Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about hockey and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the hockey urban legends featured so far.
HOCKEY URBAN 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).
The legend is…
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