By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - An NHL season dominated by debate about on-ice violence ended in a riot on the streets of Vancouver after the Canucks were denied a maiden championship by the Stanley cup-winning Boston Bruins.
The shocking scenes provided an ugly backdrop for a violent final that saw players from both teams spend time in hospitals and another handed a Stanley Cup finals record four-game ban for a late hit.
Pictures of an alcohol-fueled rampage by hundreds of young people looting stores and burning cars put the NHL on front pages around the world on Thursday and will do nothing to boost the image of the league or Vancouver, a city regularly rated among the world's best to live in.
The NHL has been particularly sensitive about its image this season in the wake of criticism that it was not doing enough to curb on-ice violence and protect players.
Even during the finals the issue refused to disappear as general managers met to discuss tougher rules on contact after a late hit by Vancouver's Aaron Rome left Boston's Nathan Horton unconscious and twitching on the ice.
Those images, along with Wednesday's riot, will be forever linked to what was otherwise a compelling final.
The rioting put a stain on what had been a glorious 16 months for hockey-mad Canadians who had peacefully celebrated on the same streets when Canada won the gold medal in the men's Olympic ice hockey final last year.
Before the finals national pride in Canada swelled with the announcement that the country had reclaimed one of its lost NHL franchises as the Atlanta Thrashers were headed for Winnipeg.
The only thing missing was a Stanley Cup and Canada looked set to welcome the national treasure home for the first time since 1993 when the Canucks jumped out to a 2-0 series lead.
But the Bruins, behind the netminding of the Stanley Cup playoffs most valuable player Tim Thomas, clawed their way back winning four of five games to end a 39-year title drought.
Thousands of people had jammed into the heart of downtown Vancouver in the hopes of celebrating the Canucks first Stanley Cup, but with the trophy headed for Boston a mob broke out as many took out their frustration on the streets.
The Bruins' win capped a heated final that featured wild swings in momentum, controversy, trash-talking, finger-biting, taunting, and season-ending injuries.
But it was also had spell-binding competition that capped two months of hockey artistry and edge-of-your-seat excitement, much of it delivered by a Bruins team that became the first to survive three Game Sevens en route to claiming the Cup.
The league has guaranteed it will crack down on violence next season and Vancouver promised to get tough on rioters.
After falling just short of a Stanley Cup for a third time Vancouver's quest for a championship will continue next season but there are likely to be changes on the west coast.
"I think anybody in our situation would feel real disappointed," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. "We battled real hard. I know we gave it our best shot but in this one game, they were the better team. It's that simple."
What is not so simple are the questions the Canucks face.
Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, who had backstopped Canada to Olympic gold in the same arena and is on an 11-year contract, was brilliant at home recording a pair of shutouts but the Canucks netminder allowed 15 goals in three losses in Boston.
Depite boasting the league's top offence during the regular season, the Canucks' attack vanished in the finals and recorded just eight goals in seven games, the fewest ever in a final.
Canucks Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, winners of the Art Ross trophy the last two seasons as the NHL's leading scorer, were fingered with much of the blame.
Daniel, winner of the NHL scoring crown this season, had only one goal and three assists in the final while Henrik, last season's scoring champion, managed just a single goal.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)