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Why Do Most NHL Players Shoot Left?

I spent some time on BC Ferries over the weekend. As I do every September, I purchased a couple of hockey pool magazines. The best, by far, is The Score’s SportsForecaster.

I was leafing through this year’s edition, and was reminded of something I’d noticed in the past: most defencemen shoot left. By ‘shoot left’, I mean when they’re taking a forehand shot, the blade of the stick sits on the ice to the left of their body. Having finished my meatless breakfast (not on the menu, but you can order it from the cafeteria), I started doing some addition. Here are the results:

  • Of 1071 NHL players and prospects, 65% shoot left.
  • Among forwards only, 61% shoot left.
  • Among defencemen, 72% shoot left.

Avid Canucks fans will recall that for a while, the team has had only one right-shooting defenceman. This season it looks like they’ll probably have two.

What gives? I’m right-handed, and when I play hockey (of the road variety), I always shoot right. After all, apparently only 8 to 15% of adults are left-handed.

Not surprisingly, it’s all about defence. From Yahoo Answers:

When you shoot left, the hand in the middle of the stick is your left hand, and the hand at the top of the stick is your right hand. When you are skating fast, or stretching to reach a far away puck, you end up with only your top hand on the stick – as explained above, in the case of a left shot player, that would be your right hand.

That is why right handed people (which is most people) end up shooting left – so that when they have to handle their stick with just one hand, it is their dominant right hand.

This appears to be a largely North American phenomenon. I just checked the handedness of some prominent European scorers, and they mostly shot right. Regardless, another of life’s tiny mysteries put to rest.

In related news, I’m gong to be running a hockey pool in late September using The Common Fan. I’ll be looking for 10 to 12 participants. I’ll probably run the draft over Skype or some other IM system, and it’ll be a very low maintenance pool. Maybe we’ll have a couple of redrafts, but that’s about it. If you’re interested in joining, leave a comment or, you know, watch this space.

44 Responses to “Why Do Most NHL Players Shoot Left?”

  1. Jordan

    This has always baffled me too.

    Although I was never a hockey superstar, I was an exception: right-handed defenseman that shoots (and bats and golfs)right.

    My dad (also right-handed), shoots and golfs left, bats right and also played defense. Go figure.

    One thing I think Yahoo Answers overlooked: When shooting, the hand on the middle of the stick is what generates most of the power, which could explain why some instinctively prefer that to be their dominant hand.

  2. Patrick

    Haha. Good explanation. Thanks for researching this, I noticed a huge majority of lefties when looking up the habs’ lineup end of last season and wasn’t sure why that was.

    Strange though, some guys from my neighborhood made it to junior and a couple from school to the NHL and yet I’ve never heard of someone switching or playing “inverted” so I wonder when this started, they can’t possibly be changing sides late in their careers so it must be a somewhat recent trend, maybe in hockey clinics for the young ones? There weren’t a lot of those when I was around people starting out.

    I’d be in for the pool.

  3. DJR

    I don’t know how it works now, but when I was young my first stick was straight. My dad gave it to me and said “go”. I naturally felt more comfortable shooting left (even though I’m right handed). I seriously doubt that at age 5 I put much thought into foreseeing that as a defenceman I’d have better control over a one-handed poke check using my dominant hand. I was more worried about keeping upright on skates. This doesn’t really answer *why* more people shoot left than right, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because of the need to hold the stick with your dominant hand.

    CGL Reply:

    DJR makes sense.

    I wonder when there isn’t more academic literature on this topic?

    Here’s a theory. Most people are labeled right or left handed based on which hand they write. My guess is that definition may be far too simple.

    There’s right, left and a huge variation of ambidexterity. Ambidexterity can mean equally well with both hands or equally bad with both hands.

    That said, most people have to throw a baseball or use hand tools with the same hand they write with. Hockey players at the highest levels seem to make a mess of this assertion.

  4. Andrea Coutu

    If you have to stretch to make a shot, you end up with your right hand on top of the stick. So, if you’re right handed, you should shoot left. Also, shooting left makes it easier to aim for the goalie’s naturally weaker side (in most cases). At least, that is the story and advice handed down in my family. (My great-grandfather played for the Habs, but I only played road hockey.)

    Derek Reply:

    Your G grandfather was Billy — would like to chat with you — Putting together a book on Bruins – he played Bruins 26-27 season

  5. Anthony

    Now that you mention it, it all makes sense. I am kinda lucky as I can shoot with either hand so I get to confuse folks. Not that I stick handle worth a damn. I do tend to shoot left more often when I am playing defense.

    I am interested in the pool.

