canucks favour will never be known, but it is more than “allowed” for critics, fans and bystanders to speculate.

    I commend the 15,000 who cleaned up the city – that shows what Vancouver really is and has always been. The hooligans, perhaps, could have been better “contained” by more police. This doesn’t advocate for a “police state” but rather citizen protection (and small business and large business and city-reputation) by ensuring that the police have enough bodies on the ground to do their job.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post – well done

  5. Rick Baartman

    Thanks, John, I was going to write about the violence both in the game and on the streets, but now see I don’t have to. You’ve said it better than I could have, so I’ll just share your essay. To see teams of brilliant talent worn down (with exception of TT) by game 7 to performing at a level that could have been beaten by minor leaguers is truly a travesty.

  6. Richard Knowler

    Thank you for this very thoughtful essay. I couldn’t agree more.
    The crowds of bystanders were giving ‘permission ‘ to the louts by providing an audience.
    This was mirrored by the hitting and thuggery that the referees gave ‘permission’ to in the playoffs. It became a contest of ‘win at any cost’ – no skillshockey required

    • Bob LeBlanc

      Great piece. I wonder if Don Cherry was cheering on the hooligans, both on and off the ice.

      Bob LeBlanc

  7. Tanner Kyle

    It’s one thing to compare the officiating in this series to that of the Summit series, but it should be noted that Canada came through and beat the soviets in spite of being given the short end of the stick. Boston won because they were the better, harder working team. The series may have gone in a completely different direction if Vancouver weren’t plagued with so many injuries (missing 25% of their starting roster from the regular season). Boston were healthier and stronger. That’s it. I liked pretty much everything else you said though.

  8. Steve Wilkinson

    Excellent article! You said so many things I was thinking while watching the games, as well as during and after the rioting, much better than I could have. And, your point in linking this to broader behavior in society is right on target!

  9. Andrew

    Here’s what Kerry Fraser says in the last paragraph of his final column for the year ( Maybe this will have some influence on the way next year’s playoffs are called.

    “When the ‘new NHL’ returned from the lockout season, penalties were expected to be called from the first game of the season to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup. In every game, regardless of the score or time remaining the mandate was the same – that penalties would be called. Brendan Shanahan was the key orchestrator that brought everyone to the table during that crucial time in the history of the game and crafted the guidelines for a ‘new NHL.’ Brendan Shanahan is now in a position to greatly assist in bringing that mandate back. Here’s to the “New – New NHL.” “

  10. Ryan Munn

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your thorough comments regarding Wednesday night. As someone who had the luxury of watching both disastrous events from the safety of my living room, I feel like a spectator in my response, but here I go nonetheless.

    I’m somewhat shocked that you neglected to mention the riot and destruction of property during the G20 summit in Toronto last year. Not only are there possible socio-cultural connections (anarchists, camera-gawkers), but it strikes at the heart of your argument that the Vancouver riot happened because people had the ‘permission’ to riot/there was a lack of enforcement. Did folks have the same ‘permission’ in Toronto (with over 10,000 uniformed officers and $1 billion spent)? Was the province/country being lenient in is preparations to enforce the law? Whatever happened in Vancouver, doesn’t the Toronto incident show that people will riot with, or without, permission? That a willingness to enforce the law doesn’t translate into obedience to that same law?

    I’m also surprised that you didn’t link the violence on ice with the violence off it. Permission or not, what could this say about our cultural values? Doesn’t this say more about how we, as a society, are training our young men to behave than about how much we enforce the law? I suggest that your program for the enforcement of law and order would be totally moot the moment we start to care more about the development of our character rather than the management of our behaviour. (Forgive me for a little hyperbole!)

    I will grant that more deterrence could have prevented Wednesday evenings riot (likewise with the gameplay). Either a greater police (referee) presence or a greater willingness to enforce. Yet, that by no means guarantees safety (or even good hockey!). Like the athletes playing for the cup, who have trained on-ice and off every day, who have thought and breathed the stanley cup for years or more, and who have submitted themselves to the process of becoming an elite hockey player, I offer that those involved in the riot (and the cleanup) are being similarly formed. It is only when we understand these processes of character development that we can fully articulate ways of developing as an individual, a group, or a society.

