Gross Misconduct

Winner of the Golden Gate Award at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival;
Grand Prix de la Compétition, Geneva

HOCKEY'S HELL-RAISER: Spinner Spencer battled on and off the ice

by Victor Dwyer, Maclean's, March 1, 1993

(CBC, Feb 28, 8 p.m.)

Gross MisconductThe young athlete's father takes him up a hill to dispense a piece of advice as stark as the view of Fort St. James, their desolate logging community in northern British Columbia. "Life at the Fort - you can live here and be buried here,'' says the father. "Or you can play hockey.'' That early scene sets the dark, anguished tone for the new CBC movie Gross Misconduct, about the life of Canadian hockey star Brian (Spinner) Spencer. The drama traces the stormy career of one of the most notorious players in the history of Canadian hockey, a man who lived and died violently. Based on a 1988 biography by Toronto journalist Martin O'Malley and directed by celebrated Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan, Gross Misconduct is much more than a chronicle of one man's rise and fall - it delves into the forces that moved his heart and soul.

The facts alone of Spencer's roller-coaster life would have made for an entertaining TV movie. He was born in 1949 to Irene Spencer, a teacher, and her husband, Roy, a highly skilled mechanic who pushed Brian and his twin brother, Byron, to perfect their strength and endurance on the ice. Both sons became fond of alcohol as children, and Brian was sent to reform school, and then a foster home, in his mid-teens. A star of the Toronto Maple Leafs at 21, he played 10 seasons with four different teams, earning the nickname Spinner for his aggressive skating style. By 29, his hockey career was over and he moved to Florida, where he became a part-time auto mechanic. He was twice-divorced and almost penniless when, at 38, he beat a murder charge. Three months later, a thief shot him dead.

But Gross Misconduct is also a deftly drawn morality tale about the things that made Spencer tick: hockey and violence. The indignation of writer Paul Gross and director Egoyan is almost palpable in a scene that depicts Spencer's father forcing the boy to skate full force into his brother as part of their daily hockey lessons. In later years, as Spencer (portrayed as an adult by Daniel Kash) played for millions of cheering fans, the movie makes it clear that beating up other players was a higher priority than scoring goals. The producers have punctuated the dramatic sequences with documentary footage of frenzied crowds lustily cheering the athlete's violent outbursts.

In an interview with Maclean's, Gross maintained that the violence in Spencer's professional life moulded the hockey star's personality - and left him with a hot-tempered, visceral approach to life off the rink. "When he left hockey, Spinner was baffled that something that was celebrated on the ice could only spell trouble in the outside world,'' said Gross. "It was that confusion that I wanted to get across.'' Gross Misconduct draws that out with convincing seediness in scenes depicting the former star's down-and-out life in the trailer parks and bars of Florida, and his volatile relationship with a prostitute named Diane Delana (Lenore Zann), the woman who eventually accused Spencer of killing one of her former clients.

For his part, Egoyan says that he was especially intrigued by the prospect of using television to tell the life story of someone who achieved fame on the small screen. "I wanted to make viewers aware that they are engaged in the very medium that somehow set in motion the whole story they are watching,'' said Egoyan. Television was central to Spencer's existence not only because Hockey Night in Canada made him a national figure. It also played an important role in one of the most painful events of Spencer's life: the death of his father. Angered that the CBC aired his son's second Maple Leafs game to viewers everywhere except in British Columbia, the elder Spencer held hostage several staff members of the local network affiliate - until RCMP officers shot and killed him.

The film-makers drive home the importance of that event to Spinner Spencer's life by interjecting tiny reminders of it - each only several seconds long, and with its own title flashed on the screen - throughout the central story. One of those scenes is preceded by the printed words, "The day Roy Spencer was shot dead he installed a new television antenna,'' and shows the proud father fussing with wires on the top of the house. A later scene, which appears after Spencer's parents learned of the CBC decision, shows the man heading to his truck with several guns and a bottle of whiskey, and is titled, "The day Roy Spencer was shot dead he walked through virgin snow.'' The result is a blend of breathtaking tension and heartbreaking pathos. "What I wanted to get across,'' said Egoyan, "was a father's mania when he realizes he cannot share in this golden evening he has worked all his life to build.''

Despite the show's depth and complexity, Gross Misconduct at times descends into caricature. The several scenes tracing Spencer's two marriages depict him as little more than a one-dimensional oaf on the home front. But on the whole, the movie offers a glimpse of the inner life of a man who was both a Canadian hero - and, the film clearly argues, a national tragedy. "Brian,'' said Gross, "was the raw edge of the Canadian soul.'' Imaginative and unflinching, Gross Misconduct offers insight into what gave that edge its cutting force.