  6. Bob

    I’ve always wondered about the prevalence of lefties too.

    If only 8-15% of people are left-handed, then by the logic of the dominant hand, that same percentage should shoot right.

    Maybe it more to do with left/right brain and a neuro-cognitive aspects of the sport.

    Perhaps “dominant” is misleading because the stick is a two-handed instrument, something like a sledge, implying a certain degree of symmetry.

    If you look at guitar or violin players, or even golfers, lefties are quite rare, suggesting that dominance DOES factor in.

    I play right-handed guitar, shoot right in hockey, switch-hit in baseball. In baseball I’ll go left if I face a tough pitcher and just wanna make contact, but right if I really want to smack it.

    I guess I still don’t get it.

    Curious topic.


  7. James

    I think DJR has struck on a kernel of the truth here that the Yahoo Answers theory doesn’t accommodate for. When you’re 5 and using a stick for the first time you just try it the way your dad (or other instructor) shows you. You imitate, which should make the number of left-shooters fairly consistent over time.

    From my experience, no one switches the way they shoot after about age 9 or so, and even then very few people ever switch the way they shoot. I only remember one kid I played with changing from right to left.

    The Yahoo explanation makes sense if you’ve never played hockey yourself and you’ve never experienced how people decide which way they shoot. It seems perfectly random and fitting at the time, like the way you choose which hand to write with.

    My theory is that all those right-handed people are also right-foot dominant. When you put a stick in the hands of a wobbly kid on the ice they use it as a brace to stay upright. They tripod around getting their balance. If their master foot is the right it makes sense balance-wise for them to have the blade of the hockey stick opposite this foot, which would do the strongest pushing. That puts them in a position to shoot left.

  8. Jess

    You don’t know how long I’ve waited for someone to explain what “shoots left” means… :D Maybe I should try it the other way round.

  9. James #2

    What James says (2 posts up) is intriguing(i’m not the same james). Perhaps the foot on which you are most comfortable standing solo (on one foot) has to do with the answer. It would explain the low variation from 50% left and right; more so than a right-handed, left-handed argument.

  10. :)

    the theory with “foot” is my favorite :)I think it’s the most possible…but some people (for example me) can shoot both hand…I’ve played for 3 weeks and I don’t know – left or right…when I shoot left it’s more comfortable…but when I shoot right it’s stronger:)

  11. Beth

    In addition to a dominant hand and dominant foot, you also have a dominant eye. In baseball, batters who hit the opposite way than they throw (e.g., throw right, bat left) usually do so because of their dominant eye – for example, I throw right and I’m right eye dominant, so I bat left – which put my dominant right eye facing the pitcher. When I learned this, it made me wonder if a similar thing was at play with hockey – I shoot left, which puts my dominant right eye slightly forward. No idea if there’s actually any merit to this, but it’s another theory.

    Matt Hooper Reply:

    Hockey is too fast for ‘switch hitting’. In baseball—while at bat, you got all the time in the world to fiddle and fuss. Hockey is split second reaction or you missed the boat.

  12. Fred

    How come there are no hockey switch-shooters, like baseball switch-hitters ?

    I think hockey switch-shooters are much more important than baseball switch-hitters. Most backhand shots at the goalie are so weak that 95% of them could be stopped by an eight year old.

    Switch-shooters would almost never have to make a backhand shot, unless they were in a scuffle or a traffic jam at the front of the net.

  13. Rob

    The answers given are on the right track. But reaching or poke checking with one hand on the stick is not the main reason a righty shoots lefty or vice versa. The hand on the top of the stick should be the dominant hand as this is the hand that control the stick. The hand in the middle really only provides power on a shot. But the hand on the top is the one that controls the stick and allows for better stick handling. Stick handling is the key here, as it is a necessary skill to navigate through traffic, deke goalies, etc.

  14. Danger Ranger

    This subject just came up last week when I finally asked a friend who was an all American in the WCHA and played for the St. Louis Blues and also coaches hockey. We all grew up in northern Minnesota. I saw that the majority of all the hockey players(better players as well) shot left handed. Made no difference if they were a forward, defenseman or Goalie. A goalie who has his catching glove on the left hand, handles and shoots the puck left handed. These days kids are starting hockey and mom or dad takes them shopping for equipment. Immediately the parents picks up a right handed stick since their kid is right handed. This is entirely wrong. I shot right handed when I played and my brother constantly tried to get me to shoot left. it just did not feel right.
    so I asked my friend how do you determine which way to shoot the puck for beginners. He worked with kids on this subject. He tested them two ways. The first was he had them pick up a snow shovel(southern Calif kids go to Step 2) and see which hand went lower and which hand was at the handle of the shovel. Hence if the left hand was lower on the shovel, chances are this kid would shoot left handed. Another way to check is to see where you place your hands when sweeping a broom(not curling but a house broom) so hockey moms don’t just give your kid a right handed stick.

