Looking for a right-handed hockey player

I saw this tweet:

They’re just joking guys, and you don’t have to have statistical precision in your jokes. But the joke statistics reflect the commonly held wisdom that Americans are overwhelmingly right-handed shooters. If you do a google search on this topic you will find lots of blogs and articles and tweets repeating numbers similar to the above without ever saying where they came from. Some refer to a New York Times article from 2010, but most simply claim without proof a percentage that often ends in a zero or a five.

One article cited hockey stick sales, although it did not specify the source or scope of this information:

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

I happen to have the full NHL rosters handy as of Friday, Sept. 16, so let’s find out what the real numbers are for laterality. NHL rosters now, in the offseason, contain everyone with an NHL SPC who has not yet been loaned to another team. For the Leafs, it’s 46 players, including all the juniors, the players who will be cut from the minors and the NHL regulars. The only absent players are Topi Niemelä and Roni Hirvonen. Players on ATO or PTO are not included. In total, there are 1,304 players, ranging in age from the one just drafted and signed to the NHL’s oldest player (Craig Anderson).

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

Who are these 11 unicorns?

Goalies who catch on the right

Player Age Nationality Crew
Player Age Nationality Crew
Louis Domingo 30 BOX New York Rangers
Taylor Gauthier 21 BOX Pittsburgh penguins
Brandon Bussi 24 UNITED STATES Boston Bruins
Charlie Lindgren 28 UNITED STATES Washington Capitals
Yaroslav Askarov 20 RUS Nashville Predators
Pavel Francouz 32 CZE Colorado avalanche
Cal Peterson 27 UNITED STATES Los Angeles Kings
Karel Vejmelka 26 CZE Arizona Coyotes
Michael Hutchinson 32 BOX Vegas Golden Knights
Logan Thompson 25 BOX Vegas Golden Knights
Isaiah Saville 21 UNITED STATES Vegas Golden Knights

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

With the goalkeepers catching on the left, we can watch all the skaters:

This means that 62.8% of players currently registered in the NHL shoot left.

Breaking this down by nationality, we get this:

NHL skaters by nationality

Nationality Count Left shot
Nationality Count Left shot
BOX 492 61.18
SWED 120 70
FIN 61 70.49
RUS 60 80
CZE 41 70.73
SVK 14 71.43
HE 12 91.67
DUE seven 85.71
BLR 6 83.33
DK 5 80
LVA 5 100
ENG 2 100
UK 2 50
AU 1 100
NVS 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 conventional wisdom would have it. Or at least that’s not the case at the moment. To be really rigorous, a review of each draft class over time would be in order, and of course comparing the results to the players could also be interesting. Is this partly a factor in the elitism of the NHL? Let’s get comprehensive stick sales data for kids sticks. These are plans 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 lump everyone who isn’t from North America into one group, cruelly adding this Aussie with them and labeling them Europeans, this is what we get:

NHL skaters by region

Region Count Left shot
Region Count Left shot
BOX 492 61.18
USD 340 74.41

As every Leafs fan should know, few things obsess the hockey world quite like the laterality of defensemen, while forwards playing their secondary wing go largely unnoticed. Some attackers like it for specific reasons related to their playstyle, and some hate it. Some seem to change at will, some don’t. Confirmation bias will tell you if William Nylander is as good on the left side as it is on the right side, so no analysis needs to be done there. The separation of defenders and attackers should tell us if the defender obsession is related to these numbers.

Attackers versus defenders:

NHL forwards by region

Region Count Left shot
Region Count Left shot
BOX 315 63.81
USD 223 75.78

NHL Defensemen by Region

Region Count Left shot
Region Count Left shot
BOX 177 56.5
USD 117 71.79

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

Some things to note: America has produced more defensemen than Europe according to current NHL rosters, so well that factoid about all the defensemen coming from Europe now.

Each region has proportionately more right-shooting defenders than attackers. But the difference is just big enough to be more than a fluke for Canadians.

Why does this happen? That’s the big question. And there are as many answers to that as there are imaginations to invent them. Most people seem to naturally put their dominant hand on the bottom, and therefore the majority would shoot right, so something has to drive the swing the other way first and regional differences second. Some of the ideas I read are:

  • the influence of the game of baseball in children
  • tradition
  • you play with the stick your older brother gave you, and they got theirs from your parents
  • coach’s beliefs about the value of shooting with the “weak” hand

Most of these explanations seem to me to be retroactive constructions, but they could contain some truth on the whole. This ESPN article that offers ideas about creating better players by having them shoot left relies very heavily on a two-month difference in how long it takes to make the NHL right-handed or left-handed and doesn’t hold up. ignore the desire of NHL coaches to have defensemen who shoot right, even if they require more work to prepare for the NHL.

One thing I wonder is, if this stick sales data is true, are stick manufacturers contributing to the disparity by making it harder to buy a right-handed stick? Is it a case where the supply of a product follows the demand, but ends up fixing the demand by its availability?

PK Subban said his dad insisted his boys be defensemen (Malcolm said no) and shoot well because that’s how you get a job in the NHL when the NHL isn’t can – not be so happy to have you.

Still, it’s good advice. But maybe parents should start considering the desire for deep centers that shoot just for D-zone draws. Either way, make your kids who are goalies right-handed if you want free trips to Vegas.


If you play hockey, do you shoot…

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