It’s not hard for a lefthander to be a goaltender in hockey, but it’s not all that easy to become one.
Just ask St. John’s IceCaps netminder — and lefty — Michael Hutchinson, who had to learn how to adapt when he decided early on that he just had to play between the pipes.
His quest began during his first season of minor hockey in his hometown of Barrie, Ont.
“Starting out, our house league team had a rotation of goalies,” recalled Hutchinson. “Every kid got a turn, but after about four or five games, there weren’t many who wanted to play goal. I really enjoyed it, so I got to play there most of the year.”
Problem was that the young goaltenders were using equipment owned by the minor hockey association and it was all made for right-handers — a left-handed catching glove and right-handed blocker. So Hutchinson improvised, using a baseball glove (a first baseman’s mitt) on his right hand and a regular hockey glove substituting as a blocker on his left.
That went on for about two years until Hutchinson obtained a set of gloves made for a lefthander — but they were old, almost ancient: a brown leather catching glove, hard and dry, and waffle-look blocker.
“At that age, you don’t worry too much. I was just glad to get them,” said Hutchinson of the used equipment. “What I do remember is that the glove was so old, it wouldn’t close. Looking back, it was pretty much like playing with two blockers.
“I had that (set) for a year-and-half. It was after I made my first rep team when I got a new set of Vaughn gloves for Christmas.
“Needless to say, I was very happy.”
In some cases, lefthanders looking to become goalies have forced themselves to adopt the orthodox style used by the right-handed majority.
And then there was former St. John’s Maple Leafs goaltender Francis Larivee, who made the change unbeknownst to even himself. Larivee is a southpaw who played like a righty, because when he started goaltending as a six-year-old, neither he and his parents — who weren’t hockey savvy — realized the association equipment he was using wasn’t made for lefties. He never let on to his coaches there was a problem and simply learned to play opposite to his inclination.
There are similar conversions in other sports. Years ago, thousands of novice golfers whose tendency was to swing from a left-handed stance were encouraged to turn around — golf courses were made for right-handers was the feeling back then — and many did. And baseball switch-hitters have had to learn to take cuts from one side or another, perhaps channelling some latent ambidexterity.
But nobody tried to switch Hutchinson, not that he ever wanted to. If there was a problem being left-handed, he simply found a way to solve it.
“In goalie camps, for example, you learn pretty early how to switch everything around in your head because the instructors were only showing how to do it the one way most goalies played,” said the 23-year-old.
“I’d have to figure out for myself how to flip those instructions so that for example when doing a particular move, my left leg would be the right leg for other goalies.
“I learned at a young age how to focus and adapt.”
Then there was the difficulty trying to obtain new equipment. In most cases, it would have to be custom-ordered for lefthanders like Hutchinson, so to get a first-hand look at the selections, he would go to a local sporting goods store, try on blockers and gloves made for right-handers and try to imagine how they would feel on the opposite side.
That’s one reason Hutchinson was so glad to meet other southpaw goalies. Besides the chance to discuss what it was like belonging to a fairly exclusive club, it also provided an opportunity to try on their gloves and blockers to see if they might suit him.
He still keeps track of fellow lefthanded netminders — who ironically are also described as “full-rights” by some in the hockey community.
The latest perusal of AHL rosters shows there are seven in the league, besides Hutchinson. That includes a couple on Atlantic Division rivals — Louis Domingue of the Portland Pirates and Malcolm Subban of the Providence Bruins, which was Hutchinson’s team for three years before he signed as a free-agent with the Winnipeg Jets organization over the summer.
There are those who believe goalies like Hutchinson, Domingue and Subban may have advantage over those catch the the other way. One line of thinking is that shooters — conditioned to firing pucks at netminders who catch with their left hands and hold their sticks with the right — can be initially thrown off by having to deal with a mirror image.
And a few years ago, there was a study of penalty shots and shootouts that showed that left-handed shooters — who make up the majority of forwards and defencemen — had considerably less success against goalies who catch with their right hand.
Apparently not only opposing players can be messed up.
In 2010-11, Hutchinson’s first season as a pro with Providence, there was an extraordinary situation where the other P-Bruins goalie — veteran Nolan Schaefer — also caught with his right hand.
“It was a team that had a bit of hard time scoring,” said Hutchinson of a Providence squad that had 209 goals, third-fewest in the AHL that season. "Some of the guys used to blame it on us for throwing them off in practice.”
Hutchinson does laughingly note many of his IceCaps teammates had the “Oh, you catch the other way” reaction when first encountering him in practice, but they seemed to have adjusted quite well.
“No problems. It’s been great. And these guys have been scoring a lot,” said Hutchinson of a St. John’s team that has put up five or more goals in eight of the 20 games they’ve played since Hutchinson was recalled from the ECHL’s Ontario Reign.
And while his St. John’s teammates have picked up the pace offensively, Hutchinson has been stellar since taking over as the IceCaps No. 1 goalie, with a 12-4-1 record, 2.23 goals-against average and .929 save percentage heading into Friday night’s game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
In other words, for this lefty, things are going all right.