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Gordie Howe was constantly changing from a right-handed to a left-handed stance
Several years ago, I filed a little tid-bit from the June 5, 2007 Hockey News. One member of their writers guild had tucked this brief item into an appropriate free space.
“After this first practice after advancing to the Stanley Cup final, the Senators kicked things off with a friendly scrimmage. It seemed like a bit of silly exercise until you noticed that all the right-handed shooters were shooting left and the left-handed shooters were shooting right.”
It is not the first time that playful shenanigans of this type have taken place during a work-out. I still recall a note about Eddie Shack trying to imitate one of the rare ambidextrous members of that distinct fraternity. Also, there is a famous photo of Max Bentley, rounding the net in an unfamiliar pose, contrary to his normal left-handed shot stance. It is not a backwards negative either—the “A” on his sweater is in the proper spot near his left shoulder.
Why even the incomparable Bobby Orr got in on the act. Coach Harry Sinden once said: “Bobby never wastes a practice. He was shooting lefty, his natural way, and teaching himself to switch and shoot righty!”
That prompted me to recall a discovery while surfing the net a few years ago. I had chanced upon a “Forum” discussion which caught my eye. The question posed was: “How come there are no hockey switch shooters, like in baseball (switch hitters)? They would never have to take a backhand, which is much slower than a forehand—so weak that even an eight-year-old could stop it”
The answer was: “Hockey is too fast for switch shooting. In baseball, when at bat, you have all the time in the world to fiddle and fuss. Hockey is a split-second reaction, or you miss the boat!”
(Speaking of baseball, it has a variation of that androgynous trait. Hurler Pat Vinditte, who has played so far with five different major league teams – none of them for very long – can pitch with either hand. Confusing both batters and umpires, to the point that a new rule had to be created just for him. In one of the most famous flubbed headlines in history, local newspaper East Oregonian dubbed him “amphibious pitcher”.)
Actually, while very little has been made of it, especially in recent years, hockey also has known its ambidextrous stick wielders — switch-shooters, if you like. The earliest reference to this tactic takes us back to the 1912-13 season. “Rusty” Crawford skated for the Quebec Bulldogs of the National Hockey Association, the forerunner of the National Hockey League. He continued this ploy when he moved to the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Arenas of the newly-named circuit. It is said that while he was naturally a left-handed shot, he could swing in on a defender and cut loose with a wicked right handed drive, when he found it inconvenient to get the puck away from his natural stance.
Marty Burke broke into the NHL in 1927, bringing with him this unusual and tricky shift, with which he terrorized goalies in the Junior ranks. Charlie Conacher, who wrote a column in the Globe & Mail for a couple of years, recalls watching him when he played for St. Mary’s in the Sportsman’s Patriotic Association loop. He bulged the twine with forehanders from both the right and left sides. The move bewildered both defensemen and goaltenders. For some reason, he abandoned this approach as his tenure in the Big Time progressed.
More than a decade passed before another skater dazzled both opponents and spectators with this deft move. “Bingo” Kampman, who became a Toronto Maple Leaf on Christmas Day in 1937, caught the attention of the Sports Editor of the Toronto Star in very short order. “One of the most unusual of our present-day stick wielders in the NHL is “Bingo” Kampman. He’s distinctly a two-handed performer, who wields his stick either from the left side or the right with equal effectiveness. One minute you cast your eye over the Toronto defense and over Kampman, and you find him playing right-handed. Suddenly there is a shift of the opposing attack to his left. Presto! Bango Bingo is playing left-handed.”
“Dutch” Hiller, who was a teammate of Bill Cook, vouched for the accuracy of stories that the big right-winger also was effective in ambidextrous efforts on the ice, even though he was hesitant to use this skill in game situations. In 1952, the erudite Dink Carroll, in his popular “Playing The Field” column in the Montreal Gazette, affirmed the report, choosing to name Cook as a skillful switch-shooter.
Gerry Heffernan called himself a “one-season wonder”; referring to the fact that he was second in scoring to the great “Rocket” Richard, as a member of the Montreal Canadiens during the 1943-44 National Hockey League campaign. He had played a full year in ’41-‘42, and during the playoffs the intervening year, yet did little as a point getter. But, as a member of the “Razzle Dazzle” forward line during that third schedule, along with Pete Morin and “Buddy” O’Connor, he was in the spotlight. Perhaps it was because his ambidextrous skill came to light when he skated for the minor-league Montreal Royals that little was made of it when he was promoted to the Big Time. But shortly before he donned the colours of the Habs, a Montreal newspaper carried the story. He was a natural right-hand shot; but he developed the ability to fire from the left side as well.
If we approach our narrative in chronological fashion, Harry Watson, best known for his left-wing slot on Toronto’s Apps-Watson-Ezinicki line in the mid-nineteen forties, was next in line. He developed this innovation while stationed in Saskatoon during World War II. He was responsible for flooding the rink on the army base, and, often when the task was complete, he would take a bucket of pucks and practice shooting from the right side. When he joined the Red Wings, Manager Jack Adams discouraged him from plying his trade in this manner. However, when he was traded to the Maple Leafs he occasionally caught netminders off guard. He especially recalled scoring on the inimitable Chuck Rayner, “wrong-handed”!
Gordie Howe leads the hockey pack in just about every department, and he is the best-known switch-shooter of all. Former players, who faced him in his heyday, claim that he was constantly changing from a right-handed to a left-handed stance as he moved up and down the ice. His initiation into this adaptation happened more by osmosis than by design. When he played goal for King George Public School in Saskatoon, the only catching glove available was for his left hand, forcing him to hold the stick in his right. Hence he had to handle the puck “wrong-handed” during the clearing process, and it became incumbent upon him to shoot left as well as his natural right.
