The first time a kid picks up a hockey stick, he'll probably put his strong hand on the bottom. It's a more natural motion to shoot the puck because the strong hand is generating the power.
"It's a lot easier in the beginning," says former Michigan State assistant Terry Christiansen. "There's a comfort level there."
But this moment -- when a kid figures out whether he'll be a right shot or a left shot -- is absolutely pivotal. It may not only determine how much success a kid has early on, but the effect carries through all the way into the NHL.
In many hockey cultures, parents and coaches will encourage kids to use their weak hand on the bottom of the stick. Why? Because, as Christiansen says, "If a right-hand dominant guy becomes a right-hand shot, he's not going to do things with his back hand." In other words, it pushes ambidexterity, which is crucial in hockey.
Christiansen, who now runs a hockey school, has taken a special interest in the way athletes move. And he's thought a lot about handedness in hockey, including the importance of pushing kids to use their weak hand by putting it on the bottom.
But not everyone does this. In fact, a recent New York Times piece shows that the majority of American people shoot right-handed while a majority of Canadian people shoot left-handed. Both countries have a similar percentage of left-handed people, so this indicates that Canadians are correcting this natural inclination more often than Americans. And this effect passes all the way to the NHL:
Even though about 60 percent of American people shoot right, that percentage drops to 46 percent among NHL draftees. This might partially be because shooting with your weak hand gives you an advantage. But chances are, if you grow up in a place that encourages you to shoot with your weak hand, you're in a much more hockey-centric environment, which certainly helps you reach the NHL.
Another interesting finding is that international players are left shots 75 percent of the time, which is far and away the highest ratio. Christiansen thinks ambidexterity might be encouraged more in Europe. But in addition, only the elite international players are drafted in the NHL, and those guys tend to shoot with their weak hand, which also skews the numbers.
Handedness and NHL success
As a whole, about 64 percent of NHL players shoot left and 36 percent shoot right -- and both groups are creepily identical: They are 6-foot-1, 196 pounds. They are drafted, on averaged, 127th overall. And their statistical performance is nearly identical as well.
Except there's just one difference: how quickly they reach the NHL.
Left shots reach the NHL a tad bit quicker than right shots. It's not by much -- left shots make it to the league in about 2.4 years, while right shots get there in 2.6 years. But in every other category, the two sides are identical. So why is there a disparity in development time?
Well, first we have to remember that 89 percent of the world is right-handed, and the ratio is probably similar among hockey players. If that's the case, 89 percent of them should be shooting left to optimize their skill development. But that's not the case. Only 64 percent of them shoot left. This means the majority of right shots are actually right-handed. And as Christiansen pointed out, there is a disadvantage to shooting with your strong hand because you don't develop as complete of a game. So shooting the "wrong way" -- with your dominant hand on the bottom of the stick -- seems to slow development time, although it seems right-handers shooting right are talented enough to get to the NHL and be just as good as the players who shoot with their weak hand.
The biggest advantage: The off wing
In the NHL, though, we don't really notice handedness. At some point, both Christiansen and I were left stumped when trying to figure out which way Mario Lemieux shot. (Right.) But it can have a huge effect on not just who makes it to the league, but how well these players do. And the biggest advantage can be found when we look at guys who play "off wing."
Off wing means a left shot is playing on the right wing, or vice versa. And these guys are far more successful than players who play on their strong wing.
My first question to Christiansen and former NHL scout Grant Sonier was: If there is this huge advantage, why don't more players play off wing?
The basic answer: It's really hard.
Going down the ice, it's easier to handle the puck on the forehand side. Defensemen will likely be coming from the middle of the ice -- not from the boards, along which you are handling the puck. In addition, when you're puckhandling in the offensive zone, it's much easier on your strong side because the puck glides into the inside of the hockey stick's curve, not the outside. So to play the off wing, guys not only need to be ambidextrous, but they have to have great touch to handle the puck on the outside of the curve.
As Christiansen says, "They are really talented, skilled people."
But why is it better to play on the off wing? It gives you more options.
A left-shot player on the right wing can skate down the ice and, depending on the defenseman's position, he can choose to go wide toward the boards or he can cut back to the center of the ice. Now, anybody can cut back to the center -- but when you're playing your strong wing, it means you can't put a forehand shot on goal. However, on the off wing, you have that forehand shot. In addition, you're head is looking up-ice and you have the puck in the middle of the rink, which makes you a dangerous player.
"When it comes to attacking the offensive blueline," Christiansen says, "and you're trying to create offense, how can you argue not being on your weak side?"
Both Sonier and Christiansen said this was a very European phenomenon, and they're right: only about 2.5 percent of domestic skaters play on their off wing, compared to about 15 percent of international players. But players don't always stay in their lanes, so Christiansen wondered how many times players subconsciously took advantage of this situation by shifting to their off wing. While it's tougher for a winger to get to the other side of the ice, there are certainly centers who may shift to their off wing to gain an advantage; Pavel Datsyuk comes to mind.
Now, this information may not help a team draft better. But it is a basic lesson on why it's important to be an ambidextrous hockey player. More interestingly, though, Christiansen says, "I really believe that it all starts in the very beginning." And the very beginning is the moment a kid picks up a hockey stick and figures out which way to shoot the puck -- and whether an adult comes to change this very natural inclination. Because that could determine the level of success all the way up to the NHL level.