This is the story of a young hockey fan collecting autographs through the mail in the pre-internet days. It’s also the story of how that young fan got pulled into an FBI investigation. Before I get into that, allow me to provide a little of the back story.
Brian “Spinner” Spencer played ten seasons in the NHL. A native of Fort Saint James, BC, he was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 5th round (55th overall) of the 1969 NHL Draft. After 3 seasons in Toronto, he was selected by the New York Islanders in the Expansion Draft. After a season and a half with the Isles, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. After three and a half seasons with the Sabres, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played a season and a half with the Penguins to end his NHL career. Spencer did play one final season in the AHL, splitting time between the Springfield Falcons and the Hershey Bears, before hanging up his skates.
In 553 NHL games, the left winger scored 80 goals with 143 assists and 643 penalty minutes. He earned his “Spinner” nickname from his skating ability, but it didn’t translate into as successful of a career as all had hoped. Still, his hustle and hard-hitting style made him a popular two-way player who carved out a solid, but not spectacular career.
As a young hockey fan back then, most of my hockey fandom came from hockey cards, the NBC Game of the Week and Hockey Digest. His 1973 hockey card remains one of my all-time favorites. I knew Spencer as an exciting player, who seemed to be a bit of a journeyman.
Fast forward a several years after his career ended, I was a college student and autograph collector. Since there was no internet to research and post information, there were a few small magazines dedicated to getting autographs. In what would be my first writing gig, I wrote for a small publication (more of a newsletter, to be honest) called The Autograph Review (TAR).
I spent a lot of time in the Chicago Public Library scouring phone books for former players. I’d start at home, making lists of players’ hometowns (taken from the backs of their hockey cards). Then I’d go to the library and plant myself in the phone book section and look up a hundred or so at a time.
I’d probably locate about 10%. From that 10%, I was probably successful on 75% when I sent out autograph requests through the mail. Again, remember, in those days, through-the-mail (TTM) requests weren’t nearly as numerous and players were not making money from selling their autographs anywhere anyway.
One day, I found an address for Spencer and I sent him the three hockey cards I had of him, along with a request letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). I didn’t think anything more of it, until a call came in at our family house a few weeks later.
The man on the other end identified himself as Agent Whoever from the FBI and proceeded to interrogate me on my interest in Spencer. He threw enough information at me for me to realize he was legit and I needed to take this seriously. His interest in me declined greatly when I seemed to convince him that I was just a kid trying to get an autograph.
When the half-hour inquisition was over, I asked what the big deal was (figuring I was owed an explanation…I was wrong). Agent Whoever stated that it was an FBI matter, but I was to make no more attempts at contacting Spencer.
Still a bit shaken from the call, but reasonably sure I was in no trouble, I decided I needed to do some more research on Spencer. Back to the library I went, but this time I headed to the newspapers section (usually available on microfilm). I eventually found some early articles on Spencer. I learned Spencer’s story went well beyond his playing career.
Unfortunately for Spencer, his career was under a black cloud right from his debut. When he was called up by the Maple Leafs, his first game was scheduled to be on Hockey Night in Canada. He called his father to inform him that he would also be interviewed between the periods. Then things took a tragic turn.
The Maple Leafs’ game was bumped in favor of a game between the Vancouver Canucks and the California Golden Seals. This so infuriated his father that he drove 85 miles to the closest CBC television studio and ordered the staff at gunpoint to air the Maple Leafs game. He got his wish, but as he left, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were waiting for him. After a short standoff, the elder Spencer was killed.
That ordeal took every bit of joy out of Spencer’s NHL debut. I’m no psychologist, but I imagine it affected him the rest of his life. As tragic as that was, it didn’t seem to merit any FBI involvement almost two decades later. I went home still with no answers.
A short time later, while watching the news, Spencer’s picture popped up on the screen. The sportscaster ended his segment with the news that Spencer had died in some sort of car-robbery. I figured that ended the story.
A few months later, while perusing new titles at the book store, I cam across Gross Misconduct: The Life of Spinner Spencer, by Martin O’Malley. I thought this might finally provide answers and it did!
Gross Misconduct was a fascinating look at Spencer’s life and death. O’Malley filled in a lot of the blanks, including a lot about Spencer’s last couple years. In 1987, while involved in the seedier side of life, Spencer was charged with kidnapping and murder. Facing the death penalty, friends and ex-teammates, including Rick Martin, testified on his behalf. In early 1988, he was acquitted of the charges.
Spencer moved to Florida and vowed to start fresh. Unfortunately, it appears only his location changed. A few months after his move, he was shot and killed in his car after an apparent cocaine purchase.
Controversy surrounded Spencer even in death. Was the murder really just a drug deal gone bad or was it an aftereffect of Spencer’s trial? Despite some doubts on the accuracy of the story as told by Spencer’s companion the night of the robbery, nothing more came out of the investigation and Spencer’s death technically remains unsolved.
In the end, it was just odd timing on my part that I was searching for Spencer, right in the middle of the FBI investigation leading to his trial. I’m sure the FBI had to follow all leads, even one stemming from an autograph request. Having undergone 30 minutes of their questioning, I also realized just how serious it would have been if I actually did have any more of a connection.
There really is no lesson to this story, but I think it makes for an interesting autograph tale. I never did get the autograph, but I read a great (but tragic) book and learned much more about one of my childhood favorites than I really wanted to know.