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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.


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