The first memory of hockey for me was four boys in a typical Canadian family growing up with a rink in the back of the yard. We'd go out there and everybody kind of gathered at our place and everybody would just play hockey. That's what we knew. We called it pond hockey, river hockey, whatever -- that's where we learned the game.
Then we'd play at the community centre and eventually as we grew older, we'd go to the outdoor rinks after school and play with the older guys. You'd have to skate really fast or pass the puck really quick to play with them.
Back then, when we were kids, there was a special at Mohawk: If you got a tank of gas, you could go to the garbage can and pick out a hockey stick.
So, my dad got a tank of gas and my older brother Jim went to grab a stick
He grabbed a left.
The next time dad fuelled up, the special was still on: get a tank of gas, get a stick.
My brother Mark went and grabbed a stick. Of course, he grabbed a left because older brother Jim grabbed a left.
So, we're playing with two sticks and then it was my turn next.
I grabbed a left.
At the end of the day, all four of the Benning boys shot left and it made it easy for dad to buy sticks. He'd buy them by the dozen and the kids would use them. We kind of adopted that.
But now, the next generation is on the other side -- they all shoot right.
att Benning wasn't keen. Just a sprout four-year-old when his father, Brian, a former National Hockey League offensive defenceman, was trying to plant the seed. Maybe his interests were elsewhere. Maybe he'd grow up to be a professional motocross rider, dangling around dirt mounds instead of defending against forwards.
Maybe he was puzzled. Left wide-eyed and indecisive when what his instincts urged was the opposite of what his father instructed. Perhaps he just needed time. Or a fascination for the outdoors. Because a year later, when the pearly white granules dropped and the temperature outside froze water, he couldn't stay off the backyard rink of his Highlands home.
Brian was keen. Just a few years removed from playing for the Florida Panthers, the final stop of his career. He was eager for his son to pick up a hockey stick and begin skating. Excited, maybe to the point that his involvement with the process was bordering on experimentation. Maybe the sticks he'd leave out for Matt to grip, the ratty wooden one with the crummy straight curve or the shiny new one with the right blade, were really manipulated variables. A ploy to influence the handedness of his son because of the information he knew, like the fact that there were less right-shot defencemen in the League than left. And that the trend was probably not going to end. He knew, under some guidance, he could probably persuade his son into believing what felt wrong, was really right. And he knew, in the end, it would maybe work.
But being right-side dominant, Matt clutched a stick as a lefty.
Brian contemplated the scenario with his wife. He imagined the nightmare of Child Services knocking on his door, wondering about the optics. That wasn't the case.
"It was really just us saying, 'Here's how you position the stick,'" said Brian, sunken into a leather chair in his Interstate Batteries office in Edmonton's industrial area. Behind him lean framed photos of his children Matt, Abby and Mike. Hockey mementos decorate the walls. He sits two paces from a functioning re-furbished classic Coca-Cola dispenser and beside a bordered piece of his playing career in perspective, courtesy of the NHLPA. Hanging on the wall he's facing is a University of Alberta Pandas banner of Abby and on a table on the other side of the room is a heavy trophy from Mike's most recent hockey accomplishment.
"In my family growing up, all four boys, we all shot left," Brian said. Vancouver Canucks General Manager and Brian's eldest brother, Jim, is to thank for that. He chose a left from the garbage can outside Mohawk when the gas station offered a deal that if you were to buy one tank of gas, which their firefighter father did, you would receive a free hockey stick. Of course, the rest of the Bennings maintained uniformity when it was their rightful turn to choose their lumber.
A similar adoption method occurred with Matt and his younger siblings when he bucked biology and shot right. The oldest of three, Matt wasn't choosing sticks from a garbage can. "We had some data on right-handed shot defencemen and I got my family to learn to shoot right," Brian continued. Matt used what Brian made available. He curled, dragged, released and repeated countlessly in the backyard shooting cage. with his left hand clutching the top of the twig, the tyke became a righty.
It was the handedness he would use to produce his most fond minor hockey memory, when he banked the puck off the boards at Confederation Arena during the Minor Hockey Week final. When he manned the ice for 1-on-1 sudden-death overtime alongside his childhood friend because it turned into a 2-on-1 when Brian -- Matt's coach at the time -- pulled the goalie for an extra skater.
It's the way he shoots to this day when he suits up for the Edmonton Oilers, the same team his dad represented briefly during his own career.
"We kind of re-positioned his hands and away we went from there."
The analytics aren't advanced. You don't need variables, means or modes to quantify the data. It's simple math and the reality is that Brian was shown the prevalence of left-handed shooters in the League during his career, and it outnumbered those who shot right. History has a way of repeating itself and the stats, to this very day, still remain similar.
A simple search in NHL.com's player database reveals 739 records returned when searching statistics on players that have dressed in at least one game in the 2017-18 season. Configure the data to reflect left shooters and 453 skaters appear. There's a significant drop-off when filtering it for righties. Of the 739 players, there are only 286, accounting for roughly 39 percent of the League.
