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Buffalo Sabres left wing Matt Ellis came to the defence of his goaltender Ryan Miller after the netminder was knocked over by Jordin Tootoo during Saturday's game in Nashville. Mandatory Credit: Russell LaBounty-US PRESSWIRE (Russell LaBounty-US PRESSWIRE/Russell LaBounty)
Buffalo Sabres left wing Matt Ellis came to the defence of his goaltender Ryan Miller after the netminder was knocked over by Jordin Tootoo during Saturday's game in Nashville. Mandatory Credit: Russell LaBounty-US PRESSWIRE (Russell LaBounty-US PRESSWIRE/Russell LaBounty)

Sean Gordon

The triumph of the hockey meathead Add to ...

It happened because it had to, the boundaries of propriety in professional hockey are well-defined and create certain inevitabilities.

So the consequences were thoroughly predictable when Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo steamed into Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller on Saturday: several Sabres, including Miller, piled onto the little agitator like crows on fresh road kill.

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Afterward Sabres left wing Matt Ellis, whose fists were in among the tangle of limbs flailing away at Tootoo, told the Buffalo News “Our response was good. Goose got in there, we all got in there. It was a five-man pack and we took care of business. Boston was a learning experience, and we took a few steps forward.”

The Goose in question is burly centre Paul Gaustad, who engaged in a public bit of self-flagellation after l’affaire Bruins last month – wherein Boston’s Milan Lucic also took liberties with Miller, concussing him with a borderline hit as he played the puck, and received no such pummelling for what is a mortal sin against the game’s sacred unwritten code.

Gaustad pointed at himself after that (“I’m embarrassed”) and said “there’s no reason to be scared. We had to go after it, and we didn’t.”

As the weekend’s events showed, the Sabres were determined to avoid having their honour sullied again; in that context, exacting immediate revenge is deemed progress.

Which cuts to the core of what modern hockey is above all else: a nightly referendum on personal responsibility, physical toughness and commitment.

Or what academics term an expression of ‘hyper-masculinity’; a less politic description would be to call it a triumph of the meathead element.

In an era in which many within hockey and without are pushing for a sea change on several fronts – head shots chief among them – the clubby prevailing culture continues to be one of violence, rough justice and vigilantism.

Many influential hockey people and hordes of fans are okay with that. In fact, they have been for a very long time – there is a reason for Don Cherry’s enduring popularity.

“I think there’s something distinctive about hockey, it’s not necessarily the same script of masculinity as in other sports ... this is also a game that was notoriously aggressive and violent from its beginnings,” said Michael A. Robidoux, an ethnologist who teaches at the University of Ottawa and is a former major-junior player.

As the discussion over brain injuries in hockey rages on, there is anecdotal evidence that a shift is occurring at the grassroots level of the game.

Parents are grilling store clerks on the relative merits of various safety equipment, some doctors report an increase in the number of recreational players turning up in emergency rooms to be checked out for concussions.

South of the border there is actual data: a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control indicated the number of hospital visits for children suspected of having concussions shot up by 60 per cent in the past decade. Much of that is attributed to heightened awareness in football and hockey.

But where is the culture shift in the upper reaches of Canada’s game, whose influence spreads downward?

Some brain-trauma specialists privately grumble that for all the attention drawn to concussions, there seems to be little meaningful change in pro hockey.

It’s to wonder where the dominant culture comes from and why it continues to reign in the face of mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of many on-ice practices.

But social and behavioural change of any sort – whether you’re talking about smoking, seat-belt use, drunk driving – is a painstaking process at the best of times.

“It can take a generation for norms, values, rules and institutions – a culture – to change. And sporting culture is generally more conservative,” said Suzanne Laberge, a sports sociologist at the Université de Montreal. “Resistance to change is inevitable, but it doesn’t make it impossible. It will require more injuries, more arguing, and more time.”

The paradox is that within the sport there is a sense the game is changing perceptibly.

“I think we’re definitely going in the right direction. It’s been a lot better, there’s a lot more awareness ... a lot of things have been going on in the last year or two,” said Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron, who missed 11 months of action because of concussion in 2007.

But where is the game headed, and at what speed? To understand hockey’s cultural fabric today, it helps to look at the sport’s roots.

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