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Mirtle: Why the NHL’s culture of late hits is a problem

New York Rangers centre Derek Stepan is checked on by a trainer after being knocked to the ice during the first period in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden.


The re-education of the NHL membership has been a thing to watch the last few years.

Players are learning. It's slow, and there are still missteps like the two suspension-worthy hits in the Canadiens-Rangers series so far, but they're learning.

You can hear it in their words.

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"When I looked at the hit after the game – I wanted to see the hit – and the timing never really came into mind," Habs forward Brandon Prust said last week, after he was suspended two games for drilling Derek Stepan and breaking his jaw in Game 3.

"I was looking at the contact. And I thought it was pretty good. Then the next day I heard that it was all about the lateness of the hit. Once we started watching that, it's fractions of a second."

It is. And so it was again in Game 5 in Montreal, when Rangers defenceman John Moore attempted to decapitate an unaware Dale Weise with his shoulder late in the game.

Weise was knocked so silly that teammate PK Subban had to hold him up and help him to the bench. Moore was tossed from the game. The NHL scheduled another hearing.

The lesson? We'll see.

There was more head contact in what Moore did than what Prust did, but once again, one of the central issues will be the timing. Too often that's still the case in the league these days, as while they've successfully begun to limit contact to the head, what hasn't been so easily reworked is the culture ingrained in the game after decades of Rock 'em Sock 'em highlights.

No matter what, it decrees, you finish your check.

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And whatever you do, don't admire your pass – which in Weise's case means "look in the general direction of the puck," the thing everyone on the ice is supposed to be pursuing.

"Well, the player didn't see him coming, obviously," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said on Wednesday. "But the guy was admiring his pass a little bit at the same time."

There was a great video passed around the interwebs the past few weeks that originated with hockey statistician Tyler Dellow, who unearthed some footage of the Philadelphia Flyers, i.e. The Broadstreet Bullies – one of the game's most feared teams – in the 1975 finals.

What was clear, immediately after watching a minute or two of play, is that contrary to reputation, The Bullies really didn't finish their checks.

Once the puck moved, so did their opportunity to bully, so they moved on.

Historically, hitting in hockey has been about separating an opponent from the puck so that a player could get said puck. But somewhere along the way, it became more than that, and players who no longer had the puck were – briefly anyway – fair game.

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It became a way to hurt, legally, and coaches set out to push that new tactic to its limits.

What constitutes a late hit in the NHL doesn't appear to be codified in the rulebook, unless you consider the vague language under interference to do so. But what's happened with players like Prust is they're given the language the league has hidden somewhere in a Department of Player Safety desk drawer and a stopwatch when they cross the line.

A hit that comes 0.6 seconds after a player has the puck, they're told, is okay.

At 0.7 seconds and beyond, they're in trouble – especially if the hit causes an injury.

"The hit itself wasn't really a topic in the hearing," Prust explained. "It was all about the timing of it.

"The NHL deems a hit late around 0.6 seconds, and I'm at 0.8 seconds, so you know, that's on me. It's late, but for me my focus was on trying to make a good, clean bodycheck and not leave my feet, [with] my elbows tucked. Everything about the actual contact is clean. It's just late."

For this league, that's progress. Prust has learned through other indiscretions what not to do in a whole host of ways, to the point that he can recite them all in a press conference, one after another.

What goes through his head today on the ice as he lines a guy up isn't what went through his head five years ago, which – presumably – wasn't much at all.

The problem, however, is in what hitting is. As long as players are allowed to hammer opponents who no longer have the puck, they're going to make these split-second mistakes in a game that moves as fast as this one does.

They've learned some important lessons, but this one won't get through, not when the message from coaches to their role players is to use their 10 to 12 minutes a night to punish those with skill and not when the rulebook's wishy-washy language protects rather than prohibits the late hit.

Those in the game still believe it's okay – especially when the hittee gets up unscathed – so it'll keep happening.

"I know the league standard very well because of the [Aaron] Rome hit a couple years ago in the Boston series," Vigneault said when asked about the legality of Moore's hit, "and it doesn't meet the league standard as far as a late hit...

"As far as what I know about league standards and from what I heard from the Prust hit – where the dynamics of the hit changed because Stepan was hurt – I don't see [a suspension] at this time."

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