After he powers up his computer every morning and clicks on the stats page at NHL.com, Bill Mikkelson skips the meat-and-potatoes stuff like goals scored and immediately homes in on a less prominent column: plus-minus.
This is an article from the July 9, 2012 issue
Like the check at a swank restaurant, the numbers are most compelling when read from the bottom up.
"I check all of the time to see if anybody's going to come close to the record," Mikkelson says. "I look at the player. And I look at his team because a player's plus-minus is so closely related to the team. But I wouldn't be cheering for [a player to break the record] just for his own sake. It's not like rooting for [Steven] Stamkos to get 60 goals."
As you might have guessed, the NHL's single-season record for the worst plus-minus belongs to the man checking the statistics. Mikkelson was -82 over 59 games with the expansion Capitals in 1974--75. This is his shard of immortality—or infamy, if you insist on viewing things upside down.
Like Glenn Hall's 502 consecutive games played in goal or Wayne Gretzky's 2,857 career points, Mikkelson's mark appears impregnable. For one thing, there are not enough goals being scored in the modern NHL—the league averaged 5.32 goals per game in 2011--12, compared with 6.85 in 1974--75—to inflate either a plus or a minus. (For every even-strength or shorthanded goal his team scores, a skater on the ice is credited with a plus; likewise, if his team allows an even-strength or shorthanded goal, he receives a minus.) Today's teams also rotate six defensemen instead of the four or five that they used four decades ago, effectively limiting the time that any one blueliner spends on the ice. And, as Red Wings general manager Ken Holland notes, no coach—"or soon to be ex-coach"—possesses enough of a professional death wish to continue using a player whose plus-minus rating has dipped past, say, -40. "Yeah," Holland admits, "I think that record's pretty safe."
Since the start of the Dead Puck era, in 1997--98—when the neutral zone trap reigned and Jaromir Jagr's league-leading 102 points were the fewest for a scoring champion in 30 years—the worst plus-minus rating is Penguins winger Rico Fata's -46 in 2003--04, just over half of Mikkelson's mark. Similarly, the highest single-season point total during that span is Jagr's 127 in 1998--99, which represents 59.1% of Gretzky's single-season record of 215. Anecdotally the numbers suggest that Mikkelson's -82 is even more unassailable.
But there is context. "When kids teased me about my dad's plus-minus record," says his daughter, Meaghan, a defenseman on Canada's Olympic gold medal team in 2010, "I'd ask, 'And how many games did your father play in the NHL?'"
Mikkelson made his NHL debut with the Kings, against the Maple Leafs, on Nov. 17, 1971, in a midweek game that was televised across Canada. On his second or third shift he misfired a pass to defensive partner Jean Potvin. The puck skittered along the ice like an injured sparrow, and Toronto's Dave Keon swooped. Breakaway. Top shelf.
"That," Mikkelson says, "was my first minus."
He tells this story from the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth in Montreal, the same hotel where he stayed in '74--75 with the first-year Capitals, whose 8-67-5 record makes the expansion Mets (40-120-1) look like the '27 Yankees.
Mikkelson was a stay-at-home defenseman in the 1970s. Some four decades later, he is a mobile ex-defenseman. After hockey he spent 24 years in sales and marketing with IBM, in Regina, Saskatchewan, and later in Edmonton. He retired nine years ago, at age 55, and now he travels often to see his two younger children play. On this day, for example, Bill and his wife, Betsy, a retired high school English teacher, are in Montreal to watch their son Brendan, a third-pair defenseman with the Lightning, face the Canadiens. Afterward they will drive two hours south to Burlington, Vt., where they will watch Meaghan win her first gold medal in the women's world championships.
At 6 feet and 190 pounds, Mikkelson was a modestly imposing defenseman for his era. But today he would be considered undersized for the position, a player who could not crack a lineup without possessing extraordinary skill.
Which he did not. "I was O.K.," says Mikkelson, disarming in his earnestness. "I was a good skater, but I was missing the dexterity managing the puck—the hockey sense, you might say. I wish I had applied myself better. Worked harder. Practiced more. Lifted more weights. Learned how to fight.... My problem was that I sort of fell into being a hockey player. I never planned to be one. I was probably an average defenseman on every team I ever played on. In junior too. But for some reason I kept advancing. I don't know why."
The Accidental Hockey Player might often have been at the wrong place at the wrong time on the ice, but he played in the right era. This was a seller's market. The NHL had expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967--68, and it had jumped to 16 by '72--73, the season following Mikkelson's inauspicious rookie year with Los Angeles—he had one assist and was -11 in 15 games. After the rebel World Hockey Association was launched in the fall of '72 there were suddenly 28 major league hockey teams in North America. Only a few Americans played, and the European invasion was still in its embryonic phase, so teams craved Canadian bodies. And Mikkelson, a Manitoban, was as warm as any of them. He actually had to choose between the Islanders, who had plucked him from L.A. in the '72 NHL expansion draft, and the WHA's Winnipeg Jets. Rather than stay near home, he decided to expand his horizons by going to New York.
