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Alcohol: What Fuelled the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot

The 2011 Stanley Cup Riot, Speaker Series Presentation May 8th at The Vancouver Police Museum.

A rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns during the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot. Photo Credit: Elopde [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

On the evening of June 15th, 2011, Vancouver’s downtown core erupted into the city’s most destructive riot to date.

It was the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals, the Vancouver Canucks had been slugging it out against the Boston Bruins for six tense games. Over 100,000 fans were packed into the Georgia street Fan Zone—an open-air viewing area with two massive screens. As the game came to a close, with the Canucks losing 4-0, some fans became agitated and began throwing objects at the screen.

In the span of minutes, what began as a few disgruntled fans, broke out into a full-fledged riot when a car was flipped over and set on fire. For the next four hours, fights, looting, vandalism, and street warfare consumed much of downtown Vancouver. When the dust finally settled, many were left wondering, what went so wrong? Was it the police’s response? City planning? Anarchists?

Learn about the 2011 Stanley Cup Riots as told by officers on the front lines. Trial by Media with Officers Lee Patterson and Ken Athans, The Stanley Cup Riots, Through the Lens of the Officers on the Front Lines .

A car overturned and set aflame on the street during the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot. Image Credit: Rommy Ghaly from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

After months of pouring over police data, hours of video footage and witness testimony, investigators came up with a set of similar conclusions. The 2011 Stanley Cup Riot was caused, unsurprisingly, by more than just one thing. It was born out of a cocktail of different factors, such as the makeup of the crowd, the timing of police intervention and issues of communication. But the ‘catalyst,’ the ingredient that ignited the riot, was alcohol.

The prevalence of liquor in the crowd was largely due to failures in planning and enforcement. The city had learned from the previous Stanley Cup Riot in 1994 that the supply of alcohol needed to be significantly limited and regulated. Additional police were stationed at SkyTrain stations to prevent the flow of liquor into the downtown core; security was set up to check people going into the live site; and liquor stores, both private and provincial, were closed early at 4pm.

In the earlier rounds of the playoffs, the VPD’s liquor countermeasures were successful in keeping a mostly dry event. But as the crowds grew in size, the VPD struggled to enforce liquor regulations. According to Douglas Keefe and John Furlong’s independent review of the riot, by game five in the series, the crowd had swelled to over 100,000 and liquor had become so commonplace in the Fan-zone that police made 2,000 liquor pour-outs on that night alone. On the night of the riot, the crowd was estimated to be as large as 120,000 to 160,000 and the police made roughly 3,000 pour-outs.

But what about all the security at the Fan-zone? In an unfortunate error in planning, fencing and barricades weren’t setups until 2 pm. By the time security arrived, at 1:30 pm, one-quarter of the Fan-zone was already filled with people who avoided liquor checks. This is likely how some managed to bring entire kegs of beer into the live site.

With the liquor stores closing early, police were expecting to limit the supply of liquor in the downtown area. However, the closure was advertised 24 hours in advance, allowing ample time for fans to make the necessary preparations. There was also a significant amount of liquor being brought in from the suburbs, where liquor stores were not subject to the 4 pm closure.

Smoke rising from downtown riots after the Canucks game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Smoke rising from downtown during the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot after the Canucks game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup finals. Photo Credit: Matthew Grapengieser [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Despite the police presence at SkyTrain stations all over the lower mainland, there were just too many people to monitor. People were arriving to the stations already inebriated, concealing liquor bottles and drinking openly on the trains. Once the liquor made its way inside the Fan-zone, there was little that could be done. The crowds were too dense for police to move through and their behaviour, inhibited by the booze, soon grew out of control. In their independent review of the riot, Keefe and Furlong went so far as to say that “[if] alcohol consumption could have been controlled at moderate levels… there may not have been a riot.”

A section of our Behind the Lines exhibit at The Vancouver Police Museum reveals post-it notes from the aftermath and clean-up of the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot. Learn more about Vancouver's history with riots in our exhibit, Behind the Lines: A Traffic Story.

A section of our Behind the Lines exhibit at The Vancouver Police Museum reveals post-it notes from the aftermath and clean-up of the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot. Learn more about Vancouver’s history with riots in our exhibit, Behind the Lines: A Traffic Story.

Go behind the front lines of the 2011 riot during our next Speaker Series presentation, The Stanley Cup Riot, with inspectors Lee Patterson and Ken Athans. Both Patterson and Athans were members of the Public Safety Unit and found themselves on the front line, eye to eye with thousands of people intent on violence and many thousands more committed on being in the footprint of the riot.

They will also describe the weeks running up to the event and the pressures placed on officers, on the day of, in addition to the media response. This includes the media speculation on the reasons for the riot and the actual findings through police review and subsequent court cases, both criminal and civil. Book your tickets here!

Written by Matteo Miceli

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