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Ice hockey

Different strokes

Canada and US are on opposite sides of the hockey stick

By Jeff Z. Klein
New York Times / February 16, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - What is the difference between a Canadian and an American? The old question is coming up again here at the Olympics, with answers involving eagerness for war, ketchup, the pronunciation of toque, or the ability to identify poutine and the Tragically Hip.

But none may be so simple as how one holds a hockey stick. According to sales figures from stick manufacturers, a majority of Canadian hockey players shoot lefthanded, and a majority of American players shoot righthanded. No reason is known for this disparity, which cuts across all age groups and has persisted for decades.

Most Canadians, like most Americans, are naturally righthanded, so the discrepancy has nothing to do with national brain-wiring. And how you hold a pencil, say, has little or no bearing on how you hold a stick. A lefthanded shooter puts his right hand on top; a righthander puts the left hand there.

For years, how a hockey player picked up his stick was of little importance. The blades were straight and a player could swing them from either side. Two NHL Hall of Famers from the mid-20th century - winger Gordie Howe and goalie Bill Dunham - actually played ambidextrously.

But the advent of curved blades in the 1960s not only spelled the end of the classic backhand shot, it meant that manufacturers had to label sticks L and R, and inventory people had to ship more lefthanded sticks (with the blade curving to the right) to Canada and more righthanded ones to the US.

“I have no idea why this is so,’’ said Mike Mountain, who is in charge of hockey sticks for Easton, a sporting goods manufacturer based in Van Nuys, Calif. “But it has been true for years, and it doesn’t change; it stays consistent over time.’’

Roughly 60 percent of the Easton hockey sticks sold in Canada are for lefthanded shots, Mountain said. In the US, he said, about 60 percent of sticks sold are for righthanded shots. Figures over the years from other manufacturers have put the ratio discrepancy between the countries as high as 70 to 30.

The difference even trickles over into golf, where the swing is not unlike that of a slap shot. According to the Professional Golf Association, 7 percent of Canadian golfers play lefthanded, which is proportionally more than any other nationality. The reason is probably that Canadians pick up a hockey stick first and are therefore imprinted by the time they take up golf. Especially if they are from Quebec, where hockey players are even more lefthanded than players in the rest of Canada. Oddly, British Columbia - sometimes said to be the most American-like of the Canadian provinces - skews the other way.

“The rest of the country goes 2 to 1 in favor of left sticks, but it’s reversed in B.C.,’’ said Marc Poirier, a customer service representative who handles Canadian orders for Warrior Sticks. Europeans also tend to be lefthanded shooters. The International Ice Hockey Federation does not keep figures by European nationality, communications director Szymon Szemberg said. But, he said, lefty shooters have predominated. “For long spells, the great Soviet teams of the ’80s never had a player who shot right,’’ Szemberg said.

Canadian journalist and author Bruce Dowbiggin noted the Canadian-US handedness split in his 2001 book, “The Stick: A History, a Celebration, an Elegy.’’ On Dowbiggin’s website, reader Kent Mayhew suggested the difference may have to do with how old a player is when he first picks up a hockey stick.

“The top hand on a hockey stick has to be able to handle the torques of a stick while the bottom hand just has to handle the weight with no torques,’’ he wrote. He theorized that American children, who tend to take up hockey when they are older and bigger, can afford to put the stronger hand, generally the right, on the lower part of the shaft for more precision.

A lot of experts would argue, however, that having the dominant hand on top makes for better control and stick-handling.

US Olympic women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson is in that camp, but he said: “Whether you’re living in a hotbed hockey community or you live in a naive place where you don’t really know hockey, and you’re a mother or a father taking your daughter to a hockey shop, you’ll ask, ‘Which way do you write?’ If she says righthanded, well, she’s going to be righthanded.

“That’s generally not the way you want to do it. You want your dominant hand on top of your stick. But you look around and there’s a lot of righthanded female players, more so than with men.’’

There are oddities, too. For example, all the regulars on the New Jersey Devils’ defensive corps - three Americans, four Canadians, and a Finn - shoot lefthanded. For every lefthanded-shooting Wayne Gretzky, there is a righthanded-shooting Mario Lemieux. The career top-scoring American, Mike Modano, shoots left. His predecessor as the Americans’ top career scorer, Joe Mullen, shot right.

“It’s probably a cultural quirk,’’ offered Brian Tran, a hockey-playing sales clerk at Cyclone Taylor Sports, a Vancouver hockey store.

He sought out Toby Higo, the only righty working at the store yesterday morning, to find out how he had gone so terribly wrong. “It’s something that comes the first time you pick up a stick when you’re a kid,’’ Higo said.