Expecting the big city's bright lights, he instead saw the red lights behind his own goal, repeatedly. He led the Islanders—if that indeed is the right word—at -54, a mark, Brendan slyly observes, "that he blew out of the water two years later."
Not that anyone seemed to care—or notice. Although plus-minus had become an official NHL statistic in 1967--68, calculations were still a murky business in the '70s. Teams tracked the stat internally but rarely disseminated the numbers. In any case no coach ever mentioned it to Mikkelson, who became expansion-draft fodder for a second time in 1974, when the NHL expanded to 18 teams. (Mikkelson is not even sure when he became aware of his dubious distinction, except that it happened after he had retired with a rating of -147 in 147 career NHL games, which speaks to the symmetry, if not the poetry, of the thing.)
Those 1974--75 Capitals were a rank embarrassment by all hockey metrics. They scored 181 goals and allowed 446. They gave up 10 or more goals seven times during the 80-game schedule. They finished the season with just 21 points, 20 fewer than their expansion cousins, the Kansas City Scouts. And they had eight players with ratings worse than -50, including defenseman Greg Joly, the first pick of the 1974 amateur draft, who was -68 in 44 games, meaning that he had a higher minus-per-game than Mikkelson, -1.55 to -1.39.
In other words a plus-minus rating does not occur in a vacuum. A player needs help to fail so epically. "I honestly don't remember being beat that year," Mikkelson says. "But the number was earned. I don't question that fact.... Still it's a question of circumstances. Like when you're crossing the street and get hit by a car because the driver runs a red light. You're still hit, but it's not your fault." Washington was hit by a lot of cars that first season. In six games against the Canadiens, who won the Norris Division, the Capitals were outscored 49--9. Mikkelson was not around for the last two games, having been demoted to the minors late in the season.
He would play one more NHL game, against Chicago, after being called up more than two years later, on March 3, 1977. Mikkelson, who twice had quit hockey—once in juniors, right before he began taking classes at the University of Manitoba, and later during the four years that he languished in the Kings' system—played out the final year of his Capitals contract in the second-division German league with Mannheim, which paid a portion his salary. He then left hockey for good, finishing his senior year at Manitoba and earning a degree in commerce, which had been his intention all along until life got in the way.
"Sometimes I wish that I didn't have those three [previous] years of university and was more hungry," he says. "I wish I had needed hockey. I was playing just because somebody kept offering me contracts." Within five years at IBM he was earning more than he ever had in the NHL.
"I guess minus 82 is something to forget," he says. "At the time, anyway. Not now. That sort of applies to everything. In the grand scheme of life it's so far down there you can't even see it. It's in the Marianas Trench."
Mikkelson moved on, making the transition from "O.K." hockey player to all-star hockey father.
Bill Mikkelson never coached his hockey-playing children. (His eldest, Jillian, cared more about music and writing than sports.) Years ago, when Meaghan, now 27, or Brendan, 25, wanted to skate at the outdoor rink near their home in the Edmonton bedroom community of St. Albert, Bill would drive them and then sit in the van with his briefcase, working away for IBM. During games he would stand in the corner of the rink with other parents, observant but silent. "Our mother," Brendan says, "was the one who'd yell at the refs."
Bill had lived his dreams, however reluctantly, and now his children were being encouraged to live theirs on their own terms. They were, at least relatively, better defensemen than he had been. Maybe he could give them a pointer about, say, deception—a head fake, for example—but they were driving the buses of their careers. He was just driving the van.
"The most important advice my father ever gave me," Meaghan says, "is whatever you do, make sure you have no regrets."
So when Meaghan greeted her father after winning the 2007 NCAA hockey championship with Wisconsin at the Olympic rink in Lake Placid, Bill suggested that she return to the dressing room, look around and take mental pictures that she could burn into her memory. And when Brendan is up in the NHL for one of his periodic stints, Bill often reminds him to cherish the big cities, the pulsating arenas and the charter flights, because in 40 years he might not remember half of it.
"My uncle played"—Jimmy McFadden won the 1948 Calder Trophy and the '50 Stanley Cup with Detroit—"and I remember listening to his games on the radio," Mikkelson says. "Hockey Night in Canada. Danny Gallivan [who called Canadiens games] was my favorite announcer. To play in the Montreal Forum, that was unimaginable. I played against Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr in Boston.... Even though I was trying to quit at the time, in retrospect I was quite grateful to have had that opportunity to be minus 82.
"I got to play. And the price I paid, I would pay it 100 times over."