VANCOUVER – It took only hours to change the world’s opinion of the city of Vancouver from a shining Olympic host to a hooligan-infested danger zone.
Images of gleeful hockey fans setting fire to vehicles, taunting police, smashing windows and looting stores after their team lost the Stanley Cup have appeared around the world.
The riot left many residents of the city mortified, shamed and wondering how to recover from such an ugly black eye.
Bob Whitelaw, an investigator who looked into the 1994 Vancouver riot after the Vancouver Canucks lost the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, said it will take years to recover the city’s good image.
“It’s a million dollars of property damage, a billion dollars worth of image destruction for Vancouver,” he said in an interview from Ottawa.
In many ways this riot was worse that the 1994 melee, Whitelaw said, because this story spread to a global audience.
Bob Glass, president of The Downtown Vancouver Association, agreed that the damage to the city’s reputation worldwide was “incalculable.”
The images of marauding hooligans spread from NBC and CNN in North America to television networks in Britain and across Europe, erasing people’s memories of the beautiful 2010 Olympic city and replacing them with images of violence.
“It’s going to take years, not months, to retrieve the good image, in my opinion,” Whitelaw said. “The riot (Wednesday) was worse in many ways than the one we investigated in ’94.”
Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu said the city is mourning both the loss of the Stanley Cup and the loss of its reputation at the hands of criminals.
“But I now urge everyone to quickly get past this and help us bring these people to justice. This will truly send a message to the world about what we are and what we believe.”
Glass called for an inquiry into what went wrong. Fans had gathered for six previous games in the Stanley Cup series against the Boston Bruins for both wins and losses with little trouble.
“I think I speak for many Vancouverites: We all want it to be a fun city and we’re hoping and expecting it to be a safe and fun city,” Glass said.
That means that the next opportunity the city has to celebrate, safety measures should be in place to prevent these kinds of incidents, he said.
But erasing the images of the 2011 riot won’t be as easy as the 1994 riot. Hundreds of people took pictures and video and loaded those images onto the Internet almost as quickly.
Zdenka Buric, a managing partner with National Public Relations, said those pictures won’t go away, so they will need to be replaced with new images about the true spirit of Vancouver.
“People saw it during the Olympics, where we had this amazing 17-day event and it was positive and proactive and people were friendly and happy and we welcomed the world.”
Buric, whose firm has offered public relations services for more than three decades, said resetting the dial on the image of Vancouver could mean setting aside a day to take back the city and show support for the police, retailers and fans.
“Send a positive message that this is our city and it is a great place and the anomalous actions of some anarchists rioting and looting really shouldn’t paint a picture of Vancouver,” he said.
While time can erase some of the damage, Buric said the city may also need to take the opportunity to change the channel and show the world again that Vancouver is really a great city.