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Brian Spencer: one tough Maple Leaf who would look great on the Leaf third line right now

The current Leafs are still trying to find the right line combinations and develop into a team that is hard to play against.  There are encouraging signs of late, for sure, but it’s a long season and winning games in this league is never easy.

One thing they could use is one or two more players that bring sandpaper to their game every night.  You know, guys who may not be the most skilled, but play with an edge, cause a little havoc and can even contribute offensively.

One of my favorite old-time Leafs didn’t actually play with the blue and white for very long.  His name was Brian Spencer (see the Dan Baliotti photo at right of early '70s action with Spencer in St. Louis against Bob Plager and the Blues).  He was a winger from Western Canada, who first played with the Leafs a bit in 1969-’70 but didn’t stick for good until the next season.  (Sadly, when he was called up to play for the Leafs in the middle of the ’70-’71 season, his Dad was killed in an incident that was triggered by the fact that the Leaf game was not being shown on the local station where his Dad lived.  I was about 18 at the time, and remember the sense of sadness I felt when I heard what had happened.  It was just such a sad, troubling story.)

Spencer was able to keep playing, somehow, and became a real contributor for the Leafs.  He was not a great skater, but he skated hard, was hard on the puck, and could hit guys anywhere on the ice.  He and Jim Harrison were two Leafs on the ’71 team who could really "finish their checks", as Howie Meeker liked to say in those days when he was the analyst on Hockey Night in Canada.

Unfortunately, Spencer suffered a knee injury the next season, and was subsequently left unprotected in the 1972 expansion draft. He went to the Islanders and from there to Buffalo where he found a real home.

In fact, I just recently watched one of the games from the 1975 Cup final between the Flyers and the Sabres.  That was great stuff.  The rugged, dirty Flyers (who had skill, too, with guys like MacLeish, Leach and Barber) versus the "French Connection" line and that big Sabres defense with Korab, Guevremont and Schoenfeld.  But the Flyers were mostly a hard-working, disciplined team that was good enough to kill off most of the (many) penalties they incurred.

The Sabres had the wonderful Perreault, Martin and Robert line and outstanding secondary players like Don Luce and Craig Ramsey, who were tremendous penalty killers.  Their third line had Spencer and sometimes Rick Dudley (the current GM in Atlanta) on the wings.  Now that was a line that was hard to play against.  Dudley was a better skater and a better goal-scorer than Spencer, but had the same M.O.—hit hard, work the corners and the front of the net and always finish your check.  And they could both fight. They were great for the Sabres. (As I recall, after that season Dudley jumped to the WHA for a few years before re-joining the Sabres.  Spencer finished his career with Pittsburgh.)

Sadly, Spencer led a troubled life after his years in hockey, and died at a young age some years ago.  But I will always remember him fondly for his time in blue and white.

And Spencer’s kind of grit is very much what Burke is no doubt looking for right now for his Leafs—more guys with heart like Mike Brown, but maybe with a bit more offensive pop. (Spencer scored about 15 goals a season for the Sabres and was a plus player, but his worth was also in the intangibles he brought.)  We talk probably too much about the whole truculence thing, but players like Harrison and Spencer were exactly that, guys who played tough.

Spencer in particular would look awfully good on the Leafs’ third  or fourth line right now.

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