The five warning signs of a sports riot

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 15: Rioters try to flip a car on June 15, 2011 in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver broke out in riots after their hockey team the Vancouver Canucks lost in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The contrast between Canadians’ peaceful nature and the way we can become thugs when we pick up hockey sticks is hilarious comedy for the stand-up crowd. But it’s no joke when the violence spills over the boards and out into the streets. The Vancouver hockey riot of 2011 was the last big one, but with two Canadian teams still in the playoffs, we’re not out of the woods riot-wise.

Of course, a sports riot is certainly not like the violence that’s popping up in the U.S. right now, and it would be wrong to compare Canadian skirmishes with what’s happen south of the border right now.

But the Vancouver 2011 riot cost the city more than a million in damages and prompted the city to overhaul the way it holds public events, so it’s not trivial stuff.

In that spirit, here are five factors that come together to form a hockey riot, some of which are avoidable, some the product of a good playoff run. But when they come together, the consequences can be severe

1. A championship game.

If there’s any consolation, this first requirement ensures riots are rare in this country.

Generally, you don’t get riots in the first round, and you don’t get them after a four-game sweep. For passion to runneth over, there needs to be passion in the first place, and that requires a meaningful game.

“The structural conditions that tend to predict (a riot) are championship play, or very important play, having not won in a recent time configuration and a close exciting game,” says Jerry M. Lewis, emeritus professor of sociology at Ohio’s Kent State University.

There are exceptions, notably in Montreal, where the Canadiens first-round victory over Boston in 2008 caused celebratory violence, but this was Habs-Bruins we’re talking about and it was a seven-gamer.

And the idea of a long championship drought making violence more likely? That’s in play even in Montreal, where it’s been 22 years since the last Cup parade.

A rioting fans identifies very strongly with his team, but he can’t shoot a dramatic goal. Their feat of skill becomes an act of violence, throwing a brick through a window, turning over a car

—Jerry M. Lewis, emeritus professor of sociology, Ohio State

 2. A crowed public space.

The game ends and the crowd exhales after a championship nail-biter. Everyone’s either going nuts with joy or crying into their hats. This isn’t a problem unless there are big numbers involved.

One of the lessons of the 2011 Vancouver riot was to kibosh the big public viewing spaces that broadcasters and advertisers love so much. That tracking camera shot over the heads of twenty thousand people jammed on to a street to watch the final? That’s going to be trouble when the buzzer sounds. A two-block “Fan Zone” in Vancouver became ground zero for the trouble as Game 7 between Boston and Vancouver started to get lopsided in the Bruins’ favour.

“Scientifically, we know that people will do thing in crowd that they wouldn’t do on their own,” says Vancouver Police Sgt. Randy Fincham.

The presence of parked cars on nearby streets made matters worse, as several were damaged and some set on fire.

3. Crowds traveling on transit

Not to take up the war-on-cars cause, but the fuel for a sports riot is people.

Politicians like to blame ‘thugs’ that rode in on the subway for this kind of thing. It’s an easy excuse for a situation that get’s out of control, but it has at least a partial ring of truth to it.

Vancouver estimates that its TransLink service carried up to 200,000 more riders than normal on Game 7 night in 2011, and the experts say there are usually more than a few bad apples who arrive from the outer regions.

And along with the anonymity of the crowd, there’s the ‘whatever happens in Vegas thing’, where you go somewhere else and can pretend you’re someone else for one night.

4. Cameras everywhere

It’s fun to blame social media for everything, so let’s do it for this, too. Typically, when the media gets hold of a building riot, there’s a crush of additional people who come out to either watch or join in the destruction. With social media, this happens wayyy faster than when you had to wait for first intermission news update.

Tied in with all that comes the urge to perform. “I call it a feat of skill. A rioting fans identifies very strongly with his team, but he can’t shoot a dramatic goal,” says Lewis. “Their feat of skill becomes an act of violence, throwing a brick through a window, turning over a car.”

Of course, the flipside of all this is that the riot lives on in the YouTube universe, and provides police with evidence to make arrests.

Ah, social media, the cause and solution to so many of life’s problems.

5. Alcohol

No explanation needed for this one. Whatever idiocy you’re going to get into sober will be magnified after a few. Police can pour out open alcohol in public, but you’re not going to keep the crowd sober on a playoff night.

But even with the booze-fueled bad judgment, Lewis says that North American sports riots tend to result in destruction of property, but relatively little person-to-person violence. Injuries tend to result from falls, getting hit by flying objects, or encounters with police.