  15. Steph

    Before I started to play hockey I played many years of tennis. I am a lefty which means my two-handed back hand has my left hand at the end of the racket and my right hand below or at the throat of the racket, so it felt best for me to stickhandle and shoot “right” when I began to play hockey.
    I also can bat both left and right and play golf left or right, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel comfortable to play hockey lefty.

  16. Manny

    Then how come, Im right handed but I hold a hockey stick AND a baseball bat as a lefty also? I have always noted most NHL players (percentage wise) were leftys.
    My Dad was strickly left handed.

  17. Travis

    The shovel and broom thing seems perfect for determining a left or right shot. I’m a lefty for everything, but when it comes to hockey I’ve always shot right. It’s because I need my dominant hand for stick-handling and for times when I can only hold the stick with one hand. I can shoot straighter and with more power with a left-handed shot, but I can’t stick-handle to save my life. Kind of a double edged sword. Andrea Coutu mentioned that her great-grandfather played for the Habs. Crazy, he was banned from the NHL for life for attacking a referee. That sucks.

    Clarkson Reply:

    No, that rules. Don’t forget it.

  18. john pepi

    I remember 40 years ago it was very rare to see a right handed person shooting from the right side, or a left handed person shooting from the left. Now, when I tell young hockey players about that, they look at me like I have two heads. Most kids today who are right handed shoot from the right, like a right handed baseball player. The theory now is that the middle hand gives the power. Back when I was young, although I read now about the “stretch” advantage, I believe the theory was that the power hand was the pivot hand on the top of the stick for slap shots,especially.

    CGL Reply:

    40 or 60 years ago?

    Superstition and religion were much bigger factors then.

    My father is left handed. He was forced (beaten) from a young age to not use his left hand to write. He writes very poorly with his left hand. Just like a right handed person with his left hand. But when he picks up a hand saw or a hammer, it is with the left hand.

  19. Chris

    I think what Beth says has lots of merit. I’m right handed but left eye dominant. I throw and write with my right hand but bat right, shoot right, kick right, play guitar left handed, and dribble a basketball with my left-hand. I think eye-dominance determines what way a person shoots in hockey. Left eye dominant people shoot right and vice versa. It makes perfect sense.

  20. Hockey at 30

    I started playing at 30, and immediately chose right. I write and bat with a right dominance. The power and shovel argument is key; however, since i put soo much pressure on my right wrist to stick handle, i started to play left after soreness. With left, my one-timer is lost. I have better vision left, but i like having power when playing right. Looking at every aspect of hockey, I have concluded that I should learn how to play left since i will end up being better at stick handling, passing, and defense, and will just work on the power aspect.

  21. Matt Hooper

    Lefty vs. Righty. Your dominant hand should be on the top of the stick. This is encouraged in hockey circles all over the world. Right handed people should use a left curve stick. This allows you supreme control while stickhandling and the times when only one hand is needed on the stick. This also allows you to shoot off the correct foot. Pivot and balance is superior off your dominant leg. Taking a slap shot correctly will leave your dominant leg / foot carrying the load. Stickhandling with your dead hand on top of the stick is as effective as writing with the wrong hand. A coach can spot this a mile away. It is frustrating as hell to see a superb skater playing with the wrong stick at a young age—-because there is a point of no return. These kids will be weeded out by age 12. Can it be overcome ? Yes. Time, effort, and relentless scrimmage / practice against better players. far better to catch it when a kid is 5.
    How do you hold a broom ? A Shovel ? A rifle ? A Gaff on a boat ?
    Yes—you answered correctly—strong hand on the top end of each device.

    This answer comes with 45 years of hockey experience. I will go a step further. The single greatest thing you can do to mess up a young kid starting out in hockey is to give him the incorrect stick curve. Most NHLers (70%) shoot left because they are right handed. There are many left handed NHLers—-they shoot right. There is also scientific research that has proven that many NHLers are ambidextrious (15%)….

