Being left-handed historically has carried a negative stigma. Even though the world now accepts there is no right or wrong when it comes to right and left — four of the last seven U.S. Presidents have been lefties — roughly 90 percent of humans are estimated to be right-handed.
The right side is so “right,” in fact, that the word is a synonym for the word “correct,” while “left” derives from the Old English for “weak.” Righties, therefore, also typically seem to dominate sports.
In Major League Baseball, 63 percent of hitters swing the bat right-handed, and 71 percent of pitchers throw with their right arms, per ESPN’s current roster analysis.
On the PGA Tour, almost all of the roughly 200 golfers on tour this season swing their club from the right side. Only a handful of golfers who regularly compete are left-handed: Americans Brian Harman, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, Canadian Mike Weir and New Zealander Tim Wilkinson.
Hockey, however, is different. It is the one sport in which playing “left-handed” does not leave an athlete holding the short end of the stick. In hockey, on the contrary, shooting lefty — with the stick blade touching the ground near the player’s left foot — is so, so right.
In the Stanley Cup Final that opened Monday night in Pittsburgh, 58% of the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins are lefties, not including goalies. In the entire playoffs, 60.5% (204) of the 337 skaters in the NHL’s stats register as of May 17 were lefty shooters, compared to 39.5% (133) righties — a ratio of 1.5-to-1.
The 2015-16 regular season reflects an even more extreme split across a wider sample size: 62% lefty shots (559) to 37% righties (339), or 1.64-to-1 among 898 total skaters.
And it’s not just pro hockey.
Craig Desjardins, general manager for hockey and equipment at Bauer Hockey, tells the Daily News that “if you look at the pure data in Canada for sales” of hockey sticks across the industry to the average Joe over the last 10 years, “you’re in the range of 65%-to-35%, left-handed to right-handed.”
That’s the country where the sport was invented, and Bauer is the number one hockey brand and equipment manufacturer in the world, as well as the leader in the stick category in hockey and in the NHL.
So why are so many hockey players left-handed shooters? How do hockey players determine if they’re left- or right-handed? Is there an advantage to shooting lefty or righty in hockey? And above all, why does Desjardins say that the lefty-right split, “if you looked at the U.S., would be the opposite of” Canada?
That’s right. While lefty shooters dominate hockey around the world, righties rule the rink in the United States, with closer to 65% of American hockey consumers shooting right-handed compared to just 35% lefty.
What gives? Well, it’s important to start with the basics: What it means to shoot left-handed, and how hockey players determine how they shoot.
LEFTY OR RIGHTY?
A left-handed shooter in hockey holds the top of the stick with his right hand, with his left hand lower down the shaft of the stick and the blade touching the ground to the left side of his body. A right-handed shooter is the reverse, with his left hand at the top of the stick, leaning to his right to open his stick blade.
Most of the puck-movers told The News that figuring out whether they were left- or right-handed was no more complicated than picking up a stick and deciding what felt comfortable.
More specifically, as Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch says, he figured out he was a left-handed shot by grabbing the top of his stick with his dominant, right hand.
“It was simple for me,” says Leetch, an American born in Texas. “I’m a righty. My dominant hand is my right. So it’s much easier to hold the stick with one hand with my dominant hand. This was the same for my dad who was lefty but played hockey righty.”
Being able to operate the stick with one hand is important because hockey players are constantly forced to play the puck while engaging opponents. Furthermore, NHL officials, players and even coaches at youth levels will all say the proper technique for a slap shot is to wind up by taking the stick all the way back and then to yank the top of the stick back with the top, strong hand — like operating a lever — while pushing the rest of the stick forward with the bottom hand.
The hip turn and top hand generate power. A wrist shot also involves yanking the top hand back while snapping the wrists and turning the bottom hand over.
Columbus Blue Jackets alternate captain Brandon Dubinsky, though, said his being left-handed is as simple as: “It’s just how I took to hockey naturally.” And Bauer’s Desjardins describes how “most youth coaches and parents allow their son or daughter to make the more comfortable choice,” or in other words, they are “essentially handing them a stick to watch how they’re gonna put their hands on the stick.”
