GROSS MISCONDUCT: THE LIFE OF SPINNER SPENCER By Martin O’Malley (Penguin, 310 pages, $24.95)
There will always be a place in the human heart for fallen heroes. Whether it be King Oedipus or Ben Johnson, the person who tumbles from the heights of success evokes a deeper and more complicated response than the perpetual winner. In his own modest way, Brian (Spinner) Spencer—the subject of Gross Misconduct, an enthralling book by Toronto writer Martin O’Malley—fits into the category of fascinating failures. For years, Spencer lived the dream of countless Canadian boys: he played in the National Hockey League from 1970 to 1978.
And although he was only a journeyman forward, he still enjoyed the kind of money and prestige that few young men ever acquire. Then, after his retirement at 30,
Spencer dropped immediately from sight—only to rocket back into the spotlight nine years later, when he was tried for murder in Florida.
Gross Misconduct uses his trial as the pivot for its poignant, complicated story of Spencer’s life—a tale made all the more compelling by its ending. The year after being found not guilty, Spencer was himself shot and killed by a Florida mugger.
When he died, Spencer was a big, hard-muscled 39year-old who alternated between boyish charm and violent rages that may have been the product of his relationship with his father. A moody and resentful man, Roy Spencer was determined to make hockey players out of his twin boys, Byron and Brian, born in 1949. Every winter at their home in the wilderness outside Fort St. James, B.C., Roy made an ice rink where he drilled his sons with all the overbearing dominance of a sergeant major. He once body checked Brian so hard that he knocked the boy unconscious. Although the author overlooks the ramifications of such bul-
lying, there can be little doubt that it not only made Brian into a hockey player—it created a lifelong backlog of resentment.
When Brian reached the NHL, he provided a much-needed spark to the floundering Toronto Maple Leafs. His success proved, in a bizarre and tragic way, to be his father’s undoing. One Saturday in 1970, Roy planned to watch the Leafs play the Chicago Black Hawks in Toronto on his local CBC TV station. When a western game was substituted, he drove to the studio
and tried to force the staff at gunpoint to broadcast the Toronto-Chicago match. The affair ended in a shootout in which RCMP officers killed Roy. In the years that followed, Brian went on to use his legacy of violent temper most profitably on the ice. “Don’t wake up the Spin” became a catchphrase among opposing players, who feared the manic temper coiled behind his mild good looks.
At the height of his career, playing for the Buffalo Sabres, Spencer earned almost $100,000 a year, drove a Rolls-Royce and owned shares in a bar and restaurant. But he
could not handle his off-ice responsibilities. Two marriages (in which he fathered five children) broke up. Then, after being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1978, he went on the local radio station and criticized the team’s lack of courage. He was fired the next day.
O’Malley has amassed some fascinating research about how much of a shock it is for pampered professional athletes to enter the real world. But it is not clear that Spencer had to weather much of that trauma himself. He drifted to Florida’s West Palm Beach and made a small but sufficient living as a mechanic. Hockey had been a job, but he loved working with machines and seemed reasonably content. His existence took a dramatic turn, however, when he was charged in 1987 with the 1982 murder of a Florida real estate salesman, Michael Dalfo. A prime witness against Spencer was Diane Delena, a prostitute who at the time of the killing shared a trailer with Spencer. Dalfo had been one of her customers on the night he was killed. In court, Delena claimed that, after an altercation with Dalfo, she had returned to his house with Spencer. The two had then driven Dalfo down a country road. According to Delena, Spencer had left the car with Dalfo and returned without him.
O’Malley’s re-creation of Spencer’s trial is as absorbing as the best crime fiction. And he generates considerable sympathy for the murder suspect. Although the evidence against Spencer was not enough to convict him, neither did it absolutely prove that he was not the killer. At the conclusion of O’Malley’s gripping book, a question mark still hangs over the life of Spinner Spencer, who found a Florida nightmare at the end of a Canadian dream.
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