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Sharks' Justin Braun passes the puck in the first period at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California on Saturday, March 5, 2011. The San Jose Sharks played the Dallas Stars. (Jim Gensheimer/Mercury News)

When Sharks general manager Doug Wilson tweaked the team's blue line in late February with the additions of Ian White and Justin Braun, he emphasized the importance of both being right-shot defensemen.

"There's not many of them out there," he said. "It's like looking for left-handed pitching."

Wilson was shedding light on a curious NHL phenomenon: Left-shot players far outnumber their right-shot counterparts. That disparity is especially seen among defensemen.

"You can't help but notice," said Jason Demers, a right-shot Sharks defenseman. "But I have no idea why. Nobody knows for sure, but it's weird."

It gets even weirder.

Canadian and European hockey players tend to be left shot while more Americans are right shot.

"I wish I had a good reason for why that is," said Mike Mountain, director of sticks and blades at Van Nuys-based Easton Sports. "But the reason there are more left-shot players in the NHL is because there are more from Canada and international markets than from the U.S."

The NHL does not keep track of the left-shot/right-shot ratio among players. But earlier this season, The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto wrote that in a typical year, between 60 and 66 percent of NHL players shoot from the left -- numbers that are in line with estimates of stick-makers. Of the 29 skaters on the Sharks roster this season, 17 are left shots (59 percent).


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And the Norris Trophy is an indication of the paucity of right-shot defensemen over the years. The award, which goes to the league's top defenseman, has been handed out since 1954, and the only right-shot players to win it are Chris Chelios (three times), retired Shark Rob Blake and Al MacInnis.

"I didn't know that," Blake said. "I only know that there were fewer right-handed defensemen on almost every team I've played on."

In a perfect world, teams would match up left and right shots on their defensive pairings. (The Sharks have four of each on their roster.)

"You're more comfortable getting pucks off the boards on your forehand than you would on your backhand," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "It also makes it easier to go back and retrieve pucks."

Just as a left-handed pitcher forces batters to adjust, a right-shot defenseman also can give a hockey team's power play a new look.

"Power plays always are set up for the left shot because there's more of them," Blake said. "That's why for most teams, the right shot becomes the offside one-timer."

But the Sharks, with right-shot Dan Boyle directing the power play, can create different shooting and passing angles.

(Left-shot defensemen can excel playing the right side, of course. The list starts with a guy you might have heard of -- Bobby Orr.)

But why an abundance of hockey lefties?

"Is it politics?" McLellan joked.

"Maybe it's genetics," said White, a Manitoba native.

Or it could be just a Canadian thing.

Wilson, an Ottawa native who won the Norris in 1982, explains that the natural place to put your dominant hand is at the top of the stick. That means a right-handed person would then place his left hand on the middle of the stick and -- voilà! -- you have a left-shot player.

Yet Americans, who like the rest of the world's population are statistically between 89 and 92 percent right-handed, end up predominantly right shots.

"The U.S. is just counter from every other country," said Easton's Mountain.

Of Easton's senior sticks sold in the United States, 64 percent are right shot. North of the border, the numbers skew the other way with 56 percent being left shot. And Europe's numbers are similar to those in Canada -- a fact that won't surprise the Sharks' Douglas Murray.

"It was very rare that players were right shot when I was growing up," said Murray, a left-shot defenseman from Sweden.

One theory is that the difference is cultural. American kids are more likely to swing a baseball bat or a golf club at an early age, then mimic the motion if they later grab a hockey stick.

In Canada, where hockey is the national sport, kids practically emerge from the womb holding a stick.

"In short, it depends what sports you play first," e-mailed Calgary writer Bruce Dowbiggin, author of the book, "The Stick: A history, a celebration, an elegy."

That sounds plausible, Mountain said.

"But the really interesting thing about all this is there's no definitive answer," he added. "It's just something that people in hockey have always known."

Chelios, who grew up in Chicago, ended up going against the grain because his father got him the wrong-curved sticks when he was 9 years old.

"My dad bought a couple dozen sticks," said Chelios, a Detroit Red Wings executive who retired last year after 27 NHL seasons. "We got a deal on them, and he said: 'You use them -- or else.' "

The Ontario-raised Blake said he began playing hockey with his older brother's hand-me-down sticks.

"That's what I first used on the pond," he said. "Whatever stick is first put in your hands, that's what you're stuck with."

Braun, a Sharks rookie, is left-handed in everything else. He also was a baseball pitcher growing up in Minnesota.

"Everyone always told me that being a left-handed pitcher was a good thing," Braun said. "That never worked out for me."

But that right-shot defenseman thing did.

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.