That is what Leetch did with all three of his kids. Not all three placed their dominant hand at the top of the stick, though. There are outliers to this dominant top hand “theory,” as Desjardins calls it.
“With my three kids, I let them pick up a stick and whack the ball whichever way they felt most comfortable,” Leetch, who won the Stanley Cup while playing for the Rangers in 1994, said. “One is dominant right who shoots left, one is dominant right who shoots right, and one is dominant left who shoots right.”
It would follow, though, that since roughly 90 percent of the human population is estimated as right-handed, and hockey players more often grip the top of the stick with their dominant hand, there are more lefty shooters.
The decision isn’t simple all the time for kids picking up hockey, though. The most interesting part of digging into the whys and hows of hockey shots is that everyone has a story, and that there can be more influences on this developmental stage of a hockey player than just which hand naturally goes to the top.
Or as explained by Jamie Cahill, vice president of hockey operations for the U.S.H.L.’s Chicago Steel and coach of the Midget U-16 AAA New Jersey Avalanche, plenty of kids are impacted by “who they’re watching.”
“Maybe you’re a kid in Canada growing up now and you’re emulating Sidney Crosby. He’s left-handed,” Cahill says. “Or if you’re in Sweden and you’re a young defenseman, (left-handed Hall of Famer) Nick Lidstrom is the gold standard, so maybe a young ‘D’ would lean toward that.”
Or maybe if a child’s father shoots left-handed, that’s enough to influence his choice.
“The answer is that there is an environmental aspect and an innate, hereditary aspect,” Desjardins says. “I grew up in Montreal but have lived here in the states for 16 years. The first stick I got was the stick handed down from my brother, from my father, and if he was a lefty and my brother was a lefty, I was gonna be a lefty … Our sport has those blue-collar roots, work ethic, and people love the products they have and make them last as long as they can.”
So then being a left-handed shot in hockey must give a player an advantage over being right-handed, or else there would be more righties in hockey, correct? Well, yes. And no. It’s complicated.
THE BLOCK(ER) IS HOT
Most hockey goalies hold the tops of their sticks with their right hands, covered by a flat waffle board — or blocker — to block pucks out of harm’s way, while they catch pucks with a gloved left hand.
Cahill points out that the increasing size of goaltenders and elite skill at the professional level can render this moot, but when he is coaching youth hockey players, a left-handed shooter can have an advantage because his stick has a better angle at netting the hardest shot for a goalie to stop — low blocker, or shooting a puck just above the goalie’s right pad but beneath the goalie’s right hand holding the blocker and stick.
It’s also known as the shot Chris Kreider fires more than half of the times he blisters down the left wing.
“If you look at a goalie (as a shooter), most goalies as you’re facing them, their blocker is going to be on your left side and the glove on the right side, as you’re looking at it,” Cahill says. “What I teach all my kids is, to be a goal scorer, shoot low blocker.”
Martin Biron, a former NHL and Rangers goaltender with 230 career wins, confirms this is the hardest save for a left-handed catching goalie to make because “goalies are less athletic on the stick side.”
Biron, who now works as director of goaltending at the Academy of Hockey at Harborcenter in Buffalo, says as a goalie, “Your natural tendency is to open up your body. When you’re a kid and you’re playing goalie, you always try to make the big glove saves.”
‘I find it outrageous that parents would push for one over another and, to be honest, I would rather shoot right-handed.’
So goalies more often are more mobile on their glove sides and more likely to gobble up the puck in their mitts, compared to the blocker side, where a save is more likely to produce a rebound off the board and the goalie’s movements to chase a puck aren’t as natural with the stick in his hand.
Goalies first figure out which hand they catch with and then determine their stick hand from there. That is why the majority catch with their left hands: A dominant right-handed person typically catches a baseball with the glove in his left hand, so the blocker or waffleboard and the stick are in the goalie’s right hand.
