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Brian Spencer's life too twisted for Hollywood

Brian Spencer's life sounds like an overdone movie script. His nickname was "Spinner" because he churned mayhem around the rink. He was an overachiever, surmounting an isolated British Columbia childhood and marginal skills to play nine NHL seasons.

He began his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, served as alternate captain for the original New York Islanders and skated a regular shift for Buffalo Sabres' 1975 Stanley Cup finals team.

Away from rink, however, is where fascinating drama continually unfolded for him. I looked back on Spencer's turbulent life and returned to some unanswered questions in a story on the cover of our Spotlight section.

When a 21-year-old Spencer made his "Hockey Night in Canada" debut after being summoned from the minors to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the CBC affiliate back home showed a Vancouver Canucks game instead. Spencer's father drove 90 miles to the station, took hostages, forced it off the air and died in a shootout with Mounties.

Spencer played his entire career under the cloud of his father's nationally infamous death. He left hockey, drifted to South Florida and got rung up on drunk-driving charges like they were two-minute minors.

Then came another colossal whammy. Spencer was acquitted of first-degree murder in 1987, avoiding the electric chair. Eight months later he was murdered in the street. Spencer was 38 years old.

Although the comments ended up on the cutting room floor of my piece, I asked Hollywood producer Mark Ciardi for a cinematic opinion on Spencer's storyline. Ciardi specializes in true sports stories that defy plausibility.

"That would be tricky," Mark Ciardi said of a film about Spencer's life. "I probably would have to keep stating "This is a true story!' over and over again to remind the audience.

"Nothing shocks me anymore, but that's a remarkable story. It's almost too crazy for the screen, too unbelievable."

Ciardi produced "Miracle" (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team), "Invincible" (about a bartender named Vince Papale, who makes the Philadelphia Eagles in an open tryout) and "The Rookie" (about 35-year-old high school baseball coach Jim Morris, who tried out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and pitched in the majors).

Yet Spencer's tale is too unfathomable -- and too sinister.

"The tough thing with a story like that, for sports stories you have to bring to the whole family," Ciardi said. "Ours tend to be more about inspiration, uplifting people. I like to find redemption.

"That's dark. And pretty wild. Maybe too wild."

---Tim Graham


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John Vogl

John Vogl

John Vogl has been covering the Sabres since 2002-03, an era that has included playoff runs, last-place finishes and three ownership changes. The award-winning writer is the Buffalo chapter chairman for the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.

@BuffNewsVogl |

About Sabres Edge

Mike Harrington

Mike Harrington

Mike Harrington, a Canisius College graduate who began his career as a News reporter in 1987, has been covering the Buffalo Sabres since 2007. He is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and can vouch that exposed flesh freezes instantly when walking in downtown Winnipeg in January.

@BNHarrington |

Amy Moritz

Amy Moritz

Amy Moritz, a native of Lockport, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism/mass communication from St. Bonaventure University and a master’s degree in humanities from the University at Buffalo. An endurance athlete, she has completed several triathlons, half marathons and marathons.

@amymoritz |