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Downtown Montreal cleans up after hockey-related vandalism

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The Canadian Press
5/13/2010 5:46:45 PM
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MONTREAL -- A downtown Montreal shopkeeper had a sobering thought the morning after celebrations of a shocking hockey victory resulted in looting and dozens of arrests.

Nour Nury wondered, "What if we win the Stanley Cup?"

He imagined the scenario after arriving to work Thursday to sweep debris from his storefront on Ste-Catherine Street, near the spot where three shops were looted the night before.

But for all the headlines about hooliganism, this shopkeeper was like just about everyone else in Montreal: hoping that Les Glorieux would extend their improbable playoff run and go all the way.

Not only is Nury a fan, but the Habs are also good for business. Jerseys and T-shirts were flying off the shelves of his store Thursday.

As for the broken bottles and other debris swept up off the street in front of the shop? It was gone before 9:30 a.m.

Police suggested a tiny fraction -- just one per cent -- of the estimated 50,000-strong throng that had crammed the street were responsible for the previous night's trouble.

They estimated 500 people were involved in the bottle-tossing and unruly behaviour, while a smaller number smashed their way into three stores: a Foot Locker, a liquor store and a trendy clothing boutique.

Authorities say 41 people were arrested and will face charges including break and enter, mischief, assault, armed assault against police officers, and armed robbery.

It's unclear how many were Montreal hockey fans. At least one man detained was from Wisconsin. Another appeared in court, however, wearing handcuffs and a No. 41 Jaroslav Halak jersey on Thursday.

As a preventive measure, police had blocked traffic on Wednesday night along a one-kilometre stretch of Ste-Catherine, the main commercial artery that runs through downtown Montreal. They believe it helped limit the damage.

"The fact that Ste-Catherine was closed to traffic was a huge advantage for us," said Chief-Insp. Sylvain Lemay, who is in charge of operational planning for Montreal police.

"We're satisfied with the way things went even though people took advantage to loot."

While the Canadiens' highly unlikely playoff run has electrified the city, the merchants left sweeping broken beer bottles from their storefronts have mixed feelings about the intensity of the celebrations.

Ste-Catherine had been the site of an impromptu but peaceful party two weeks earlier, when the eighth-seeded Canadiens surprised everyone by knocking off the first-place Washington Capitals.

Revellers were far rowdier when the team shocked the hockey world for a second time on Wednesday by defeating Pittsburgh, the defending champions.

Authorities believe a few bandits used the crowd as cover for their crimes -- so, for instance, while people hurled projectiles at police, thieves seized on that moment of distraction to smash their way into stores.

Police plan to hunt down the perpetrators by scouring the Internet for the many videos shot of the looting, which were captured by onlookers on hand-held recorders and cellphone cams.

Meanwhile, Maskour Khalid spent several hours Wednesday night crouched across the street, nervously watching the scene from the back of his souvenir store.

His shop is located right in front of the clothing boutique which was boarded up Thursday after having been smashed. Khalid had spent hours hoping the crowd would go away.

"Everybody was nervous," he said as he cleared litter from his doorstep on Thursday morning.

"The police, they acted but very late. They have to prevent it."

Premier Jean Charest defended how Montreal police handled the situation. And, in a common refrain heard from authorities here, he repeated that it wasn't true hockey fans who had engaged in the looting.

"We do know there are big crowds and enthusiastic crowds and there can be excesses," he told reporters in Quebec City.

"I think police do the best they can."

A downtown merchant summed up the mixed sentiments on Ste-Catherine Street.

That artery has been the site of the best and worst moments in the city's hockey history, from the many joyous Stanley Cup parades to riots starting with the most infamous one in 1955.

"I'm very happy with what's happened with these guys (the Habs), because no one gave them a chance," said Jean-Jacques Trudel, manager of an audio store near the site of the looting.

"But our concern as merchants is another story."

The skittishness of downtown businesses ahead of the conference finals is well-founded, based on recent history.

A first-round victory over the Boston Bruins in 2008 sparked an even more extensive round of looting than Wednesday night's. A number of vehicles were also torched that night.

The city is currently suing several of those arrested at the time to recoup $160,000 in damages to police cruisers.

All-out riots broke out following Stanley Cup wins in 1986 and 1993. After the 1993 unrest, many Ste-Catherine Street merchants had trouble getting insurance for their storefront windows, Trudel said.

"You have to believe that everyone's goodwill will trump everything else," he said. "Obviously we'll always be worried because we're at the heart of the action."

That being said, the playoff run has been good for business -- especially for merchants selling Habs paraphernalia.

Nury has sold out T-shirts emblazoned with Halak's name. The goalie's spectacular play is a prime reason the Habs are still alive.

He also notes that anything tied to Mike Cammalleri, the team's top sniper, is especially popular with women.

"The top players have been stepping up," he said. "The merchandise that needs to be sold is getting sold."

(with files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City)

Looters in Montreal (Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
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