In this 2015-16 season, for example, 44 of the 48 goalies who played in at least 25 games had the catching glove on their left hand, and therefore shot a puck left-handed. The four righties? Philly’s Steve Mason, Arizona’s Louis Dominque, Winnipeg’s Michael Hutchinson and Calgary’s Jonas Hiller.
Cahill actually has seen parents coax children to shoot left-handed because lefty shooters have the better angle at shooting below most goalies’ blockers.
The degree of difficulty increases for righties, but it’s not impossible. Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel snuck a blistering right-handed wrist shot across the net below the blocker of Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, for example, in Game 4 of this spring’s Eastern Conference finals.
But former Ranger Brad Richards, whose left-handed shot led to 298 goals, has a hard time seeing a sweeping advantage for lefties or righties considering there are plenty of historical examples of righties dominating the sport.
“Brett Hull, Gordie Howe, Mario (Lemieux), Ovie (Alex Ovechkin), (Mike) Bossy — all seem to be ok shooting right,” Richards, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, says of some all-time great right-handed shots.
Fifteen of the NHL’s top all-time 25 goal scorers, for example, are righties. The two leading candidates for this year’s postseason MVP are also right-handed: forwards Kessel and the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Pavelski. The Penguins’ best player in their Eastern Conference final Game 7 win over Tampa Bay was the right-handed Bryan Rust, who scored twice.
Richards also feels there are too many circumstances that can dictate in a given situation whether being lefty or righty is advantageous.
When a lefty player is passing the puck to a teammate to shoot on a power play, for example, it takes less time for a righty teammate to get off the shot (with his stick closer to the passer and his body already open to shoot) than for a lefty. Saving that half-second that it takes for the player to shoot the puck could be difference in such a high-speed sport between a goal and a save.
“It all depends on power plays and a bunch of other things and where your hand (shot) fits (on the ice in the context of the team’s set up),” Richards says.
To further illustrate, Ovechkin, a righty, has one of the best shots in the league. So he routinely sets up to the left of the other team’s goal when attacking on a power play, waiting for a pass from the middle of the ice with his body already open to take a one-timer (or shoot the puck on his first touch).
If Ovechkin were left-handed, the Capitals would have to completely reconfigure their power play and station him on the opposite side of the ice to maximize his abilities.
TO ‘D’ OR NOT TO ‘D’
Steve Eminger is a right-handed Canadian defenseman for the Lake Erie Monsters playing for the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in the Calder Cup Finals. Eminger, a former Ranger who was born in Woodbridge, Ontario, remembers “as a baby, I started grabbing crayons with my left hand and coloring with my left, and my mom would always switch it to my right.”
“I think it was because of convenience, things aren’t geared toward lefties as much, like school desks they didn’t have as many desks for lefties,” Eminger says. “I still do things with my left hand. I play tennis with my left hand, but I write with my right hand. I play pool as a lefty but play ping-pong as a righty.
“It’s nothing that makes sense,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just whatever feels right.”
While lefty shots may have an advantage facing a goalie, though, there is one position where being right-handed has distinct advantages: on defense.
Cahill compares being a right-handed shooting defenseman in hockey to being able to “throw 88 mph as a lefty pitcher” in baseball. Every baseball manager wants a lefty specialist in his bullpen for situational use.
There are fewer lefty pitchers than righties in baseball. So there is more opportunity for a left-handed pitcher to get a job because he has less competition, and his technique can counter the opposition’s game plan because his skills differ from the norm.
It’s similar for a right-handed defenseman in hockey. In the NHL this regular season, there were 186 left-handed shooting defensemen and 120 righties, a 1.55-to-1 ratio. Righties are at a premium on the blue line.
“On a team, you typically have seven or eight defensemen and maybe only two or three righties,” Eminger says. “So it’s an advantage for us because it possibly puts you in the lineup more or if the coaches need a righty D on the penalty kill or power play. You may be given that spot because you’re the only righty ‘D’ we have, so it works out that way.
“Basically, as a righty, because there’s less of us, you’re gonna be playing more situationally,” Eminger adds. “Like when I was in Philly, I was the only right-handed guy, so if there was a faceoff play defensively where they wanted to rim the puck (around the wall) and it was in the corner against the boards, I would go out there because I’m the only right-handed defenseman. So I was getting more time than if we had had more right-handed D.”