    • John Stackhouse

      Brother Ryan,

      Without gainsaying the good points you make here, I didn’t mention the Toronto riots because they seemed at least in large part to be provoked by one or another political/ideological concern and occurred during an obviously political and therefore relevant event. What happened in Vancouver was pointless vandalism after a hockey game. So the two events seem quite different. So I didn’t talk about them both at the same time.

      I certainly am all for shaping people to have good values, as I think you know I am! Given the world as it actually is, however, we do need to encourage those who make laws and those who enforce order to do those jobs and to do them well. In the Peaceable Kingdom, sure, we won’t need that sort of work. But we certainly do now, don’t we?

  11. Ryan Munn

    Goodness, that was quick!! You impress me both with your speed and your thoughtfulness.

    Yes, I grant that we need enforcement now (I may not have a year ago!). Yet should we, as Christians, not point to this sad reality with lament and thereby point to that reality of the Peaceable Kingdom that can be embodied (albeit imperfectly) in the now? I don’t suggest that you aren’t saddened by the need for enforcement, however I don’t believe that it is a dominate theme in this post.

    Re: Toronto, yes they were completely different motivations, but the outcomes were somewhat similar, no? The only reason I force this point is that it seems like enforcement/deterrence is a strategy to prevent an ‘outcome’ rather than deal with a particular ‘motivation’

    (I keep using quotations because I don’t yet know how to use italics in these posts!)

    Thanks John.

    • John Stackhouse

      Again, I don’t think we’re disagreeing on your main concerns. My post, after all, was not focused only on judges, police officers, referees, and other officials, but also on the rest of us who explicitly or implicitly give or withhold permission for evil action. Somehow, thousands of people in Vancouver the other night thought it was perfectly okay to disobey the police’s straightforward order to disperse from a dangerous and illegal mob situation. Dozens and dozens thought it all right to break or steal other people’s property and to terrorize their neighbours. Those signals of permission didn’t come only from officials, but from much broader networks of values and sanctions: law and order of a much more extensive sort. So I hope I’m not understood as merely calling for more police or a “tougher stance on crime” or any other such simplistic responses to a complex situation.

  12. Cricket

    Living in ‘hockeyville’ in Northern Ontario has been an unpleasant eye-opener – hockey is no longer a sport, it is a culture of narcissistic bullies. Hockey night in Canada is Don Cherry and his defense of the enforcers. I have watched one game in the past twenty years, a world junior hockey game that left me nauseous with it’s violence. I blame the NHL for fostering and encouraging this nastiness and by so doing feeding into the fans lust for violence. The NHL gets richer and has no incentive to stop the violence. How many players have to die or become permanently disabled before the fans say enough?

    Well written article.

  13. Dee

    Well said, John. I wonder what your dad would have thought of the games in this series.

  14. Mike Z

    I think the writer made some very good points, but the truth is, the riots were planned and instigated by a small group of men, easily able to work up a crowd of drunken young men, and had very little to do with the game itself. A few commenters also rightly pointed out that the writer is, at best, VERY tone deaf to the phrase “law and order” a phrase that has been appropriated and used by fascists and reactionaries from Hitler to Stalin to Nixon to Reagan and a pretext for violent police action against legitimate dissent across the eras in fascist, crypto-fascist and other authoritarian regimes.

    • John Stackhouse

      I can assure Brother Mike that I am not as unaware of the rhetorical uses of “law and order” as he seems to think I am. I taught university courses on the rise of totalitarianism in Europe more than twenty years ago, and before that was well schooled in 20C discourse of this sort by my Marxist and socialist professors of European and North American intellectual history respectively.

