Vancouver: A Case of Severe Sports Fandom

October 1, 2011

During the Stanley Cup finals last June, British Columbians were even more juiced about the Canucks than we had been about the Olympics. We lay awake. “Fan Anxiety at an All-Time High,” the Province declared after Game 4 in Boston. When the games were actually on, we could barely watch. Yet watch we did. By Game 7, 96 percent of TVs in Vancouver were tuned in. A Boston Globe columnist covering the series sensed the level of investment here, the desperation of a (with all respect to the Lions) one-sport town. “Boston fans may want the Cup,” he concluded. “These people need it.”

Polls consistently rank B.C. as the least religiously declared place in the country. Yet we have religion. Our god is a marine mammal. He is an Old Testament deity who tests, tempts, torments. We respond with prayer flags on our cars and shrines (jerseys on the Stanley Park lions, a tinfoil Cup for Lord Stanley) because there is a curse to be defused, to be met with all the countervailing magical thinking we can muster. Vince Murdocco, of Café Calabria on Commercial Drive, admitted a cone of silence was in place at the bar: the Canucks could not be mentioned lest they be jinxed.

Last season’s Cup run changed lives. It was a coming-out party for rookie Chris Tanev, the Green Men, and the bloggers of Pass It to Bulis. It was a bonanza for Rogers, Cory Schneider, the guys who built that EA forecast engine, and probably Stanfields. (Maybe even floral shops, as guys tried to make it up to their wives for three months of widowhood.) It was a reclamation project for Kevin Bieksa, a reformation project for Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows, a canonization for the guy who defended The Bay during the riots, and a disaster for Keith Ballard, Easton sticks, and police chief Jim Chu.

And when it was all finally over, the relief. The players, almost all hobbled, reported to sick bay. (Can we agree that a hockey season is almost unconstitutionally long?) Fans doddered out into the spring haze unkempt, dazed, looking as if they’d been sprung from a 64-day hostage-taking. There could no longer be doubt that the psyche of the Canucks fan is fragile. But do we understand how it all came to this? And how to prevent a relapse?

People forget how dire things were in the late ’90s—the disastrous Mike Keenan/Mark Messier era—when incoming GM Brian Burke barked, “For a quarter [the price of a phone call] we can move this team!” The next day a thousand quarters were dropped off at Canucks head office.

The transition from hate-on to crush was miraculously quick. It started with a coup: Burke’s horse-trading to acquire two redheaded Swedish teens in the same draft in Boston. (“No one,” Burke announced, “is leaving Boston with both Sedins except me.”) It continued with a stroke of marketing brilliance. “We Are All Canucks” (which beat out “I Am A Canuck” in part because the latter was too close to Molson’s “Joe” Canada thing) upset the fussy-ass calculus of who are allowed to call themselves Canucks fans. No more fraternity of season-ticket holders. Everyone aboard! (Today, 36 percent of the fan base is female.) The club now ices a squad whose international mix, its cosmopolitan panache, speaks to this multi-ethnic city. During Game 1 of the San Jose series my family went to eat at a popular East Side restaurant called Bombay Bhel. It was empty (including most staff). As many as half the travelling Canucks fans—a group radio host Blake Price calls “the Blue Whale”—are Indo-Canadian.

Fandom, a Boston writer noted, is a useful window on how loyalty works. Sports teams are “loyalty-making machines, which exist to create fans out of people who might not otherwise care about them by reaching into their heads and pushing the right buttons.” And indeed, “We Are All Canucks” implied an expected fidelity to the team, brand, players, management, and hot-dog sellers—whether the team was winning or not.