Rangers forward Tanner Glass, a right-handed shot from British Columbia, has family experience with this.
“My dad made my brother switch when he was just a little guy because he saw an advantage to being a right shot defenseman,” he says.
Dubinsky, a left-handed shooting forward, goes as far as saying if he had had his choice, he’d have played right-handed.
“You can train the other sports (soccer, switch hitters in baseball, golfers, etc.), but I find it outrageous that parents would push for one over another and to be honest I would rather shoot right-handed,” Dubinsky, the ex-Ranger, says. “It’s better for shootouts and if you’re a D-man, it’s a more wanted position.”
‘Well, Brian Leetch, you could put a telephone pole in his hand and he could stickhandle. But I think why there are so many righties (in the U.S.) is because parents don’t know much about hockey, so think if their kid throws righty in baseball and bats righty, he must be righty in hockey.’
We’ll get to Dubinsky’s comments on shootouts in a minute. As far as defensemen, though, being right-handed not only creates more opportunity; it affords coaches the luxury to execute increasingly specialized formations of power plays.
As in Ovechkin’s situation, complementing lefty shooters with righty passers, for example, provides an easier exchange for a one-time slap shot as the puck slides directly to a player’s forehand side.
Coaches in the modern game are increasingly involved in the minutia of finding any sort of advantage they can to execute a new set up that may flummox the opposition and show an unfamiliar look, especially considering the amount of advance scouting and preparation clubs put into matchups.
Coaches such as the Rangers’ Alain Vigneault even insist now on their six defensemen in any given lineup being a collection of three pairs, with three right-handed shots playing the right side and three left-handed shots playing the left, because a defenseman playing his “strong” side has its benefits, as Eminger explains.
Picture you are Eminger, a righty defenseman backing up on the right side of the rink, with the boards to your right. An opponent is skating directly at you with the puck. This is one scenario in which playing your “strong side” as a defenseman comes into play.
“Defending a rush (of play coming at you), you want to steer (the puck carrier) to the outside,” Eminger says. “So as a righty, when I steer him to the outside, I have my one top, left hand on the stick and my right arm’s free, which makes it easier to hit him with my right arm. Playing the opposite side, if my left arm is holding the stick, it’s harder to reach across my body with my right arm to hit him. Now I’m turning. I don’t have that free arm on the outside.”
Pivoting and skating on the strong side can be easier for some defensemen. Also when a defenseman plays his off side, he has to play the puck on his backhand more often. When he’s in the offensive zone, for example, he is forced to gather pucks often with his backhand and then switch to his forehand to make a play, which takes time that no one has in a fast game.
And the NHL nowadays is faster than ever. That split second that a defenseman uses to take the puck off the boards with his backhand and turns could be all the time an opponent needs to poke it away and race down ice the other way on a breakaway.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Plenty of defensemen prefer playing their weak side. Eminger used to.
“My first two years in Washington I played a little with Sergei Gonchar,” Eminger says. “He’s lefty and I’m righty, but he played the right and I played the left. He only liked to play his off side, and I know a lot of guys who like to play their off side. It’s preference, but I would say 80 percent of guys would say they want to play their strong side.”
Desjardins explains that “hockey can be very situational at times” and cites how there are plenty of NHL forwards who thrive by playing their “off wing,” on the opposite side of where they shoot.
Righthanded shooters Patrick Sharp (Dallas), Ovechkin, Filip Forsberg (Nashville) and Thomas Vanek (Minnesota) for example, are all right-handed shots listed as left wings. The Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello is a left-handed shooter who usually plays the right wing. So does the Kings’ Marian Gaborik. The left-handed Rick Nash plays either side.
Playing the opposite side can put a shooter’s stick closer to the middle of the ice, regardless of which side he’s on, giving him a better shooting angle — as long as he’s able to take care of all his other responsibilities while playing that side.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE SHOOTOUT?