As for defencemen, 254 are listed in the directory and 151 of them are left-shooters. That leaves 103 right-shot rearguards in the League altogether -- just 13 percent total.
"It's pretty easy," answered Eric Gryba, a right-hand dominant right shot. "Your dominant hand is supposed to be your top hand. I'm not that way, I'm right-handed and I shoot right. I should shoot left."
Studies suggest right-hand dominant individuals account for 88 to 92 percent of the world's population. That adds evidence to Gryba's explanation that the primary hand should be on the knob. Although empirical, it's the comfort of holding a stick that's subjective to each player.
In the Oilers Dressing Room, the team falls in line with the stats: 14 members of the club shoot left and nine right, which equals 39 percent. Three of the 23 skaters on the roster are right-shot defencemen -- reflecting 13 percent of the team. Having a left-right defence pairing is typically ideal for most coaches because it provides some fluency on the backend when giving, taking and making a pass. Despite the disparity in the number of lefts versus rights, as of Nov. 18, the top-five leaders in points by defencemen were righties. That changed to seven when looking at the top-10, leading some to believe there is an advantage for right-shooters despite their scarcity.
"I'm guessing it has something to do with goalies," continued Gryba. "It's harder to catch than it is to use your blocker. A righty is going to have a better angle on the glove side. Even if you see the angle, the angle of your shot is different than the angle you see. Majority of the time, they're going to have a better angle at the glove side."
Backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit hasn't given the topic much thought but agreed there is likely an edge to right-shot skaters when they barrel down the right wing or unload one-timers from the East side of the ice.
"I don't notice a difference but I'm sure there is," the netminder, who catches with his left hand and holds a paddle with his right, said. "A right-handed shot coming down going cross-body might be difficult but I don't pay attention enough to say for sure."
Iiro Pakarinen is an outlier. The Finn is ambidextrous. He throws a ball with his left but pens his letters with his right. When the team did fitness testing at the beginning of the season, his left and right legs scored equal and he says he can shoot as a lefty but not stickhandle.
But he, like many of the other Oilers players, knows of the phenomena but can't explain the competitive advantage.
"There might be more players that have done what Benny did," Pakarinen said. "Try to shoot left-handed but then they try to switch it as young as they can. I've heard a couple guys do that. But otherwise, is there a difference? I don't think so."
The evidence remains: there's a need for a right-shooting defenceman in the League and Brian knew it.
"For me, it's what I've always known and I'm glad that my dad did that when I was a child," said Matt, the hometown kid sitting in his Oilers stall, 18 years after learning to hold a stick. "On all the teams I've played on, there's been a lot of lefty defencemen. Being right-handed just helps in some situations."
It took years for Matt to notice. He paced the seasons without raising an eyebrow. When you're having fun playing the game you love, there's not much to ask. Especially when you're young. He remembered the abundance of right-curved sticks at his disposal but never questioned the family tree. At some point, though, he became old enough to notice. He inquired why the apple fell a bit further after he detected it. He asked why his dad and Uncles Jim, Mark and Craig all shot left while he and his siblings right.
"It wasn't until I was maybe 14 that I realized it," said Matt. "I kind of asked him at that point and I think that he knew what was up."
He doesn't feel duped. The opposite, actually. He's appreciative of what his father did as he looks back and digests the scenario.
"I think it helped me get here," he continued. "It was just one of those things where he bought right-handed sticks for us, trying to shape us to be a right-handed player."
Not only do they differ in the way they shoot, Brian and Matt are aware of their differences on the ice.
"I was an offensive guy," said Brian. "Loved the power play, played the power play and put up points. I maybe wasn't as big and strong as Matt but I would carry the puck, move the puck and be part of the play."
In Matt's rookie season, Oilers fans became accustomed to watching the deceptively physical defender skate through opposing players. Open-ice checks on Nathan MacKinnon and Corey Perry come to mind, adding evidence to Brian's assertion that Matt offers more physically than he.
"His battle, his hits... He doesn't always catch a guy but every now and then, he'll pick his time and lay into a guy to let him know he's there. Matt's high level of competition exceeded mine from a standpoint of battling in the corners and determination to not get outmuscled or beat to the net. Matt's exceptional that way and better than me at that."
It's not easy for Matt to find videos of his father's time playing. There are a few YouTube clips and somewhere, video cassette tapes, but good luck finding a VCR to play them on. Regardless, Matt is aware of their dichotomy.
"He was a little bit smaller than I was in height and weight but he was a really good skater," he said. "I think we see the ice similar but he had more offensive jump than I did."
The ancestral handedness deviated but there's a generational constant for the Benning clan. They contain a gifted composition. An inherent pedigree to play National Hockey League puck, whether shooting right, left or with a crummy straight.
They are a modest hockey family, driven by a mutual love for the game that they developed outdoors. That affection will likely continue without obligation. And so too will the abundance of right-handed sticks in the future.
"There will probably be right-handed sticks around the house because I'm a right-handed shooter," said Matt.