Sunday, October 01, 2006

The life of Brian "Spinner" Spencer has been termed turbulent, fast and tragic. The movie "Gross Misconduct", released in 1993, detailed a classic downward spiral of an average NHLer, who bounced back and forth from the minors to the pros. It documents his troubled upbringing, his rise to the NHL, his bouts with incredile circumstances, and finally, his desperation to make sense of his life after hockey.

If you have never seen it, I highly recommend digging it up. It is essential for any hockey fan to see. I'd go so far as to call it "life altering" in it's perspective. It is the flipside of "Slapshot" - a composite of every dream come true, harshly balaced by the worst of life's grimmer realities.

After viewing it myself years ago, I must say that I never looked at an NHL career the same way again. From a Canadian boy's standpoint, the story of "Gross Misconduct" is simply chilling and stark.

Growing up poor in the British Colombia backwoods, Spencer dreamed as every Canadian boy dreams, of beating life's doldrums by making it to the big leagues. Oddly enough, the first NHL game Spencer witnessed, was his own debut in 1970 with Toronto. His energetic gung-ho style was appreciated by his junior teams and coaches. The "Spinner" nickname, was derived from a spinning top. If ever you'd seen him play, Spencer simply pinballed from board to board bouncing off anyone in an opposing uniform. He was a treat to watch.

Brian received an invitation to the Maple Leafs training camp in 1969 but didn't make the final cut. He did impress enough to be assigned to the farm team in Tulsa where he played most of the season. He got his first recall to the Maple Leafs on December 9, 1969 but didn't play. He had to wait until March 14, 1970 before he making his debut.The following season season Brian was a regular in Toronto for most part of the season.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck Brian, that would haunt him for the rest of his career and his life.

Brian told his parents that he would be a second period guest during Hockey Night In Canada's telecast of the Leafs game against Chicago on December 12, 1970. Brian's parents were extremely proud to have a son in the NHL, especially his father Roy, who had recently purchased his first black and white television for the occasion.

When Brian's father discovered that the CBC affiliate near the family's Fort St.James home was carrying the Canucks - Golden Seals game instead of the national telecasts, he became enraged. He furiously drove two hours to Prince George Television station CKPG and held employees hostage with his pistol and forced them to cut the transmission power. Soon after, the RCMP arrived and a shootout followed. Roy Spencer was shot and killed at the age of 57.

The death of his father in this manner scarred Brian. It marked his off ice disposition and composure as well as hindering his relationships with friends as well as marriage. It was his father's dream to have his son playing hockey in the NHL. After Roy's death, much of Brian's motivation and spirit were sapped as his energetic free will spilled over into uncontrollable anger and unfullfillable needs.

Brian split the next season between Toronto and Tulsa and was left unprotected in the 1972 expansion draft. Picked by NY Islanders, where he spent the next 18 months, he began to toil as a fringe player, used mainly for his aggressive tactics moreso than his hockey skill. He was traded to Buffalo in 1974 where he peaked offensively for 41 points, including 12 goals. He became a fan favorite in the Sabres uniform and seemed to prosper while enjoying his own renaissance of sorts. His hustle and ability to deliver a crunching hit were rounding him out into a complete player.

After three years on the Island, Brian was traded to Pittsburgh where his offensive production dropped off and he became specialized as a checking forward. His NHL career trickled awat from his as he appeared in only 7 games with the Penguins in the 1977-78 season before hanging on in the AHL with Binghamton, Springfield and Hershey. He retired after the 1979-80 season.

The story about Spinner Spencer should have ended there, but unfortunately his life after hockey became a mess
Upon annoucing to his wife that he was hanging it up, she immediately left him to dry. As the movie details, she was excruciatingly forthright in letting Spencer know the reasons for the split - goodbye to the money and glamour of being married to a big leaguer.

Looking to piece his life back together, Brian moved to West Palm Beach, Florida right after he retired. He fell in with the wrong kind crowd in Florida, involving with drugs and crime to make ends meets and numb his troubles. He moved in with a prostitute who worked for an escort service. Brian was never happy with this and after a falling out she accused Brian of committing a 1982 murder against a Palm Beach Gardens restaurateur, in a drug deal gone bad.

Brian was arrested for a first degree murder in January 1987 but was acquitted after a 10-month trial. The experience left Spencer reeling in self doubt and pity. He stooped low in attempts for street survival with little to no income. As everyone knew him as a former NHL player, he picked up quick cash by forging Bobby Orr's signature onto hockey memorabilia.

Former Leaf team mate Jim McKenny later said, " He thought he was the only bad person in hockey, he felt he was the only person who failed. But I told him there were 200 other guys who messed up worse than he thought he had. I told him he shouldn't feel guilty. It's really tough to re-establish yourself after hockey. He was all alone. He was surprised people still cared about him. He thought he was the scum of the earth.

In June of 1988, Brian and his friend Gregory Scott Cook cruised around Riviera Beach in search of cocaine. After the purchase they stopped their car a couple of blocks later to consume the drug when a stranger approached the vehicle`s side window in a holdup attempt. Brian surrendered the last three dollars he had when the assailant fired a bullet into the 38 year old fomer NHLer`s heart.Cook, who had escaped uninjured, rushed Brian to paramedics. They sped Spencer to St. Mary's hospital in West Palm Beach where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Spinner's hectic life came to an abrupt end just as many believed he was turning his life around. The curly haired Spencer was survived by his twin brother Byron, mother Irene, his two ex-wives, Linda and Janet plus his five children, Andrea, Nicole, Kristin, Jason and Jarret.Hockey fans will always remember that curly hair and wide smile on his face when he hustled down the ice to nail somebody to the boards.