Happily, we were winning. For the first time, one of the most losing teams in the NHL (1,248 wins, 1,363 losses, 379 ties, 64 overtime losses) was favoured to hoist the Cup. The fans responded by filling the building through 363 straight sellouts—one of the top-five streaks for any sports team in North America. They couldn’t get enough of this team constructed painstakingly and at great expense with dogged attention to little things (the sleep coach, the nutritionists). This league of extraordinary gentlemen with its all-world goalie, the game’s deepest defence, and “more top-6 forwards than a lineup can hold,” as columnist Roy MacGregor gushed. After the Olympics it was our year, baby! Time to believe.

All-sports radio, which arrived in Vancouver a decade ago, must be implicated in the buildup as well. It has bred a kind of neuroticism in Canucks fans—over-arming them with minutiae, a million reasons to question and second-guess and demand results. We love and defend and criticize these players. We are high-maintenance: tetchy, rapid-cycling, moody, in need of constant reassurance, confident in our opinions. “I’m not sure there’s a ton of in-betweens” within the fanbase, says Barry Macdonald, a veteran radio host with Team 1040 radio. “They’re either over the moon with passion or they’re ready to head to the nearest bridge.”

With Google that obsessiveness has only grown. “We used to have people phone us at Sports Page and say, ‘How’d the Canucks do tonight?’” recalls Macdonald. “Now there’s a 24/7 connection” to the team. “You can click a button and find out that Mason Raymond is 6-1 and 195 and born in Cochrane, Alberta.” The fans know these guys, or feel they do. “And we know how emotional the connection is.”

Indeed, so tight with the players did many fans feel that watching them get manhandled in the playoffs evoked a complicated response: protectiveness, vulnerability, and a level of empathy usually reserved for our own kids. Will any fan forget the image—the feeling—of Daniel Sedin standing there like Kwai Chang Caine, taking six punches to the face from Bruin Brad Marchand without any retaliation that could hurt his team, until the ref finally called a minor penalty? (It’s not known what Sedin said in response, but the sentence is believed to be, “Brad, use your words.”) A radio caller the next day perfectly captured the frustration. “I know he has this ethic of passiveness but fuck it, he’s a man, too!” And we, supposedly, are the most hated team in hockey? The indignity.

It qualifies as an addiction, by many measures: the obsessive thoughts, the mood swings, the jonesing between games. (Hard-core fans, experts say, experienced a spike in blood-cortisol levels every time they caught a glimpse of a Canucks logo or a Burrows jersey.) Clinical psychologists pointed out that wins were taking almost the same toll on Canucks fans as losses: stress is stress, as far as the body is concerned. Positive, negative: our physiology reads them as the same thing, and it’s all exhausting and it makes brittle people even brittler. This year, for the first time in club history, it became de rigueur to be a Canucks fan. This was what Vancouver was all about, and if you wanted to belong you’d better ante in. Once everybody did, once we were “identified,” we were vulnerable to some pretty intense feelings, whichever way things turned out. The lightness that comes when you realize that sport, like life, is insignificant, disappeared.

“You’ve heard of CORFing and BIRG-ing?” asks Adam Earnheardt, an associate communications professor at Youngstown State U in Ohio and the editor of a couple of definitive essay collections on fan behaviour. Turns out there’s a whole academic discipline devoted to how fans manage the powerful emotions their teams evoke. The hard-core fans feel their chests swell when their team does well. That’s BIRGing—“Basking in Reflected Glory.” Conversely, when things go south we back away. All Canucks? Maybe you are. That’s CORFing—“Cutting off Responsibility for Failure.” BIRGing and CORFing were happening in spades as the team ground its way through the playoffs. After big wins we flew the colours, donned the jerseys, used the royal we. After the midseries stinkers in Chicago and Boston, half the fan base was CORFing up a lung.

Another wave of CORFing followed the riots. My pal Drew, a huge Canucks fan, happened to be attending a conference at Harvard on the day of Game 7. Following the loss he found himself riding a train out of Boston. A woman in the cabin was wearing a sweatshirt with “Vancouver” on it, and the Bostonian across from Drew pointed it out. “Oh, I’m not from there,” she said quickly. “I visited once. I didn’t stay long.”