Strangely, he admits that he scored only about 10 of his 801 goals from the left side, but he found it invaluable when passing to his mates. When interviewed recently, “Mr. Hockey” was asked if he was acquainted with other players who were ambidextrous. He referred only to an incident in practice when he was with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. Rich Preston was puckhandling that day, uncustomarily holding his shillelagh left-handed, all the while shouting, “I’m imitating Gordie Howe!” Typical of the droll sense of humour of the only grandfather ever to play major league hockey, knowing he was past his prime, he quipped: “And so am I!”
In the fall of 1953, a headline appeared in the Hockey News announcing, “MARTIN JOINS HOWE AS THE ONLY OTHER NHL AMBIDEXTROUS SHOT”! Boston had just called up a rookie defenseman by the name of Frank Martin, who had handcuffed the Leaf’s Harry Lumley with a left-handed blast on the night of the byline. But it was his right-handed shot at Al Rollins in Chicago a few nights earlier which had aroused interest. From his home in St. Catherines he recalled the column, revealing that this stance was mostly a matter of “necessity being the mother of invention”. When playing the point at the blueline he found it easier to slide his hands into the alternate position than to move his body so his back was facing the action. His first move in this fashion was simply to “pinch in”, preventing the puck from skipping outside the zone. From that posture he sometimes followed through with a shot, even though it felt awkward. He was never able to beat a goalie with a switch-shooting drive, but he came close once or twice.
It is a little-known fact that Brian Cullen, who broke into the Big Time in 1954, also utilized this old switcheroo strategy to enhance his hockey skills. His theory was that it took less time to flip flop his hands on the stick than to manipulate his whole body for a backhander. The eldest of three brothers who made it to the NHL, he once set a record in Junior “A”, with 68 goals in one season. He recalls that four or five of them were “wrong-handed”. Although he scored only once right-handed, in the NHL, it was a huge thrill, because it was against the famous “Gump” Worsley.
A contemporary of Cullen, Billy McNeill played his final NHL match in 1963 with the Red Wings. A victim of big-league politics, he spent the bulk of his 16-year pro career in the old Western (Professional) Hockey League. At least once his ambidextrous talent made headlines in the sports columns. In February of 1966, while skating for the WHL Vancouver Canucks against the L.A. Blades, his attempt to make a play was thwarted because of his position in front of the opposition net. So he quickly switched his shooting stance from right to left, enabling him to get away a perfect pass, which resulted in the flashing of the red goal light.
Yvan Cournoyer is one of the modern-era pay-for-play pucksters who attempted this innovation. Nick Seitz in Sport Magazine featured the “Roadrunner” when he was first finding his niche in the big leagues. He paid special attention to his “even being able to score right-handed in an emergency!” Cournoyer recalled a key game in the 1971 playoffs against Minnesota, and how he swooped in from his “off” side, flip flopped his hands on the stick, and poked the disc past Maniago. His victim opined, “Now I’ve seen everything!”
The fleet-footed forward later said everyone had thought it was a lucky shot—but in actuality, it wasn’t. He practiced and practiced shooting a steel puck that weighed two pounds, in order to hone this skill. He began using this approach during his Junior days, and was never hesitant to utilize this trickery at the highest level of Canada’s National Sport. He estimates that he notched only two other tallies over the years in the NHL, even though he moved from left-handed to right-handed on about twenty percent of his ATTEMPTS to score.
Phil Esposito, who partnered with the great Bobby Orr is lifting the Boston Bruins out of the doldrums in the early nineteen seventies, had no hesitation in switching hands in game action when he felt his position on the ice warranted it. He first attempted this move when he was but 10 years old. His recollection is that “it just sort of happened!” And, because he was successful, he continued the practice at every level of the game. But, like every other ambidextrous shooter, his number of tallies from the “wrong” side were extremely limited. Of 717 regular-season markers, he remembers only twice slipping the puck into the net that way!
NHL players are bigger these days, and they shoot the puck harder, but very few of them attempt any adaptations in launching the old boot heel, except the slapshot! In recent years only two have followed through with this creativity—Wes Jarvis and Chris Chelios.
The former has been retired for 20 years, but during his 237 games in the majors, he was successful in beating an NHL cage cop with this move. His continual practicing of this stratagem paid off once in the Central League, when he beat Kelly Hrudey; and again in 1983 as a member of the Kings, he duped Vancouver’s backstop, John Garrett.
The amazing Chelios, of course, who retired at age 48, gave up his chance to challenge Gordie Howe as the oldest ever to play in the NHL. He is a natural righty; but occasionally causes a stir by scoring while wielding his stick as a lefty. When last asked about the move, he admitted that he remembers three markers for sure from the alternate stance. His explanation for this unusual ability is unique. It all started when he was eight years old. His Dad stumbled across a real bargain on sticks, so he bought two dozen of them. They all had a big “R” stamped at the top of the shaft. There was no way he was going to take them back, even though his son instinctively held his stick left-handed. Chris had no choice but to switch to shooting right-handed. So, it is no great strain for him to revert back to his God-given posture on occasion.
Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the American Tobacco Company’s most prominent promotion for its Tareyton brand was the testimonies from their satisfied customers, who insisted they “would rather fight than switch” (to any other cigarette). But the aforementioned pucksters “would rather switch than fight” (the effort to maneuver into position for a backhander).
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