    Hockey at 30 Reply:

    Quick notes on using left handed stick. It seems like I can then utilize my right leg better — kicking the puck to my forehand. I’m way better with my backhand now playing left, scored in my first game with a wrist shot and a backhand, and I am now 90% sold that i did the right thing, going to a left handed stick after years of playing hockey. i also think i see the ice better as my right shoulder is farther back — no idea. the nice thing is it had nothing to do with my skating ability, which is better than most at my age. glad i didn’t have to re-learn that. :)

    HelmetHead Reply:

    With all due respect to Matt Hooper, you’re full of crap. “Your dominant hand should be on the top of the stick.” Wrong. There is no “should” involved here. It’s a personal preference. Look at how many people bat left and throw right in the major leagues. My two sons and I all play hockey. My youngest son and I are naturally left handed. My older son is right handed. We all shoot right in hockey. No one of us was told to shoot a certain way, we’re all just comfortable the way we are. In response to your “tests,” I hold a rifle with my right hand on the handle, a shovel with my right hand on top, a broom with my left hand on top, and a gaff with my left hand on top. There’s no rule. Every person just needs to figure out what’s most comfortable for himself. All you need to do is hand a kid two sticks, one left and one right, and ask him which one feels normal. A four-year-old will already have a preference and can tell you which one feels right. Telling someone to shoot left because he or she is right-handed is as arbitrary and dumb as telling him or her to shoot right. It’s a very personal thing and there’s no rule. Let kids figure it out on their own.

    HelmetHead Reply:

    Thinking about this more and how absurd Mr. Hoopers comments are. Do you think Mario Lemiuex and Gordie Howe had to struggle to overcome being given the “wrong” stick? The facts are that shooting left and being right-handed are predominantly an Ontario-Quebec phenomenon, and that’s why there’s such a prevalence in the NHL. Western Canadians, Americans, and Europeans tend to shoot right at a much higher rate (think Kurri, Ovechkin, Sundin, Selanne, Alfredsson, etc.). Many people have tried to figure out the “why” of it and have failed. It’s just a quirk of personal preference. Nothing more, nothing less.

  22. Puckhog

    I’m naturally right handed and shoot right also. I also bat right, golf right, write right, and throw right. My slapshot has always felt a bit off but I can crush a baseball. On the other hand I’m a great stickhandler and carry the puck with ease with one left hand on top of the stick. It really is a strange thing but I think there are benefits for a right handed person to shoot right or left. Hooper does have a point in that it is hard for me at times to shoot off my left foot forward right handed I tend to shoot off my back foot at times so there may be some logic behind his theory but I was never forced to shoot right although I can’t remember how it happened I was 5 or 6 at the time

  23. Tom

    I disagree with the tripod assessment in learning to skate because I am left footed exclusively (“goofy”), and right hand dominant although I can throw ok lefty.

    I am left handed at hockey, useless righty, hit baseball lefty, eventually switch, and exclusively played golf right handed (to a professional level).

    In golf Phil Mickelson is right handed but plays lefty golf, although unlike myself, he can beat most people shooting the other way too.

    I think the most likely reason for right handed players shooting lefty in the americas has to do with the position of goalie. In North America children play baseball first before hockey usually, and when you are right handed you catch with your left hand. When you would first try playing goalie, you naturally will want to hold your stick in the right hand because it wouldn’t make sense to swap glove hands.

  24. Am I mixed up?

    What if:

    – you are supposedly right handed;
    – write with right hand
    – bat left
    – hockey left
    – tennis racket: play with right hand
    – throw left handed
    – volleyball: spike with left hand (isn’t this the same motion as a serve in tennis? Why do I switch these up?)
    – snow/skate board….feet facing right
    – right arm has always been notably stronger, and slightly larger (probably only noticeable to me)

    I think I was hit by a bus at a young age….

    val Reply:

    yer hilarious! but it’s not the bus that did it, you can rest easy–everyone here seems to agree with you! that there is no rhyme or reason to how a person hits the puck, it’s not something that matches other preferences within one person (you crack me up)

  25. RR

    I’m a sports development officer in Scotland and have played hockey since I was 8 or 9. I can see valid points for the tri-pod theory for dominant footing when shooting (to test dominant foot ask the player to stand with both feet together and gentle push them on the chest, their strong foot will step back to keep their balance) and also for the dominant handedness. I do hold brooms, shovels & rifles with my dominant (right) hand at the top so to speak yet play hockey as a righty with the dominant hand lower down as is the most common case in Europe.

    I also agree that the theory for shooting in a particular way is whatever FEELS more natural but can see an argument for shooting a certain way to have an advantage over the goalie.

    Something I have come across at work is how to coach shinty (Scottish Highlands sport, similar to the Irish game of Hurling) where players are always instructed to hold their sticks with the dominant hand at the top for greater control and the secondary hand lower down in the middle of the shaft.

  26. Erik

    Thanks for the posts everyone and in advance for replies.