Dubinsky says some goalie coaches have told him that righty shots have an advantage in the shootout, when it’s just one shooter skating in alone on a goaltender, with time to make moves and juke to fake the goalie out.
In Biron’s NHL experience as a goalie, he doesn’t know if a lefty or righty really has an advantage in shootouts.
“It depends on the tendencies of the player,” Biron says.
He says the righthanded Danny Briere was great at faking to his backhand and coming back to his forehand, but so were the lefthanded Erik Christensen and Wojtek Wolski, to the opposite side of the net. The left-handed veteran Jussi Jokinen is deadly shooting low blocker, but righty Brendan Shanahan used to “see the top of glove and go bar down,” as does the Wild’s Vanek.
Biron’s former Rangers teammates Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan are righties and both shoot back across their bodies over the goalie’s stick side “to perfection.” The stats in recent years do indicate a higher percentage of right-handed success, though, compared to the heavy disparity of lefties to righties in the league.
Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie , formerly of the St. Louis Blues, morphed into Captain America at the Sochi Olympics in Feb. 2014, converting on four of six shootout attempts in the same game to defeat host Russia. He was actually on the team because of his shootout prowess.
Oshie is right-handed.
During the last five seasons, nine shooters have had more than 50% success in the shootout with 13 or more attempts. Six are righties, and only three are lefties (current or most recent team in parentheses): Ilya Kovalchuk (former Devil), Jakob Silfverberg (Ducks), Milan Hejduk (former Avalanche), Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Devin Setoguchi (former Flame) and Oshie (Capitals) are righties. The lefties are Brandon Pirri (Ducks), Jacob Josefson (Devils) and Evgeni Malkin (Penguins).
In that same five-year span, the top three shootout single seasons were all by righties Kovalchuk (11 in 2011-12 for NJ), Oshie (9 for STL in 2013-14) and Silfverberg (nine for Anaheim in 2014-15).
Total shootout goals during that five-year period reverts more to the norm across the league, seven lefties and three righties, headed by left-handed Islander pending free agent Frans Nielsen. But righties definitely seem to have stronger representation in the shootout than in other areas of the game.
“As a righty, if you think of moves on a breakaway or shootout, you’re often making a move to your backhand,” Eminger says. “It’s more natural to go forehand to backhand. That could be it. The majority of time I know (right-handed) guys on breakaways like going backhand, (top) shelf. The goalie’s stick is there and he can’t get the stick up there as easily.”
Still, there are plenty of parents who want their kids to be left-handed hockey players.
Cahill even laughs at the memorable but rare instances in which a child wants to shoot left-handed in hockey because he wants to “pop the bottle” — goalies typically keep their water bottles on that side of the net, and a lefty shooter has a better angle at popping the bottle off the top of the net for a highlight-reel finish.
It’s intriguing that there are American parents guiding children to shoot left-handed now, though, considering how righty heavy the U.S. is compared to the rest of the world when it comes to flicking pucks. Why is it suddenly happening now, and why do righties represent stronger in the States?
IS THE U.S. RIGHT OR WRONG, OR LEFT?
Eminger says that Richards, his former Ranger teammate, “can tell you if any guy in the league is lefty or righty and also what color tape the guy wraps around his blade.” Richards, who hails from Prince Edward Island, Canada, however, makes his most poignant observation when it comes to American hockey players.
“(I have) no real great story except everywhere in the world except America would want top hand dominant (on a hockey stick),” Richards said. “It’s not just Canada. Most Scandinavians are left and Russians, etc. … Americans have something against being left. Especially 60 years ago. (It) was looked at (as) weird. (People) can’t get left stuff so (they) play right.”
The numbers back up Richards’ observation about Americans being different: Currently, while the league ratio is 1.6-to-1 in favor of lefty shooters, it is just 1.1-to-1 for lefties among the 221 American skaters. There are 116 lefty shooting U.S. players and 105 righties, a split of 52.4% to 47.5%.
Back in 1993-94, when Leetch and the Rangers captured the Stanley Cup, only 55% of 144 Americans shot left-handed compared to 61% of the league’s 792 total skaters.
