Hockey Night in Canada’s deadly non-telecast

A hockey dad is waiting for his son to make his NHL debut — on Hockey Night in Canada with the Toronto Maple Leafs — and to see him interviewed between periods. The father lives in remote British Columbia, where the station carrying HNIC is showing a Vancouver Canucks’ game and not the Leafs’ home game. The father is outraged, drives to the station two hours away, and bursts in wielding a pistol and demanding a switch. Ultimately, he dies in a police shootout.

The Brian Spencer story was documented in a book and a TV movie. The night that changed his life forever was December 12, 1970. Ten days later, back from eulogizing his father in Fort St. James, Spencer was in the dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. So was I. He would play his sixth game the next night. With trepidation, as a beat writer with the Vancouver Sun, I approached him to ask the inevitable questions.

Spencer was receptive, and almost anxious to talk. Amazingly, in those 10 days no reporter had asked him about his dad.

“It was made to sound like my dad was some kind of lunatic,” he said. “He didn’t kill anyone. He was in the army. He was decorated. He was no bum. You have to go up there and see the conditions to appreciate what I’m telling you.”

He tried to explain the unexplainable.

“A man like him shouldn’t have been living in those conditions. He was too progressive. He couldn’t stand to see lack of progress. I didn’t see a television set until I was 13, and the first NHL game I saw was the first one I played in. That’s the only part of Canada with that kind of TV, and they’ve only had TV for four years. They have the biggest mercury mine in the world and the worst roads in the province.”

With his father’s death still raw, Brian Spencer thought perhaps uremic poisoning was a factor.

“He was in so much pain, and he worked 14 hours a day. Maybe that contributed to his death. His only goals were seeing me play in the NHL, and being a grandfather.”

Roy Spencer became a grandfather on Dec. 10, two days before his death, two days before his son first played in the NHL. After his sixth one, I never met Brian Spencer again during his modest, 553-game career with four teams, but that interview haunted me.

Here’s why:

“My father has instilled in me never to give up,” he said. “I’m him all over. He was such a great man. I wish I could be half the man he was.”

In 1988, acquitted of murder but involved in a drug deal, Spencer was shot to death.

Had HNIC games been available as they are today, maybe none of this would have happened.