    I had a question about this.

    I’m 29yrs old, been playing regularly since middle school, and I play at least twice a week. I’d like to improve my stickhandling. I’m right eyed/right handed.
    Do you think it’s too late for me to switch from right to left handed stick? I wonder if I would get better faster with a left handed stick than practicing with right handed stick. Would it be worth it? Anyone do this at my age?

  27. Al

    I think you’ve all missed the point. The reason there are so many lefties in hockey is because left-handed hockey players ARE BETTER PLAYERS!

  28. Zach

    Hi, i don’t know what the reason is but ive noticed that alot of righties play lefty, a few of my friends do it and it seems to me that everybody does. maybe playing lefty makes you better, i dont know. i am a “lefty” but i do many things righty as well. i write, bat, golf, and throw lefty. but, i play guitar and goaltender righty. im also right footed when playing soccer but im goofy footed when skateboarding. i dont understand it. i think that you just get used to whatever u started out doing things as. the first time i picked up a guitar i held it righty, and luckily im a righy with that because it would be a pain to find a lefty guitar.

  29. Brad

    The yahoo answer would explain why more defensemen shoot left, because they often skate backwards with one hand on the top of the stick (their dominant hand) but it doesn’t explain why more often than not forwards are also left handed.

    Here is the reason: You have more flexibility in your non-dominant arm. Try seeing how far up your back (putting your hand behind your back) you can reach. You will be able to go higher with your non-dominant arm because there is usually less muscle in the arm. When stickhandling, the hand on the top of the stick for a right handed person is the dominant hand, which leaves the non-dominant arm to be in the middle of the stick to do all the fancy moves needed to deke a player or goalie. What is lost in power (in muscle) in the non-dominant arm, is made up for in more flexibility, allowing the player to bring their arm and shoulder further back for harder slapshots. Also, a much higher percentage of Canadians than Americans are left hand shots. Is this why Canadians (i.e. Gretsky) are better hockey players?

    Val Reply:

    I think it is brain-ed-ness. One’s “shooting side” isn’t a choice, it’s natural, not that you learn it skating backwards or any of that. I don’t play hockey, but for sure I shoot left, right doesn’t make sense for me, while I am a right-handed writer. Got a glimpse of Canucks at airport today. Daniel Sedin writes left-handed, Henrik right, and I’ve heard that’s the way it often is with identical twins; fraternal brothers too though! Meanwhile they both shoot LEFT. And, on-th-other-hand, “brain-ed-ness,” i.e. which side of your brain is dominant, (someone figures this is scientific, while no one says it’s important), try this: fold your hands so the fingers intertwine, and which thumb is on top? My left-thumb is on top, I’m right-handed and I shoot left. My son’s right is top, he writes right, and shoots right. Does left-thumb-top agree with one being a left-shooter? (I’m making this up, but what do you think?) The other one, to open a jar I grip with my right and twist the lid with the left, that’s obvious, right? well, my son says that’s nuts. But there you go–my left, when I think about it, is “obviously” my strong hand/arm, while my right is my fussy-detail-writing hand, not much good for power. What do you think of this?? If you are a brain scientist I’d love to know this has already been aired, and that brain-ed-ness is what explains it? eh?

  30. Val

    PS trying the behind-the-back stretch, my LEFT goes way up, can hardly reach my right up at all, so I’ve got it wrong–Brad’s correct, in that the muscle in my right prevents me from stretching it up, but so why does my left want to open the jar? Okay, and try this, for stairs without thinking about it, I naturally use left on the first step to go up and right to go down. Are these habits? or do they have to do with brain-ed-ness and shooting the puck? Oh, wait, I’d only be able to shoot a puck left, but I’d hit a golf ball right–is that inconsistent or what? I can’t get my head around doing either one the other way, but aren’t they so similar? (it’s a mystery). These aren’t habits I have built, I don’t play either sport, but trying it for a minute or a game, I’m stuck this way. Forget about “changing.” Maybe it’s nature that our brains simply come with variations towards such tasks. Cool question, though not important.

  31. Matt

    I am a right handed dominant individual who shoots righty in hockey yet holds a broom and shovel with my right hand on top. I believe it is what feels natural. When stick handling your hands work in tandem and move in unison. My son is just starting at hockey (he is five) and he has only skated with a stick several times. I see him some times holding the stick righty and other times lefty. Watching him he seems equally comfortable each way. He will figure out what feels more comfortable to him and then that will become the way he will shoot. It is only a 50/50 choice so once you make the choice you become better as you commit to that choice and only one way gets the practice

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