Even more drastic, the 1980 Miracle on Ice U.S. Olympic gold-medal team coached by Herb Brooks had 13 right-handed shots on its roster and just five lefties — an unusual split for such a lefty-dominated sport.
However, captain Mike Eruzione, the left-handed shot who famously scored the game-winning goal to topple the Soviet Union in the semifinals, needed the Daily News to tell him that.
“I’ll be honest I never really thought about it,” Eruzione says on the phone. “I didn’t know who was left or right. I just always knew that clearly a guy like Mark Johnson was a great player, for example, whether he shoots right or left (he shoots left-handed), because he can skate.”
Funny enough, though, Johnson scored his famous game-tying rebound goal at the end of the first period by swinging around to — that’s right — Vladislav Tretiak’s stick side and sneaking the puck under the sprawling goalie’s blocker and awkwardly outstretched lumber.
Eruzione nevertheless believes, as Richards alluded, that American parents especially back in his day were much less familiar with hockey than other countries. So they brought up children right-handed in hockey more so in the U.S. because that’s how their kids played America’s pastime — baseball.
“When I started playing hockey my parents knew nothing about it, and all the blades were straight back then (and not curved before purchase like they are today),” Eruzione says. “But I remember my dad went to the store, bought a hockey stick, and the first time he handed it to me I reached out and grabbed it with my right (dominant) hand and grabbed top of stick.
“The dominant hand goes at top of the stick,” Eruzione says. “Your left hand is just somewhat of a guide. I remember Jack Parker, my college hockey coach, talking about the same thing, dominant hand at the top of the stick.”
Eruzione cracks up when he’s told that the great Brian Leetch has a similar rationale for shooting lefty.
“Well, Brian Leetch, you could put a telephone pole in his hand and he could stickhandle,” Eruzione says. “But I think why there are so many righties (in the U.S.) is because parents don’t know much about hockey, so think if their kid throws righty in baseball and bats righty, he must be righty in hockey.”
Even though any old cultural prejudices and superstitions against being left-handed are gone, Bauer’s Desjardins uses as an example: “It’s very hard to find a left-hand set of golf clubs in the United States.” There are more lefty sets available in Canadian stores, but manufacturers don’t stock that inventory as plentifully in the U.S. since being right-handed is preferred here.
Biron speculates that hockey is not the top sport in the United States and since everyone knows something about baseball, “if a kid grabs a bat right-handed and golfs right-handed, they think they’re supposed to shoot right-handed in hockey, too.”
Eruzione explains that he shoots a hockey stick left-handed even though he swings a baseball bat right-handed (and actually is a switch hitter), with his dominant right hand higher up the bat and his left hand lower. When Eruzione is told that this writer is dominant right-handed but bats lefty in baseball, he responds with a chuckle: “Oh, maybe you weren’t a great hitter.”
In baseball, there is actually an advantage to batting left-handed, since there are fewer lefty pitchers and you’re closer to first base as a hitter. But while you see righty throwers who bat lefty, it’s very rare to find a righty batter who throws with his left hand (such as Ricky Henderson).
In the end, though, Eruzione says he doesn’t think shooting lefty or righty in hockey really matters.
“I’m convinced if you’re a goal scorer, you’re a goal scorer,” he says.
And while players like Richards pay attention to every stick curve, Biron says: “I have to make a confession.”
“(Former Ranger captain) Chris Drury laughed at me for years and still jokes about it: I have a hard time — I even had a hard time when I was playing – remembering if somebody shoots left or right,” Biron says, speaking of his former Sabres and Rangers teammate, now the Rangers’ director of player development.
“We were in Colorado, and the coaches were telling us that Peter Forsberg likes to go behind the net to his backhand, and I asked if Forsberg is lefty or righty,” Biron said. “(Drury) went nuts. You don’t know if Forsberg is lefty or righty!
“I said who cares,” Biron laughs. “When I see him, I know it’s him.”
Not surprisingly, Forsberg shot lefty. In hockey, uniquely, the majority of players do.