      I am enough of a contrarian to refuse to allow the phrase “law and order” to be available only as a tool of propaganda. Law itself is a good thing. So is order. And the danger with comments like Mike’s and others’ is that if we are so worried about the misuse of such terms by oppressive powers, we might leave ourselves without the appropriate vocabulary with which to avoid the opposite and destructive extreme of anarchy as well–which is precisely the stupid, inarticulate “politics” of the anarchists he has in mind. “Well, if power is used to oppress, I guess all power is wrong. Same with law. Some with order. Same with words. Same with electricity. Same with due process and human rights and private property and….”

      I like law and order. I don’t see them as supreme values, of course–as my original post makes clear. And of course “law and order” can be misused to mask and legitimate evil. So can “liberty” and “the people” and “justice” and even “Jesus Christ.” But so what? So we stop using the terms?

      I’d rather use them properly to communicate some important ideas and hope others will allow me to use them that way without constantly reminding me that other people (mis)use them differently. I know they do, but why chide me for using them rightly?

      Let’s keep the terms we need to set out the intermediate position(s) I believe Mike and I would agree we need to pose against extremes of both sorts.

  15. Steve Wilkinson

    I am far from a hockey expert… but just wanted to comment that I do think the fans bear a great deal of responsibility in how the games are refereed. I mean, there is NASCAR and F1, boxing and UFC, wrestling and WWF. These organizations are going to deliver what the fans want. If that is a bunch of street brawling on skates rather than hockey, they will adjust accordingly to deliver the goods.

    If, after the first couple Boston games, we’d all just have tuned out and made it known we weren’t tuning back in until there was some descent effort to control all the less-than-hockey behavior, they would change… if not for the final games, there would be some serious conversations before the next season. No fans -> no advertisers -> no money -> no hockey.

    The problem, IMO, is that there are actually many who would rather see brawling than well-played hockey. That is sad to me, as while I haven’t followed pro hockey closely, I grew up watching the Wisconsin Badgers play. I can also say that I enjoyed watching those games much more than several of the games in this series. I nearly did turn them off, and they ended up being background while I worked on other things.

    I’m sure that speaks to the riots to at least some extent. Whether it was initiated by some determined individuals, or simply broke out due to angry drunken stupidity (do angry drunken people typically bring along gasoline and other accelerants?), it was quite clear that it was egged on by the crowd and the crowd was fascinated by it enough to thwart the police’s efforts to effectively stop it. And, that fascination – I dare say longing for – violence plays a big part in both as far as I can tell.

  16. Bill Mitchell

    Should we start from the referee, or do we look more widely? The media tell us that hockey is in our national DNA, that our coming-of-age as a nation was defined when St Paul scored that goal against the Russians almost forty years ago.

    Is Margaret Wente right: “For better or for worse, hockey is a mirror of ourselves”? (Globe and Mail, June 17). Is the senseless violence of Wednesday night the corollary of the violence on the ice? Spectacular hits on the ice bring us to our feet in frenzied acclaim. Our gladiators drop the gloves and we are alive, baying for blood, calling for ‘justice’. The resentments and the desire for revenge are carried over from game to game and even season to season—TV highlights keep the dramatic hits and fights fresh in our minds.

    Unwittingly we are complicit in the violence. The sport’s administrators hide behind the mantra of hockey as ‘a full-body sport’, or tell us that “it’s what the fans want” (that’s us!). To be true, there is another side to our hockey teams, not only the skill, the craft, and even the genius, but the contribution they make to our communities—promoting deserving causes, contributing generously, etc. In a time devoid of heroes, they have become our heroes. They are also role models for a rising generation. But it is double-edged, and their approach to conflict resolution—drop the gloves—spills over into other areas of life, not only on Vancouver streets.

    The referee or the refereeing is too often our scapegoat, it’s us, as you rightly conclude, who must step up.

  17. Matt

    I’m a fellow believer, so peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Beyond that common ground, we have little–if anything–to agree upon regarding this post.

