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Hockey's Minus Man
MICHAEL FARBER
July 09, 2012
Bill Mikkelson's brief NHL career left him with one of the sport's worst stat lines—but the numbers don't begin to take the full measure of the man
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July 09, 2012

Hockey's Minus Man

Bill Mikkelson's brief NHL career left him with one of the sport's worst stat lines—but the numbers don't begin to take the full measure of the man

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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.

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