For hockey fans, the life of a professional hockey player appears to be a glamourous one. The fame; the accolades; the travel; the hordes of adoring fans, and the big-money contracts makes these individuals appear to have it made. We all realize just how much hard work and sacrifice it takes to make it to the NHL. We also believe that, when they retire, these players are set for life financially. Even in today's all-seeing media, we rarely get more than a glimspe into the lives of the players. When most former players retire, sooner or later most adjust to retirement and, for the most part, go on to enjoy their lives after hockey. Sadly, that isn't the case for all former players. Gross Misconduct is an unglamourous look at one such player, in this case, Brian "Spinner" Spencer.
Spencer was born and raised in the British Columbia interior town of Fort St. James. He and his twin brother were raised in conditions that could be compared to a throw-back to early pioneer days, living in a cabin built by their father, Roy. Growing up, their father built a backyard rink for them to play hockey on, just as many other Canadian fathers have done for their sons. However, Brian and his brother didn't learn their craft the way Walter Gretzky would train his famous son. Roy Spencer taught his sons the hard-nosd style of hockey, once knocking young Brian unconscious with a blind-side check. He would later explain to his son that this was the style of play he should be used to if he wanted to have a career in the NHL.
Once Brian and his brother reached their teens, they wound up getting into various scrapes with the law, which would see them both spend some time in a reformitory. Brian would learn self-discipline while there, and upon his release devoted much of his time to improving his game and building his body. Finally, after years of hard work, Spencer was picked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1969. It was a dream come true, but one that would quickly turn dark. His father, by 1970 dying of a kidney disease, was furious with the local TV station for not televising a Leafs game in which Brian was playing. He drove to the station with a rifle, and attempted to order the station manager to broadcast the game. Other employees called the RCMP, and in the ensuring shoot-out, Roy Spencer was shot to death. Ironically, at the same time his father lay dying, Brian was being interviewed live on Hockey Night in Canada. He would learn after the game what happened.
Spencer's career would see him sent from the Leafs to the New York Islanders; the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was basically a role-playing forward, one that could be relied up to liven up his teammates with a big hit, a fight, or an energetic shift. Not considered a goon, he was nevertheless considered one of the toughest, strongest fighters in the game; and a fan favourite in each city he played. In his best seasons, during his tenure with the Sabres, the word would go around amongst opposing clubs facing the Sabres "Don't wake up the Spin!" Even the great Bobby Orr once complimented Spencer after a game for his energetic, hard-hitting play.
However, by the early 1980s, Spencer's career was over. He ended up divorced from his second wife, and drifted to Southern Florida and West Palm Beach. There, he worked a variety of odd jobs, living for a time in a seedy trailor park with a young woman who worked for an escort agency, as well as hanging out with other questionable characters. This woman would bring about his arrest in January 1987 for a murder committed five years earlier. She would claim that Spencer, angry with a particular client of hers, ordered her to drive back to the client's house. There, according to her, Spencer murdered the man in cold blood with a handgun.
During the week-long trial, member's of Spencer's family, including his ex-wife, former teammates, and friends from the various jobs he worked at would appear to testify on his behalf. While in jail awaiting trial, Spencer wrote a heartfelt letter to the Hockey News which touched many fans and former players, who also added their support. Spencer would eventually be acquitted due to lack of evidence. After the trial, Spencer seemed to be turning his life around, finding steady work and living with a new girlfriend. Sadly however, tragedy would strike for the final time, as Spencer would be murdered while sitting in a friend's truck by a panicked young hoodlum attempting to rob him.
Written against the backdrop of the murder trial, writer O'Malley examines various periods of Spencer's life. It's an excellent method of comparing "Spinner's" high points with what ultimately brought him to his lowest point. As well as a sad tale of a former NHL player's descent in life, it's also a gripping courtroom drama, as O'Malley breaks down how both the defence and prosecution prepared and presented their cases. It's a story that would appeal to fans of that genre, as well as hockey fans.
What ultimately comes across is the story of a man who reached a goal unattainable to most, but who failed to find any direction or meaning in life when the dream finally played itself out. Spencer was a handsome, powerfully-built, charming man who seemingly had it all during his ten year NHL career. He earned a yearly, six figure income; had a beautiful, loving wife; lived in a large home, and at one time drove a Rolls-Royce. However, Spencer also comes across as naive, occasionally ill-tempered and irresponsible; preferring to blame ex-wives and girlfriends for woes he brought on himself. After being so focussed on making the NHL, and staying there for 10 seasons, Spencer's life falls apart as he becomes a drifter, lacking direction and meaning to his life. When he was arrested for murder, he had been drifting from place to place, his entire life's possessions contained in a battered attache case.
What struck me about Spencer's story was that there was no need for his life to be so pointless once he'd retired from hockey. As O'Malley points out, there was many things Spencer could've done as a retired pro athelete, from hockey schools to minor endorsements to landing a job with various player alumni associations. However, none of these appealed to Spencer, who never saw himself as a "glad-hander". It seems that Spencer, despite all his natural physical attributes, had very low self-esteem.
Ultimately, Gross Misconduct stands as a story about a dark side of hockey, and of pro sports, one that is almost never talked about, and one little known about by fans. It serves as a warning to all those who sacrifice a large part of their formative years in pursuit of glory and riches in pro sport. A pro sports career, with all that comes with it, is fleeting. How an athlete lives his or her life when the cheering is over and the glory days are past is the biggest challenge. It's a challenge Spinner Spencer was, sadly, unable to meet.