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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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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.

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?'"

Fair point.

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."

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