    Full disclosure: I’m a Colorado Avalanche fan, and my wife is from back East, so we cheered on the Bruins in these Finals. It’s clear you’re a Vancouver fan, so I just wanted to make my biases known upfront.

    Contrary to what you’ve written, I’ll submit that what transpired in Vancouver is, in fact, a Vancouver problem. Not a hockey problem. Not a refereeing problem. A Vancouver problem.

    Here are four reasons:

    1) It was Vancouver fans who rioted after its team lost Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals against the New York Rangers;

    2) It was Vancouver fans who cheered loudly after Todd Bertuzzi’s blatant retaliation against Avalanche player Steve Moore in 2004, a hit that ended Moore’s career. And while Bertuzzi was suspended the rest of that season, he was able to continue his career. Moore was not so fortunate (the retaliation, by the way, was for a hit Moore made against Vancouver’s Markus Naslund in a previous game, which the NHL later reviewed and deemed legal);

    3) It was a Vancouver player who BIT THE FINGER of a Boston player in Game 1, and a Vancouver player who made an illegal hit (see a trend?) against Boston’s Nathan Horton in Game 3, resulting in a severe concussion for Horton that ended his season;

    4) It was Vancouver fans who Incessantly booed during the presentation of the Conn Smythe trophy and Stanley Cup after the game, an unsportsmanlike gesture to say the least.

    Hockey can be a violent sport, no doubt. Whether it’s appropriate for Christ-followers to watch and support it is a bigger question worthy of examination in a different time and place. But in response to what you’ve posted above, here’s how I see it: The law and order lost after the game was not a mirror of the sport of hockey. It was the mirror of an organization with a repeated ethos of lawlessness and disrespect to opponents throughout its history.

    And what was reflected in Vancouver on its streets afterward was nothing short of ugly.

    • John Stackhouse

      Not much point responding to this comment, is there? So I’ll just encourage others not to rise to the bait, either, and leave this one to be judged on its evident merits.

  18. Once More on the Riots « Tu By Tu

    […] Stackhouse, a theology professor at Regent College, has written a thought-provoking reflection on the Vancouver riots (and playoff hockey refereeing). It’s worth reading. He diagnoses the […]

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks, Dan, for this helpful link. True, I do regret that I’m implicitly slammed as a lackey of oppressive imperial injustice in my willingness to use the phrase “law and order” as at least in some respects non-evil. (I thought I did a nice job of defending that usage in my reply to #17–pity I didn’t convince you!)

      But the main point of your article is important and well put. Indeed, it is my acquaintance with you personally, as well as my reading in 20C social and political thought, that prompts me to the make the distinctions I do in the foregoing, and particularly to laugh off various eminences’ attempts to blame “anarchists” and “protesters” for this stupid, selfish vandalism.

      • Dan

        I wasn’t intending to take any digs at you. I wrote that piece before I read yours. I know we will disagree about “law and order” (and that’s okay), in my bit I was more concerned about false constructions of “anarchism” and why those occur and gain rapid traction amongst the public.

        • John Stackhouse

          I am, as the KJV says wonderfully in one place, “not a little comforted” by your assurances! And yes, once I’m back in Vancouver for an extended time (say, by mid-July), let’s get together and catch up.

  19. Michael

    A cogent analysis of what was wrong with the hockey, and how it contributed to the atmosphere of permission that helped things go so wrong after game 7.

    I can’t agree with you about the ability of the authorities to have planned and executed an alternative scenario, though. More police, yes (there’s no mystery why the chief won’t release the actual numbers of officers he put on the street – anyone could see the numbers were unacceptably small), but more importantly, how can they justify not giving the crowd something else to do? A free concert in the park, fireworks over the bay, several things in several different places to disperse the crowd, and give them something to do. Instead, they left 100,00 frustrated (and many of them, drunk) people downtown with nothing to do and with insufficient supervision, which was just simply bad planning.

    The NHL should also fix the playoff refereeing.


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