This is the sixth in a series of examinations of legends related to Hockey and whether they are true or false.
HOCKEY LEGEND: A father of an NHL player held up a local CBC station to get them to air his son’s game.
In many ways, former National Hockey League (NHL) star Brian Spencer’s story is a common one, but in a few notable ways it is clearly not.
Spencer was born and raised in Fort St. James, British Columbia. Fort St. James is a small former fur trading post located in North-Central British Columbia. It is an area known for long, severe snowy winters and short summers. It’s far from any big city. And in that sense, Spencer’s path to the NHL is a well-worn one – the kid from the country who is pushed to a career in hockey as the only way out of his small town, and the best way to get out of his small town is to be an angry, physical player. Heck, this type of story is so well-known that the late, great Warren Zevon even wrote a song about just this type of career path – “Hit Somebody,” with lyrics like:
A scout from the flames came down from Saskatoon
Said, “There’s always room on our team for a goon
Son, we’ve always got room for a goon”
Brains over brawn–that might work for you
But what’s a Canadian farm boy to do?
What else can a farm boy from Canada do?
And sure enough, Spencer went on to become a fan favorite in the NHL as one of the tougher players in the league. He gained the nickname “Spinner” for his aggressive skating style.
Spencer was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 5th Round of the 1969 Draft. He would be called up at the end of the 1969-70 season for 9 games, but 1970-71 was his first full season in the league (and his official “rookie” season).
Here’s where Spencer’s story takes a bit of a dramatic turn from the typical into the bizarre (and tragic).
Spencer’s father, Roy Spencer, was a stern man. A skilled mechanic, he was the one who instilled in Brian the attitude and drive that would serve Brian in the NHL. On the other hand, he also most likely taught him the anger that would ALSO drive him throughout his life. The father and son also shared a weakness for alcohol. By his mid-teens, Brian was already a heavy drinker and had spent time in reform school. However, he was still a talented hockey player, so he had a way out of Fort St. James. One of the proudest days of his father’s life was when Brian was drafted. As it turned out, Roy was perhaps a bit too proud.
On December 12, 1970, Spencer’s Maple Leafs were playing the Chicago Blackhawks on Hockey Night in Canada. It’s hard to quantify to folks in the United States how big of a deal Hockey Night in Canada is now, but in 1970, it was an even bigger part of Canadian culture. So Spencer’s first game shown on Hockey Night would be a major event for his friends and family back in Fort St. James. As it turned out, though, not only would Brian be playing in the game, he called home to tell them even bigger news – he was going to be interviewed between periods! His family was naturally quite excited. His father even installed a brand new television antenna to make sure the game came in clear!
Then the time for the game came…and things did not turn out the way they planned. You see, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) decided to air a different game in British Columbia. They figured that the West Coast of Canada would prefer to see the Vancouver Canucks play the California Golden Seals instead of the Maple Leafs playing the Chicago Blackhawks.
Roy Spencer was displeased, to say the least. And as he was drunk at the time, his decision-making skills were not at their highest. The irate Spencer drove 70 miles the nearest CBC broadcast station in Prince George, British Columbia (that the nearest station was 70 miles away should give you a good idea of how remote Fort St. James is). Once there, he entered the station with his shotgun and demanded that they air his son’s hockey game. The station actually complied with his order (as, well, wouldn’t you?). However, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police encountered Spencer and a shoot-out ensued. While Brian Spencer’s Maple Leafs were defeating the Chicago Blackhawks halfway across the country, his father was shot dead by the police.
As you might imagine, his father’s death had a profound effect on Spencer (although he actually played the next day, picking up three assists in a 4-0 Maple Leafs victory over the Buffalo Sabres). His Maple Leaf career sputtered and he was sent down to the minors in 1971-72 and was left unprotected in the 1972 Expansion Draft, where the New York Islanders drafted him. This actually helped his career a bit, as he was able to develop his skills as an offensive player; skills downplayed in Toronto.
When he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres in the mid-70s, he became a popular player and had his best offensive seasons. However, when he was next dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they wanted him to be more of a checker and less of a scorer. His statistics took a tumble and within a year he was out of the NHL for good.
Here Spencer’s life took a particularly bad turn. He moved to Florida with $400 to his name and found work on and off as a mechanic. Mostly he spent his time drinking. He was arrested for drunk driving five times between 1982 and 1985! He likely got involved in drugs at this time, as well. In 1987, he was arrested for murder! In the early 1980s, Spencer dated a young woman Diane De Lena who worked as a prostitute. In December of 1982, a man she spent the night with, Michael Dalfo, was found murdered. The police figured Spencer for the crime (he was a violent guy, after all) but they could not find any evidence to arrest him. Over four after the murder of Dalfo, the police gave De Lena immunity from prosecution if she agreed to testify that Spncer murdered Dalfo. She agreed and Spencer was arrested and charged with murder. He was found not guilty in November of 1987.
However, his victory would be short-lived. In June of 1988, after a night of heavy drinking with a friend (and a purchase of some cocaine), Spencer was shot dead in his pick-up truck. The police suspect a drug deal gone wrong, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure. Spencer was 38 years old.
Boy, I’m sorry, folks, this was one depressing story!
