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Islander of the Day: Brian Spencer

The short, tragic life of “Spinner” Spencer.

New York Islanders v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.

As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.

(Dan here. Huge thanks again to Harry for another fantastic submission. Enjoy.)

I’m Harry Klaff, and I was The Hockey News correspondent covering the Islanders from their inception in 1972 until 1979. Along with George Ogle at the computer, I also programmed the various Coliseum scoreboards for 26 years, giving fans the best statistical information in the NHL. Last year I gave you my personal views of the great 1974-75 season, which saw the Islanders go from doormats to within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.

As things are very quiet now—I hope you are all well and safe up there as I am in retirement in Wellington, Florida—I thought I tell you about the short, tragic life of my first friend on the Islanders, Brian “Spinner” Spencer. Unfortunately, very few fans under the age of 50 know anything about him.

Spinner was a fifth round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1969 Entry Draft, number 55 overall. Far from a natural talent or a budding superstar, he moved up in the system via hard work and determination. On December 12, 1970, he was called up to Toronto from the Tulsa Oilers of the CHL.

As any son would do, Brian called his proud pop in Fort St. James, a rural hamlet in northern British Columbia. He hoped to see his son that night on Hockey Night in Canada, but the Vancouver Canucks were on locally, not the Leafs.

Roy Spencer went down to the tv station—with a gun—and demanded that the Toronto game be put on the air. As he left, he was stopped by the RCMP. A scuffle ensued, and Roy was shot dead—just around the time Brian was making his NHL debut about 2,100 miles away.

The following season, Brian played 50 games for the Leafs, scoring 8 goals. In 1971-72, he split his time between Toronto and Tulsa, and at season’s end he was left unprotected in the expansion draft that would stock (very poorly) two new teams—the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders.

Spencer was the seventh skater chosen by the Isles, just after hockey luminaries Bart Crashley, Garry Peters, and Larry Hornung, all of whom defected to the WHA. The Isles trained at Peterborough, Ontario that season, but came home to the Nassau Coliseum for a pair of pre-season games. That’s when I met the guy with the long, curly blond hair and infectious smile.

Brian had a pretty good season for the Isles in ’72-’73, netting 13 goals and 22 assists. The game, of course, was much different then, and he established his reputation as a pretty good fighter, much to the delight of the Islander faithful. He spent 94 minutes in the penalty box that season.

And how the fans loved him. He was voted the Most Popular Islander by the fledgling Islanders Booster Club, and I was the one who presented him with his trophy on the ice in front of an adoring Coliseum crowd that March.

Brian “Spinner” Spencer
photo via Harry Klaff

He struggled a little in his second season with the Isles, scoring 5 goals and 15 assists before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Doug Rombough in March. After three-and-a-half years with the Sabres, he was sent to Pittsburgh, where he concluded his NHL career in 1979.

Unfortunately things went downhill rapidly for Spinner. Two failed marriages produced 5 children, and he found himself buried in a life of alcohol and drugs. He wound up living in a seedy part of south Florida, and was charged in 1987 with kidnapping and murdering a West Palm Beach restaurant owner.

Former Buffalo teammate Richard Martin came down to testify as a character witness, and he was ultimately found not guilty. Three months later, he was shot dead in Riviera Beach. According to the account, Spinner and a friend had been partying, and following a drug buy, was murdered in a robbery attempt minutes later. He was 39 years-old.

Like I said, Brian was my first friend on the team. He was affable, funny, and made everyone feel at ease. He also saved my life. Teammate Arnie Brown didn’t appreciate what I had written about him (I don’t think it was that bad) and came after me. Spinner pulled him away before he could clobber me.

Another time I was kibitzing with him after the birth of one of his children. “No cigar?,” I asked. He hobbled buck naked into the back room and came out with one for me.

I interviewed him briefly in the Sabres locker room at the Coliseum a year after he was traded. That was the last time I saw him.

Last year, I somehow got the phone number of his daughter Andrea through a Facebook connection. On a whim, I gave her a call (she has spent her entire life in Tulsa). I introduced myself, and told her about my connection with her father. We spoke for well over an hour. Although she had very little to do with him (and although her mother encouraged her to go to his funeral in Fort St. James), she was so happy that someone remembered him.

A couple of years ago, my sons (now in their 40s), who had run all over the Coliseum as little kids in the early years, asked me if a wanted an Islanders jersey for my birthday. At first I said no, what do I need that for? Then I said, “Wait a minute, get me a blue one.”

The Islanders’ blue jersey (then it was the road one) was a little different in the first year. The numbers were bright orange and outlined in white, similar to the “third jersey” the team wears sometimes at home now. The second year, the numbers became the familiar white, outlined in orange.

I found a tackle twill company online, and they made me a fourteen inch number nine for the back and two sleeve numbers. (Bet you didn’t know they were two different fonts. Neither did I.) And no names on the back then. Brian Spencer was the only Islander to wear #9 on that style uniform.

So now whenever I go to a game (usually it’s down here in Florida unless I’m visiting the kids on the Island and I get to the Coliseum), I wear my Brian Spencer memorial jersey. I’m proud to have his uniform live on.