Olympics Winter

It's not political, but more Canadians are lefties

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.

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 left-handed, and a majority of American players shoot right-handed. 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 right-handed, 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 left-handed shooter puts his right hand on top; a right-hander 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 the sticks from either side. Two Hockey 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 '60s not only spelled the end of the classic backhand shot, it also meant that manufacturers had to label sticks L and R, and inventory personnel had to ship more left-handed sticks (with the blade curving to the right) to Canada and more right-handed ones to the United States.

"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 per cent of the Easton hockey sticks sold in Canada are for left-handed shots, Mountain said. In the United States, he said, about 60 per cent of sticks sold are for right-handed shots. Figures over the years from other manufacturers have put the ratio discrepancy between the two countries as high as 70 to 30.

The difference even trickles over into golf, where the swing is not unlike that of a slapshot. According to the Professional Golfers Association, seven per cent of Canadian golfers play left-handed, 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 left-handed 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 favour 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 left-handed shooters. The International Ice Hockey Federation does not keep figures by European nationality, the 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.

The Canadian journalist and author Bruce Dowbiggin noted the Canadian-American handedness split in his 2001 book, The Stick: A History, a Celebration, an Elegy. On Dowbiggin's website, a reader named 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.

The United States 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 naïve 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 right-handed, well, she's going to be right-handed.

"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 right-handed female players, more so than with men."

On the women's 2010 Olympic teams, which feature 21-player rosters, 15 members of Team Canada shoot left-handed compared with 10 on Team U.S.A. On the men's rosters, the difference is less pronounced, with 15 left-handers on Team Canada and 13 on Team U.S.A. out of 23 players on the roster.

A 2006 study found that 60 per cent of all National Hockey League forwards were left-handed, as were 70 percent of all NHL defencemen, but those statistics were not sorted by nationality.

Three players with Team USA said they had not noticed the discrepancy until it was brought to their attention Monday.

"I noticed a lot of righties when I was growing up, but now I see a lot of lefties," said Ryan Suter, who plays for the Nashville Predators and shoots left-handed.

There are oddities, too. For example, all the regulars on the New Jersey Devils' defence corps — three Americans, four Canadians and a Finn — shoot left-handed. For every left-handed-shooting Wayne Gretzky, there is a right-handed-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. "Everybody's doing it one way, so you follow along."

He sought out Toby Higo, the only righty working at the store Monday 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.

Parents regularly arrive at the shop uncertain about what kind of stick to buy their children. Higo said Cyclone Taylor employees apply a simple test: "We give the kid a stick and see what they do."

Written by Jeff Z. Klein, New York Times