A Man Who Was Gone Too Soon
I just finished researching and writing the profile page for Brian “Spinner” Spencer. It’s hard to believe he has been dead for more than 26 years, because I remember when he was killed in the summer of 1988. News of his death appeared on the same Hockey News cover as a story about the Edmonton Oilers’ fourth Stanley Cup championship. Wayne Gretzky and Janet Jones, who were about to make some news of their own that year, were on the cover right there with an inset photo of Spencer and a headline that read “Spencer Gunned Down”. I remember that issue of The Hockey News well.
Anyone interested in Brian Spencer’s life beyond what I have in his HDC profile should read the 1988 book “Gross Misconduct: The Life of Spinner Spencer” or watch the 1993 TV movie based on the book. The film has a slightly different name — “Gross Misconduct: The Life of Brian Spencer”.
Brian Spencer’s life was tragic pretty much from start to finish. He was born into a very poor family that lived in central British Columbia. His father obviously had some anger management issues, which led to his death in 1970 — a big part of the Spencer story. Brian Spencer also had a twin brother named Byron, but it was Brian who was pushed by his father to be a hockey player, even though there was no organized hockey for him to play in his part of Canada.
Spencer’s father helped teach him to play the game well enough to walk onto a major-junior league team as an 18-year-old. He proved good enough there to be drafted by the Leafs and then to make it to the NHL, playing for four teams over the course of 10 seasons. That was the high point of his life. He struggled to adjust to retirement and live his last nine years in Florida, where he was charged with murder, acquitted, and then eventually murdered in a random act of violence less than a year later.
Spencer was not a goon. He was a hard-working player and a great teammate by all accounts. He was the Unsung Hero of a Buffalo team in 1975-76 that had its share of great players. He had a fairly long NHL career and was always popular with fans — the first fan favorite in New York Islanders history, in fact. But he was haunted by demons, and those demons eventually caught up to him. If anything, playing hockey was an oasis for Spencer, who didn’t even realize how much his fans loved him even after he retired.
Nobody should have to die at the age of 38, and certainly not at the wrong end of a loaded gun wielded by a complete stranger. Hockey gave Brian Spencer something to live for, something he could not replace after he was no longer able to play the game at its highest level. If he had been able to make that transition more smoothly, he might still be alive today.
Watching today’s players and those yet to come, it’s important to care about them as human beings and not just hockey players. Their careers are relatively short, and they will have many years to face after the cheering stops. Regardless of how well they are paid or how much fame they attain, when they step outside the arena they are all just as human and vulnerable as anyone else. Brian Spencer’s short life will always be proof of that.