Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A lefty, eh?

Research shows shooting southpaw is -- mysteriously -- the Canadian way

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THERE is little doubt Canadian politics has always been to the left of American politics, but it turns out so is our hockey.

For reasons no one seems to fully understand — not stick manufacturers, not players, not students of the game — significantly more Canadian hockey players shoot left-handed than right-handed.

Figures from stick manufacturers reveal six out of 10 hockey sticks sold in Canada every year are left-handed, and it’s been like this since the dawn of the curved blade in the 1960s.

Indeed, the New York Times, which last month mulled the deeper cultural implications of the disparity in a way that only that august publication would even attempt, found some industry types estimate the gap might even be as high as 70-30, left to right, Canada to U.S.

The disparity exists despite any conclusive study showing a higher proportion of left-handers in Canada than in the U.S.

So how can that be? It is a puzzle, it appears, as deep-seated and confusing as our embrace of socialized medicine as a fundamental national value and Americans' rejection of it as nothing less than a threat to their very way of life.

Talk to an American and they will tell you they shoot right-handed because, well, how else would you shoot?

"It just seems more natural," says Moose goaltender and right-handed shooter Cory Schneider. "It's like a baseball swing or golf swing."

That's an interesting comparison, the baseball swing and golf swing. Interesting because it only muddies the waters even further.

Here's why: There is compelling circumstantial evidence to suggest the reason most Americans shoot a puck right-handed is because they are way more likely to have first picked up a baseball bat as a child than a hockey stick.

And as the overwhelming majority of baseball players, including a handful of natural left-handers, bat right, then it only makes sense they would carry that motion through to hockey when they later pick up a stick.

"That was certainly the case for me," says American Travis Ramsey, a Moose defenceman and right-handed shooter. "There was never any question that I was going to shoot right-handed. I played T-ball and baseball growing up and I swung right and the motion is pretty much the same."

The same principle would appear to apply in reverse, too. Winnipegger Scott Neiles is a former first-base coach for the Winnipeg Goldeyes and owner of Home Run Sports, a local sporting-goods store and distributor of sports equipment across Canada.

Like most sporting-goods shops in Canada, Neiles says his hockey stick shipments arrive in batches of 60-40, left-handed to right-handed. If baseball bats had a curve on them, Neiles says he'd be ordering bats in at least that ratio, too.

"In baseball generally, you can probably expect to see a starting lineup 7-2, right-hand to left-hand," Neiles says. "With the exception of Team Canada, who are all left-handed batters."

Why? Because, maybe, most Canadians pick up a hockey stick before a bat and simply carry that predominantly left-handed motion through to baseball when they later take up that sport.

Sounds reasonable so far, right?

Well, here's where it gets strange -- on the golf course.

"I do everything right-handed -- shoot, hit, golf, all of it," says Moose defenceman Nolan Baumgartner, a right-handed shooter from Canada.

"It just seems more natural to me. But then I also know all kinds of guys -- almost all of them, actually -- who shoot left-handed in hockey but golf right-handed."

Indeed, according to figures obtained by the Times from the PGA, just seven per cent of Canadians golf left-handed. But that's the highest rate of left-handed golfers in the world, the Times reports, and it's probably largely attributable to so many Canadians learning to shoot a puck left-handed first.

But if it's all just about carrying your first natural motion through life, wouldn't you expect to see an even higher rate of left-handed golfers in a country where, again, 60 to 70 per cent of hockey players shoot left?

There are also discrepancies within any given group, too. Of the 15 Canadian players listed on the Moose roster, eight shoot left -- the barest majority. Of the seven American players on the roster, the majority -- four -- actually shoot left. Of the four Europeans, just one, Sergei Shirokov, shoots right.

Whatever the reason, Moose general manager Craig Heisinger, who got his start in pro hockey as equipment manager for the Winnipeg Jets, says the left-right disparity between Canadian and U.S. players is as incontrovertible as our pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet.

"That's a true fact, that's all I know," Heisinger says. "And it's just as true there's no difference if we're talking about the Jets and the NHL or the Moose or A-1 hockey."

And it's so true, Heisinger says, that as a father who has ambitions no different than any other Canadian father for his sons to progress in hockey, he was delighted when he first watched a couple of his sons pick up hockey sticks.

"All I know is I was pretty happy about it when my two youngest guys turned out to be right-handed."

The reason? Heisinger says right-handed shots in Canada have a competitive advantage in getting recruited over their lefty counterparts.

"Just because there's not that many right-handed shots in Canada. If you're looking for a defenceman who shoots right, you look to the U.S."

Lefty or righty?


SO how can you tell if your kid has a natural left-handed or right-handed shot?

Jim Ellams, the local rep for Graf Hockey, says it couldn't be simpler.

"The method I've always heard most is you just drop a hockey stick on the floor and let the kid pick it up. You can usually tell just from that."

Scott Neiles, owner of sports-equipment distributor Home Run Sports and a lifetime student of the baseball swing, says the biomechanics of the hockey shot are markedly different than that of the baseball swing.

"In baseball, your strength hand in a swing is almost always the top hand (the hand closest to the top of the bat). And for most people, that's their right hand. So a right-handed batter will push through the swing with his right hand and pulls with his left."


Keane weighs in


MOOSE captain Mike Keane has had a pro hockey career now in its third decade, but he never noticed the difference between the shots of Canadians and Americans until a reporter brought it to his attention last week.

But Keane is sure of a couple of things. First, the current evidence would seem to suggest left is best.

"You look at most of the top players, say the last 10 years or so, have been left-handed players," says Keane. "Gretzky, Crosby, Heatley, Thornton, Marleau -- they all shoot left."

A 2006 study the Times cited found 60 per cent of players in the NHL shot left-handed.

The notable exception to that? Mario Lemieux and most Russian players in recent years, including Alex Ovechkin.

That latter discrepancy is a bit odd, because there was a time, the Times reports, every single player on the Russian Red Army team was a left-handed shooter. Indeed, the Times reports European hockey players generally shoot from the left-handed side.

The other absolute truism, according to Keane, is that if you're a pro hockey player and you have a son, your kid will shoot from the other side ---- out of spite.

"Just to be inconvenient," says Keane, whose son, Jackson, has a left-handed shot apparently just to drive the right-handed old man crazy.

"I've got a million sticks downstairs," Keane says, "but they're all right-handed. So I've got to go out and get him some left-handed sticks."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2010 A32

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