Be sure to hit the links I`ve referenced for a more detailed look at his life and times. It`s worth more than a glance.

Both the movie and book on Spencer`s life are best found for purchase online at bargain prices. Do yourself a favor and pick it up. You can thank me later!


Temujin said...

That's the craziest story I've heard in a long time. Thanks for sharing it.

reality check said...

It is a pretty extreme case of what can happen when a player is not prepared for life after hockey. There are many tales like this, especially from the game's older guard, though not quite as brutal.

Glad you enjoyed it.

Zanstorm said...

What about Roy Spencer? Holy crap! He had serious anger issues.
Fort St. James isn't even too far from where I live, I am suprised that no one talks about that story. It must be long forgotten.

reality check said...

Wow, that is interesting. Check it out a little and let me know if anyone recalls it and what they remember of Spinner.

Anonymous said...

I was a big Spencer fan when he played for the Buffalo Sabres, he was great to the fans!!! We would hang out in the back of the aud waiting for players to come out and give autographs, he was great, he would talk to us, pose for pictures and even gave us a ride to the bus stop one time. I cried when he was traded. I was very sad when he died in Florida.

Reality Check said...

Thanks for your interest in the story, Patty.

If you recall Brian that well, likely you're a few years older than I (44). I recall him, from when I may have between 9 and 12, as a player who loved to hit and stir things up. True to form, fan favorites of his type on the ice, are always fan favorites off it. I didn't learn about his his later life until the movie. I found it terribly tragic, especially the scene where his wife just discards him like yersterday's garbage once she finds out the big league salary is history. Everytime I think of a player and wife, that scene returns to me.

Brian was a victim of everything he needed in life letting him down. With stacked odds against him, he still made the NHL. He was a kindred spirit and a joy to watch play. It's no small wonder many teams gave him a shot after Toronto. I'm still searching out the movie - haven't seen it in a decade!

You're lucky that you got to know him a little!

About the Aud - has it been demolished or was it left to stand? On September 24, 1984, I had the privelege of getting sick in an upper deck washroom of the Aud while Springsteen played "Cover Me". Some bad canned beer and an egg salad sandwish combined with being in the 1st row of that top deck while it bobbed and swayed had everything to do with my stomach!

Greatest rock show I ever saw in my life, thought! 35 songs and 4 hours and 15 minutes long - it ended with Bruce playing "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" at 12:45. Buffalo, as much as the Sabres pitchfork my Habs at every turn, will always have a place in my heart!

Anonymous said...

I just stated reading about Brian Spencer. The last I was told was in 1987 that he was in prison for murder. That turned out to be wrong. I followed Spencer because he came to a hockey camp that I atteneded in Nelson, BC in July of 1972, when I was 12 years old. I thought he was from Nelson, but I guess he wasn't.

Spencer used to come on the ice after we were done skating and take easy "shots" at a mentally impaired guy named Bruno. Bruno showed up every day with a goalie stick so that Spencer would take him on the ice and let him play goalie.

He was real nice to Bruno. One day, however, Bruno started bothering Spencer about going on the ice while he was talking to a lady near the bench. After talking to the lady, Brian grabbed Bruno's favorite hat off his head and crushed it, breaking the feather that was attached to one side. I thought it was a little extreme. I guess it was just a peek into the Brian Spencers temper.

Anonymous said...

Hey I have two sticks from the spinner with a nice little writing on them fro him thanking my wifes aunt for being great people. Anyone know what these might be worth?

Diane Mulvey, Buffalo said...

Please forgive me posting to such an old thread. It was only today I happened to see it, and I feel I must respond. I was 11 yrs. old in 1970 when Buffalo got our own NHL team.The first time I ever saw Brian Spencer skate was in 1974 after the Sabres acquired him from the Islanders. He was unlike any other player I had ever seen. He had the ability to make incredible plays against the boards that changed the momentum of games.With his mop of curly hair, he skated around the ice like a ball inside a pinball machine; skating forward then backward, changing direction, seemingly defying the laws of physics. Although it can be said many in the NHL skated with more grace, I never saw anyone skate with more heart and passion than Brian Spencer. Brian was so incredibly generous to the Buffalo community, participating in myriad charity events, and it was through those events my father came to know him. Dad once expressed his concern to me that he feared Spin would be exploited by those who would take advantage of his generous nature and genuine love of people. Years later, after Brian retired from hockey and went to Florida, my father's words came back to me. In our hearts, we knew the only thing Spin was guilty of was placing his faith in people that didn't deserve his trust. I woke the morning of June 3, 1988 to the terrible news. My heart broke. Although Spin wasn't the kind of guy to sugarcoat his life story, so much has been written about him since his death that has been sensationalized. I knew Brian Spencer as an intelligent, thoroughly unique human being, who spoke with the intensity of someone who truly loved life. He was a man with an inquisitive spirit, generous soul, and a heart, bigger than the country he came from. I still wear his sweater, number 21, to Sabres games. After Rick Martin's death,I added a memorial patch, for Rick, to Spin's Jersey. A fitting tribute to friends.