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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.

While historians are far from unanimous on the birthplace of the sport, one thing they broadly agree on is that it started to become iconic in the early to mid-1800s, around the same time Canada came into being as a country.

“Old-time hockey is married to who and what Canadians think they are,” observed Andrew Holman, a hockey expert and history professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. “Whenever there’s been a crisis [in the game] it’s been accompanied by a reactionary closing of ranks.”

Or as Robidoux put it: “hockey is a part of Canada’s national emancipation in a cultural sense.”

To threaten the orthodoxy, then, is to attack that which the entrenched (mostly Canadian) hockey establishment sees as fundamental to its identity, and a defining element of the society that most venerates it.

Self-preservation is a powerful instinct.

In Holman’s view, the current questions recall a similar period a century ago.

In the 1910s the angst was related to serious injury and deaths from stick-swinging incidents in senior and professional hockey, then in its infancy.

“There was a period of probably 10 years of media hand-wringing, public outcry and the authorities considering various options,” Holman said. “The fix came when they opened up the game and allowed forward passing.”

Among the reasons such a revolutionary idea came about, according to Holman: a parallel debate over football injuries, and aggressive top-down action on the part of league and team owners.

Former Montreal Canadiens great Ken Dryden, as thoughtful a chronicler of the game as there is, has been saying for years that the game needs another forward-pass moment.

Whether it can be conjured up is another question.

Robidoux pointed to recent, tentative shifts in the way players approach their safety as evidence that it is possible. But at bottom, he said, hockey culture amounts to “perpetual adolescence.”

“It’s a very insular culture, and it maintains a type of masculinity that isn’t really relevant to other facets of life, like corporate environments,” he said. “It’s never-never land.”

Robidoux, who spent a year cheek-by-jowl with minor-league players while researching his book Men at Play, held out several examples: players universally refer to teammates as boys, typically hire people to manage their finances, tend to socialize only among themselves, and have their luggage carried for them.

“How many other jobs can you think of where you’re told when to have a nap?” he said.

Other hockey scholars, such as Holman, argue the roots of the current establishment culture – and the emergence of violence as a defining trait – lie in the democratization and later professionalization of the sport around the turn of the 20th century.

“That’s really when winning by any means becomes really important,” said Holman, who contends the game was a more genteel pursuit until the late 1800s.

In a recent e-mail, Dryden suggested the most interesting question to pose would be: imagine those people whose minds are hardest to change, and what it would take to sway them.

The answer is complicated, but in speaking to hockey people and academics who study the sport, it seems that a serious, career-threatening injury to the game’s best player, Sidney Crosby, while a catalyst for self-examination, isn’t enough.

As Laberge put it, social science and the breadth of human experience teach us that radical, revolutionary change is generally only brought about by the loss of life.

The current, intense focus on concussions dates back three or four years, and in that span there have been few fatalities, none in the NHL. They include Don Sanderson, a senior-league player who died after hitting his head on the ice during a fight.

Defenders of the orthodoxy mourn such tragedies like everyone else, all the while insisting hockey must continue to be a physical, violent game – that ridding it of donnybrooks and frontier justice would betray its traditions and make it a sport no longer worth watching.

There are also financial considerations at play: a healthy segment of hockey fandom loves fights and the sense of incipient danger that attends rough play.

And there are scores of people from owners to influential pundits and network television executives who consider radical change a threat to their livelihoods.

But as evidence mounts that head injuries can have long-lasting consequences, how long can the status quo prevail?

As in the 1910s, football is a little farther along the road to reform – the NFL has enforced a series of new measures over the objections of enraged traditionalists.

But hockey, as the experts point out, is an animal of a different colour.

“There is also one other thing that makes hockey different from the other major sports: there’s no out-of-bounds,” said Holman, who plays the game avidly “You can’t really escape.”

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