Mark Black wanted me to let you all know that Martin O’Malley wrote a book about Spencer’s life and death called Gross Misconduct that was turned into a Canadian made-for-TV movie in 1993. Also, the kids who played Brian and Byron in the film later went on to play Iceman and Jimmy Olsen in the X-Men films and Smallville, respectively (Shawn and Aaron Ashmore).
HOCKEY LEGEND: Ed Olczyk took his time with the Stanley Cup in 1994 to let the winning horse of the 1994 Kentucky Derby use the Cup as a feedbag.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Ed Olczyk had a long career in the NHL, and after retiring he was a Head Coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Today he is one of the top TV Hockey analysts.
Back in 1994, Olczyk was a member of the New York Rangers. He was injured for most of the year and did not get to play in the Stanley Cup Finals, which was won by the Rangers. Although the rule usually is that you have to have played 40 games OR played in the Finals to get your name on the Cup, Olcyzk’s Ranger teammates insisted he get his name on the Cup (it would be the only Cup victory of Olczyk’s long career).
Well, Olczyk was (and is) a big fan of horse racing.
So when it was his turn to have the Cup, he decided to have a photo opportunity – the Stanley Cup with the winner of the 1994 Kentucky Derby, Go for Gin!
And as they were posing for photos, Go for Gin stuck his head into the Cup.
The photo was very popular, and it soon began a legend that Olczyk had filled the Cup with feed and had let the horse eat of the Cup.
Of all the weird things people have done with the Cup over the years, that really isn’t even all THAT weird, but Olczyk insists it is not true.
In a great article by Evan Weiner over at NHL.com, Olczyk explains:
My day came and I got in on a Friday night and brought it out to the Meadowlands Racetrack for a nice evening, real quiet with a few friends, and the next day we had we had a nice charity day out at Belmont where we raised money for Ice Hockey in Harlem and the Backstretch Fund and I introduced the Stanley Cup to Go for Gin and the trainer Nick Zito.
I got a lot of world-wide attention. That picture ended up being in the Japanese racing form, so it got a lot of headlines.
He actually stuck his head in. He never drank or ate anything out of it, contrary to other reports. It was a great day and I will always know in history that in that day Go for Gin was introduced to the Stanley Cup.
Olczyk has had this same stance for years, and no one has ever debunked it. When you add in the fact that the legend really was started based on the photo of the horse with its mouth in the Cup (I’d love it if someone could find a picture of it so I can feature it here!), I think I Olczyk is believable on this issue, so I’m going with a false here.
Thanks to Evan Weiner for the article and thanks to Ed Olczyk for the information!
HOCKEY LEGEND: Six weeks after having Last Rites performed for him, a hockey player was playing in the Stanley Cup Finals!
Born in Montreal in 1931, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion was able to live his dream and not only play for the Montreal Canadiens, but play with them on SIX Stanley Cup winning teams, including a remarkable five in a row from 1956-1960, the only NHL team to ever achieve such a feat!
If there was any sadness in Geoffrion’s playing career it was that he was often overshadowed by his famous teammates, especially fellow scorer Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Geoffrion was the second NHL player ever to score 50 goals! Richard, though, was the first. Geoffrion was actually BOOED by Canadien fans a year that Geoffrion passed Richard for the scoring lead late in the season (while Richard was serving a one-game suspension)! Ultimately, Geoffrion actually retired from the Canadiens will still in playing condition, he never admitted as much, but it most likely had to be the fact that the Captainship upon Richard’s retirement and Doug Harvey being traded went not to Geoffrion, but fellow star Jean Béliveau, who was not even an Alternate Captain at the time (these guys, of course, are all amazing players – Richard, Harvey, Béliveau and Geoffrion are ALL Hall of Famers). Geoffrion returned to the NHL a couple of years later and played two years for the New York Rangers.
In any event, while his teammates might have taken the spotlight from him at times, there were times that Geoffrion couldn’t help but stand out. One such occasion happened late in the 1958 season when he was in a horrific accident during team practice when he collided with his teammates. He actually did not have a pulse for 15 seconds! Team trainers turned him upside down, hoping for blood to rush to his brain, which it did and they got a pulse.
They rushed him to the hospital where he had emergency survey to fix a ruptured bowel (Geoffrion would forever be plagued by stomach issues, eventually dying of stomach cancer). While in the hospital, a Catholic priest gave Geoffrion Last Rites.
Luckily, Geoffrion pulled through, but doctors insisted that he rest until the next season. They couldn’t stop Geoffrion, though, and within six weeks, he returned – just in time for the 1958 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he helped the Canadiens to their third Stanley Cup victory in a row, with 6 goals and 5 assists in 10 games.
Three years later, Geoffrion would once again pull off a strange recovery when he was recovering from a broken leg. He had a teammate cut off the cast and he went to play in the playoffs, even scoring 2 goals (although the Canadiens were eliminated, ending their streak of Cup victories at a record five).
Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, Geoffrion’s number 5 was finally retired in 2005 (in a nice little touch, they lowered the retired jersey of his father-in-law, famed Canadien Howie Morenz, so that the jerseys could then be raised to the rafters together).
Sadly, three days before the retirement ceremony, Geoffrion had surgery to excise cancer from his stomach. But when the surgeons went in, they discovered that the cancer had spread and Geoffrion did not have much time left to live. He died on March 11, 2005, the same day his number was retired – a Canadien legend.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org