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Brian Spencer: An Unforgettable Leaf

One name modern-day Leaf fans probably won’t know is that of Brian Spencer.

He had a short career in Toronto, but he was the kind of rugged player the Leafs have had too few of  for most of the last 40 years.

Spencer was a left-winger, as I recall. We all use the term ‘buzz-saw’ to describe a certain kind of player. John Tonelli with the Islanders was like that in the late 70s and 80s. Terry O’Reilly was that kind of player with the Bruins, too. (I’m trying to think who is like Spencer in today’s NHL- it’s difficult to draw a comparison because everyone plays a more rigid “system” nowadays.)

However, Spencer was one of the first of that type of player I remember as a Leaf in the post-'67 era, someone who was always skating hard, who would drive right through guys when he checked, and used every bit of passion that he had to play the game.

He was not naturally skilled, and he could not have made it as what nowadays coaches call a “top 6” offensive line forward.  That said, he skated hard and could forecheck and disrupt the other team.

He was a fighter too, though he was not even 6 feet tall and weighed maybe 185 pounds.

Spencer played a few games for the Leafs in the 1969-’70 season, but made his mark when he was called up during the following season. That was a year of a significant Leaf resurgence, when they built a team around veteran centers Dave Keon and Norm Ullman, and brought back Bobby Baun on defense. Jacques Plante was in goal, playing in his 40s, and fellow future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent was acquired from Philadelphia in the Mike Walton deal to provide outstanding net support.

They had a very young defense corps: Rick Ley, Jim McKenney, Mike Pelyk, Jim Dorey, Brian Glennie and Brad Selwood all played roles for the club.

Up front, they brought up Darryl Sittler as a 20-year-old rookie from Junior hockey (their #1 draft choice). They had already traded for Jim Harrison, a rugged center who loved to finish his checks, as Howie Meeker used to say.

But the guy who really flew around the ice and caused a stir was Spencer.

His story was rather tragic, right to the end of his life. When Spencer was called up to play his first game in that 1970-’71 season, his Dad, back in British Columbia, was planning to watch his son on Hockey Night in Canada. For reasons I cannot recall now, the local CBC affiliate did not air the Leaf game that night. Spencer’s father was reportedly upset, and drove down to the station. I obviously don’t know the details, but in some kind of ensuing situation, the father was shot and killed on the very night Spencer scored what I believe was his first NHL goal.

In any event, it had to be a horrible thing for the young man, but he somehow persevered and had a wonderful rookie season, accumulating 25 points in 50 regular-season games.

I well recall a great magazine piece written by now veteran writer Earl McRae about “Spinner” Spencer, entitled, “So Sweetly Knuckled in Humble Resolve”.

It was a perfect title for the youngster who seemingly, from a fans’ perspective, simply loved being in the NHL.

Unfortunately, the Leafs lost patience when Spencer suffered a knee injury the following season. He was left unprotected and was claimed on waivers by the expansion New York Islanders.

Interestingly, I remember listening to the French-language radio broadcast of a game that season between the Canadiens and the Islanders. The Isles were a horrible team back then, but the announcers made a point of commenting that Spencer was the best player on the ice that night.

Spencer went on to further rebuild his career, and had some outstanding seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, when they were really good in the mid-later 1970s. In fact, he played 16 playoff games in the spring of 1975, the year the Sabres took the tough Philadelphia Flyers of Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent to 6 games in the Stanley Cup finals.

With the Sabres, Spencer was at his agitating, forechecking best. He was really appreciated by team management and the fans. I remember thinking often how I wished the Leafs had waited on Spencer, because he was exactly the kind of disruptive (in a good way) player they often seemed to lack. He was more than a fighter.

He retired in the late 70’s, and by various accounts led a somewhat difficult final few years of his life. He evidently lived in Florida and was friends with former Leaf captain Dave Keon, but his death was shrouded in mystery.

It’s too easy, sometimes, to say that a person had a “tragic” life but Spencer clearly experienced his share of heartache.

I do know this: he was a Maple Leaf I remember very, very well. They sure could use him today.

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