When the team fails, deeply committed fans have a cognitive-dissonance problem. How to reconcile its greatness with the poor outcome? Clearly the team got jobbed. To externalize a loss is to blame poor puck luck, the crappy ice at TD Garden, or biased refereeing. (You saw a lot of this in the Boston series.) Everyone and everything is at fault—except your guys.

So you shield yourself from disappointment. Canucks pessimists pride themselves on their intelligence and their long, sharp memories. They’re the skeptics on phone-in shows and forums. They’ve bookmarked that clip of the nail-biter ending to the 2005-06 Calgary playoff series, when the gods gave (Shorthouse: “Cooke ties the game with 5.7 seconds left!” Larscheid: “Who says prayer does not work?! Of course prayer works! This is unbelievable!”), then cruelly took away again, the Canucks losing in overtime to Calgary—Calgary! You maintain distance. After that lopsided loss against the Bruins in Game 6, after-market tickets for the final match plunged 20 percent as ticketholders bailed in droves. “These are people who don’t believe the Canucks are going to win the game,” broker Mario Livich told the Globe and Mail. “If people believe, they’ll pay anything.”

“Before y’all get too hopeful,” that same paper began, following the Canucks’ decisive opening win against the hated Blackhawks, “remember that the Canucks won Game One last year, too. And the year before that.”

Such strategy—all fan behaviour—is really about status maintenance. You risk losing face if you start gassing on about your team and then their play goes in the tank. So you hedge. “Baseball fans may be hesitant to brag about a victory in the first game of a double-header because their social identity will again be at risk during the Second Game,” wrote Murray State U psychologist Daniel Wann.

Don’t get too high; don’t fall too low. Ensure there’s a governor on the engine to keep the revs in check. Even orangutans like Team 1040’s Dave Pratt were imploring fans to get some perspective, to appreciate the year the lads gave us. Yet the tools of disappointment management failed us. Even crusty skeptics allowed themselves to let pessimism dissolve in favour of faith. After the Game 2 blowout of the Sharks, Pratt at Team 1040 released T-shirts: “The Wait Is Over.” A local car dealership “guaranteed” a winning season by offering $200 rebates to customers “if we’re not celebrating a Cup victory come June.” The team made the finals, then was up 2-0, then 3-2. On. The. Doorstep.

Vancouver’s riot “meets all the criteria of a major sports riot”—deep in a championship series; natural urban gathering place; lots of liquored-up young males—“except one,” says Jerry Lewis, an emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State University and author of Sports Fan Violence in North America. “It was by the fans of the losing team.”

Strangely, losers don’t riot. At least not around here. Among English soccer fans you do see vanquished fans so identified with their team that a loss feels like a blow that cannot go unanswered. But there’s a difference. In Britain the fans are proxies for the players: the guy in the Birmingham City shirt whales on the guy from Aston Villa. Here were guys in Canucks jerseys whaling on other guys in Canucks jerseys. In the more than 200 sports riots Lewis has analyzed, none followed a loss by the home team. Only us. And now we’ve done it twice.

For Lewis, solving that mystery has become a priority. Youngstown State’s Adam Earnheardt is toying with a theory that the Vancouver riots may have been an odd, violent variant of CORFing. If CORFing is just distancing yourself from failure, then “after the game I had two options. I could take off my Canucks jersey or I could burn a couch,” he muses. “It’s sort of like, ‘I didn’t get that job, so as I’m walking out I punch a hole in the wall.’ ” Of course that still doesn’t explain why it’s happened only here. Earnheardt admits he’s stumped. “This is something we’re going to be looking at for years.”

Was social media a factor? History may show that the Stanley Cup riot marked the moment when Facebook et al. toggled from stimulant to deterrent. The lasting image of the riots is of some hooligan atop a burning car ringed by a forest of onlookers hoisting cellphone cameras. The attention itself seemed to be the accelerant to mayhem. (That attention would of course be the rope that hung the offenders. One blogger suggested a fitting punishment might be medieval stockades: it’d be the attention they so craved, albeit a more analogue version.)

