Hockey’s Loss, Vancouver’s Shame

The NHL season ended on Wednesday night, not a moment too soon. Unfortunately it didn’t end so much with the crowning of the Boston Bruins as the Stanley Cup Champions as with the city of Vancouver in flames. Riots broke out after the game. Cars were overturned and set ablaze. Stores were looted. Downtrodden fans started fist fights with other downtrodden fans. The questions raised in the final’s aftermath aren’t so much about why the Canucks lost. Instead people wonder how so many could lose their cool over a hockey game.

Yet it’s still worthwhile to reflect on the final and game 7 in particular. It’s hard not to begin with goaltending. After game two, Boston outscored Vancouver 21 – 4. Yet no matter how poorly Luongo played, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault went back to him in the next game. His unwavering faith reflects a mindset I don’t quite understand. If your starting goalie plays really poorly, why not go with your back up for at least one game? Isn’t this one reason why a team has two goalies? Schneider is regarded as the most capable back-up goalie in the league. He won most of the games in which he played this season. And Luongo’s body language suggests the pressure of winning the cup was too much for him to bear. Perhaps he needed to feel as though the burden of winning a championship was being shared by not only all the other forwards and defensemen, but the other goalie as well. This is why I would have played Schneider in game 4 in Boston. Luongo couldn’t stop a beach ball in game 3. If Vancouver wins game 4 with Schneider in goal, then Luongo has to win one game in the next three. If Vancouver loses game 4, Luongo at least knows it wasn’t due to his shabby play. He wouldn’t feel compelled to bare his soul to the media, as he has in the past. “I let my teammates down,” has become one of Luongo’s familiar post-season laments.

Not that anyone should blame Luongo for the Canucks losing game 7. After Vancouver’s initial barrage, Boston was the better team. More importantly and perhaps surprisingly, they were the faster team. Indeed the first two goals were perfect illustrations of what sort of skill set is required to win in the playoffs. In an era in which every player is strong, fast and skilled, the line between winning and losing is increasingly fine. What’s often needed are players who can find that extra split second or two and who can create that tiny bit of extra space to make plays that lead to goals.  Vancouver won the draw on the play that led to the game’s first goal. Yet Boston’s Brad Marchand took the puck and, because of his quickness, was allowed the time and space to find Patrice Bergeron for one of those point blank shots Vancouver had to eliminate if they had any chance of winning. Vancouver, by contrast, simply couldn’t muster the sort of speed that leads to quality scoring chances. The Sedins, for all their creativity, were relentlessly beaten down the whole series. After using his speed and skill to dominate in the first three rounds, Ryan Kesler looked noticeably slower in the final. This is why the loss of Dan Hamhuis in game one and Mason Raymond for all of but the first few seconds of game 6 and all of game 7 were so devastating to Vancouver’s chances. Hamhuis is defensively sound, elusive and extremely quick: he likely would not have been beaten down low by Marchand on the play that ended in his wrap around goal. Raymond will never be accused of having soft hands around the net, but his speed puts pressure on the opposition’s defense and often creates opportunities for his line mates. As it was, once Boston scored first Vancouver’s ability to generate pressure was absolutely minimal. Thomas earned the shutout, but he was rarely required to be brilliant or acrobatic.

But, of course, the game’s real story happened after the final buzzer sounded and the cup was awarded to the Bruins.  Many of the tens of thousands who faithfully and peacefully gathered on Granville Streets and Georgia Streets for the entire playoffs lost their composure and any sense of perspective. Much of the city appeared to be under attack. Vancouver was being compared to Athens: both cities were in flames, although for much different reasons. The Canucks were Canada’s representative in the final; but the post-game violence and goonery reveals a stark division between the city of Vancouver’s emotional investment in the cup and that of the rest of the country. Most watching outside of Vancouver probably turned off their televisions before the cup was awarded, particularly east of Manitoba. The game was out of reach by the end of the second period. It was late and sleep was preferable to mourning over Vancouver’s loss. People had to go to work in the morning, had lives to lead. You can imagine what they might have said as they dealt with their disappointment. “It’s only a game, after all.”

You wouldn’t know it seeing the images of overturned cars, Molotov cocktails and riot police struggling to keep control of Vancouver’s streets. To what should we attribute this widely shared loss of sanity? It’s clearly due in part to the combination of big crowds, too much liquid courage and a stinging loss. But I would suggest something more. The city’s heightened expectations are a function of the elusive nature of championships. Those gathering in the streets understood that opportunities to play in a Stanley Cup final are few and far between. The days of dynasties, of successive cup victories like those enjoyed by Montreal in the 60s and 70s and the New York Islanders in the 80s are long, long gone. The season is now so long, the playoffs such a grind and the challenge of keeping deeply talented teams together for many years so tough that championships are now more elusive than ever. Indeed it is easy imagine both Vancouver and Boston watching the playoffs after Round One next year, and not playing in them.

The riots cap off what has been a tough year for hockey. The world’s best player, Sidney Crosby, was concussed and forced to miss the second half of the season and the playoffs. Boston’s gifted and most creative player, Marc Savard, suffered another possibly career ending concussion. In this year’s final, Canuck’s defenseman Aaron Rome ended Nathan Horton’s final prematurely with a crushing hit the Bruin’s player didn’t see coming. As seems to happen every few seasons at least, the game’s beauty is eclipsed by its less savory features – the fights and the devastating injuries. Now hockey’s image problems are not simply due to what occasionally happens on the ice.  For all of their passion, Vancouver’s fans didn’t do the game any favors on Wednesday night.