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Looking for a right-handed hockey player

Is there really a lack of righties in the NHL?

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs
Right is overrated.
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

I saw this tweet:

Which is just some guys joking around, and you’re not required to have statistical accuracy in your jokes. But the joke stats reflect the commonly held wisdom that Americans are majority right-shooters. If you do a google search on this topic, you’ll find a lot of blogs and articles and tweets repeating numbers similar to those above without ever saying where they came from. Some do refer to a New York Times article from 2010, but most just flat out assert without evidence a percentage that often ends in a zero or a five.

One article cited hockey stick sales, although it didn’t clarify the source or the scope of that information:

It also cites some stats for the NHL and discusses the way handedness in hockey and natural handedness interrelate. At the same time, every place you look, the assertion is made that 90% of people are right-handed. This is one of those obvious approximations like the rest of the numbers in the article linked above, so I’m sticking with saying the overwhelming majority of people are right handed. In my lifetime it was common in Canadian schools to force left-handed people to change hands, so any number is wrong. But what’s the right number for how players shoot?

I happen to have handy the full NHL rosters as of Friday, September 16, so let’s find out what the real numbers are for handedness. The NHL rosters now, in the offseason, contain everyone with an NHL SPC who has not been loaned to another team yet. For the Leafs that’s 46 players, including all the juniors, players who will be cut to the minors and the regular NHLers. The only players not there are Topi Niemelä and Roni Hirvonen. Players on ATOs or PTOs are not included. In total, there are 1304 players, ranging in age from the just drafted and signed to the oldest player in the NHL (Craig Anderson).

And speaking of Anderson, the first thing to do with this pile of player data is to take out the goalies. Let’s look at them for fun, though:

Who are those 11 unicorns?

Right-Catching Goalies

Player Age Nationality Team
Player Age Nationality Team
Louis Domingue 30 CAN New York Rangers
Taylor Gauthier 21 CAN Pittsburgh Penguins
Brandon Bussi 24 USA Boston Bruins
Charlie Lindgren 28 USA Washington Capitals
Yaroslav Askarov 20 RUS Nashville Predators
Pavel Francouz 32 CZE Colorado Avalanche
Cal Petersen 27 USA Los Angeles Kings
Karel Vejmelka 26 CZE Arizona Coyotes
Michael Hutchinson 32 CAN Vegas Golden Knights
Logan Thompson 25 CAN Vegas Golden Knights
Isaiah Saville 21 USA Vegas Golden Knights

I don’t think 11 players is enough to draw any conclusions from about the national origin of catching right. I also think it might be just a coincidence that Vegas has three of them, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe they think it’s an advantage in a backup.

With the goalies off catching left, we can look at all skaters:

That means 62.8% of the current NHL-rostered players shoot left.

Breaking that down by nationality, we get this:

NHL Skaters by Nationality

Nationality Count Left Shooting
Nationality Count Left Shooting
CAN 492 61.18
USA 332 53.31
SWE 120 70
FIN 61 70.49
RUS 60 80
CZE 41 70.73
SVK 14 71.43
CHE 12 91.67
DEU 7 85.71
BLR 6 83.33
DNK 5 80
LVA 5 100
NOR 3 100
FRA 2 100
GBR 2 50
AUS 1 100
SVN 1 100
DEU = Deutschland (Germany), CHE = Confoederatio Helvetica (Switzerland), AUS is Australia

It is true that Americans are more likely to be right-handed, but the difference is not as dramatic as the conventional wisdom would have it. Or at least it isn’t right now. To really be rigorous, an examination of every draft class over time would be in order, and then of course, comparing the results to female players might be interesting as well. Is this partly a factor of the elitism of the NHL? Let’s get some real comprehensive stick sales data for children’s sticks. Those are projects for another day and for another person who wants to do something fun. (The world doesn’t need another xG model, but it can always use more social science and fun.)

If we collapse everyone who isn’t from North America into one group, cruelly adding that Australian in with them and calling them European, this is what we get:

NHL Skaters by Region

Region Count Left Shooting
Region Count Left Shooting
CAN 492 61.18
EUR 340 74.41
USA 332 53.31

As every Leafs fan should know, few things obsess the hockey world like the handedness of defencemen, while forwards playing their off-wing goes largely unremarked. Some forwards like it for specific reasons related to their game style, and some hate it. Some seem to switch at will, and some don’t. Confirmation bias will tell you if William Nylander is as good on the left side as the right, so no analysis need happen there. Splitting out the defenders and forwards should tell us if the defender obsession is interlinked with these numbers.

Forwards vs Defenders:

NHL Forwards by Region

Region Count Left Shooting
Region Count Left Shooting
CAN 315 63.81
EUR 223 75.78
USA 212 53.77

NHL Defenders by Region

Region Count Left Shooting
Region Count Left Shooting
CAN 177 56.5
USA 120 52.5
EUR 117 71.79

Just to clarify, these numbers are all based on the NHL data on which way a player shoots, not what side they play.

Some things to note: America has produced more defencemen than Europe as per the current NHL rosters, so bin that factoid about all the defenders coming from Europe now.

Every region has more right-shooting defenders proportionally than forwards. But the difference is only large enough to be other than randomness for Canadians.

Why is this happening? That’s the big question. And there are as many answers to that as there are imaginations to make them up. Most people seem to naturally put their dominant hand on the bottom, and therefore the majority would shoot right, so something has to be driving the swing in the other direction in the first place and the regional differences second. Some of the ideas I’ve read are:

  • the influence of baseball playing in children
  • tradition
  • you play with the stick your older sibling gave you, and they got theirs from your parents
  • coaching beliefs about the value of shooting with the “weak” hand

Most of these explanations have the feel of retroactive constructions to me, but there might be truth in them in the aggregate. That ESPN article that puts forward ideas about creating better players by having them shoot left rests very heavily on a difference of two months in the time it takes to make the NHL as a righty or a lefty and doesn’t consider the desire of NHL coaches to have right-shooting defenders, even if they take more work to get NHL-ready.

One thing that I wonder is, if that stick sales data is true, are stick manufacturers contributing to the disparity by making it harder to buy a right-handed stick? Is this a case of the supply of a product following demand, but then eventually setting demand by its availability?

P.K. Subban has said that his father insisted his boys be defenders (Malcolm said no) and that they shoot right because that’s how you get an NHL job when the NHL might not be all that thrilled to have you.

It’s still good advice. But maybe parents should start considering the desire for depth centres who shoot right for d-zone draws. Regardless, make your kids who are goalies righties if you want free trips to Vegas.

Poll

If you play hockey, do you shoot...

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    Right
    (222 votes)
  • 45%
    Left
    (187 votes)
409 votes total Vote Now