Some Vancouverites suggested a deep rot lurks in the civic psyche. In this place, where crushing poverty goes unseen from the towers of affluence, young men with no prospects, forced by larcenous rents to live in their parents’ basements, act out. “We need to confront and deal with core issues, or we will have accomplished nothing,” as one blogger put it. Some of which is no doubt true. Maybe in his review of the riot, John Furlong will turn over some stones. But all evidence suggests it’s not the disenfranchised who show up to sports riots. It’s the middle class.

“Here’s a way to reduce riots,” one fan helpfully pointed out. “Win.” Win not just once but continually and you’ll quench the restive fires of hooliganism. “The Laker fans got bored by the time Kobe won his 5th title—here were no more riots.” Sounds good, but Professor Lewis says it doesn’t wash. Nor, incidentally, can the violence be pinned on the nature of the game. Researchers find no correlation between the brutality of the sport and the brutality of the riots; baseball riots are as rough as they come.

Maybe what we saw was a little of the dark side of brand loyalty. Peer pressure, of the sort built by slogans like “We Are All Canucks,” cuts both ways. Yes, it can create a positive group spirit, what sociologist Emile Durkheim called the “collective effervescence” that blooms when people feel part of something larger and more important than themselves. But it also, as the University of Houston’s Brené Brown has proposed, may strip individuals of their identity and promote us all to the status of a mob, all the better to sell us a uniform of over-priced jerseys.

Boston didn’t “outclass” us by not rioting; it outplanned us. Its police were ready—and mustered in numbers—because they didn’t indulge a fiction that the citizens were somehow above rioting. Their faith was in the data, the immutability of human nature, and the certainty that given the chance to do so, some people will go rogue.

“It’s the culture of sport, and that doesn’t change,” says Lewis. “They had riots in the 1600s between villagers in England. It’s sport that creates the culture of the potential for rioting.” Not, then, something you can “grow out of”? “No. As a sociologist said, ‘Every culture is invaded by barbarians—young white males.’

“The riot is the fault of the Vancouver Canucks,” Lewis continues. “Because they did well. That’s the terrible irony. In sport, you want the fans to cheer and even be a little rowdy. Ownership wants the crowd to be excited—up to a point. But what that point is they can’t control.” Everyone in the Canucks system—from the Aquilinis who opened their wallets to the scouts who found the players to the marketing department that created that slogan—did their job, you might say, just a bit too well.

By failing to win in its first trip to the finals, maybe this current group actually did itself a favour. Researchers have discovered that teams that lose strengthen their bonds with fans. If the very definition of a true sports fan is commitment through thick and thin, then it’s the hiccups that test loyalty. “We’re getting to the point now,” says Barry Macdonald, “where we may have a third and even the start of a fourth generation of Canucks fans who are familiar with tales of woe.” But so long as the players keep showing up with an honest effort, you have the makings of an Old World morality tale. “The work of one generation,” as an essayist and lifelong Red Sox fan noted, “contributes to a better life for those that follow.…Thus the misery of the sports fan can be cast as a badge of honour.”

“Everyone loves when an underdog becomes an overdog,” said U2 singer Bono, speaking of the apparently Cup-bound Canucks this summer after that bizarre moment when he was picked up while hitchhiking by Edmonton Oilers forward Gilbert Brule. But of course Bono was wrong. When fans of perennially losing teams do win they can feel like the dog that caught the car. Their whole raison d’être is suddenly in question. In 2004, after the Red Sox fans finally saw their team win the World Series after an 84-year-drought, the Sporting News corked out this headline: “Sox fans, destined to lose, conditioned to lose, born to lose, must face a startling new reality: their lives have no meaning!”

Luckily, that’s not us.

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