Former Oilers enforcer Dave Semenko, best known as Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard on the ice, died of pancreatic cancer Thursday morning in Edmonton. He was 59.
The Oilers confirmed Thursday that the Winnipeg-born Semenko passed away in Edmonton, where he played the bulk of his pro career. He helped the Oilers win their first two Stanley Cups in 1984 and ’85 while clearing the way for the “Great One” to pile up the points in a record-breaking Hall of Fame career.
“One of the first Oilers I met in 1978, I didn’t know at the time the impact (Semenko) would have in my life and my career,” Gretzky said in a statement. “He was the toughest player I knew and yet the biggest Teddy Bear you would ever know
“A beloved Oiler that will be missed dearly because of his kind heart and funny sense of humour. He made us all better people. RIP . 27, thanks for your friendship.”
“He really kept us all grounded,” Oilers executive Kevin Lowe said Thursday at a press conference with some of Semenko’s former teammates. “He had an incredible wit and he reminded us often of who we are, and not allow for our heads to get bigger than they were.”
“The greatest of all time are up in the [rafters] at Rogers Place, but those greats couldn’t have done it without the support and aid of Dave Semenko.”
Lowe said the cancer was detected about three weeks ago at a medical appointment, and his condition rapidly deteriorated.
“Unfortunately this wasn’t his fight to win,” said Hall of Fame defenceman Paul Coffey. “It’s a terrible disease. He’s the biggest guy I’ve seen taken down that fast. But he did it with dignity, surrounded by his (loved ones).”
Semenko wasn’t the best skater but managed to play nine NHL seasons, including seven-plus with Edmonton before he was traded to the Hartford Whalers. His last season was 1987-88 with Toronto.
Semenko finished with 65 goals — including eight game-winners — 153 points and 1,175 penalty minutes in 575 NHL regular-season games. He also engaged in 70 fights combined in the regular season and playoffs, according to hockeyfights.com, including a combined 17 over his final two seasons.
“Dave was the guy who made it fun, made it safe to go out and play with the big guys,” Coffey said. “Go into the Philadelphias, go into the Islanders, play against the tough teams and allowed myself and all the skilled players on that team to do what they did best.
“He was great at it.”
Calgary’s Tim Hunter and Detroit’s Bob Probert were among Semenko’s many dance partners.
The six-foot-three, 215-pound Semenko, affectionately known as “Sammy,” stood out when parked in front of the opposing team’s net where nobody could move him, earning Semenko the nickname “Cement.”
Lowe, a former Oilers defenceman, once called Semenko “the Gretzky of the tough guys.”
When Gretzky took home MVP honours from the 1983 NHL All-Star Game, he gave the car he won to Semenko to show his appreciation for his linemate’s work on the ice.
“He was known as a goon or a rock-head, but the ironic thing was he was pleasant, witty and gentle,” Gretzky was quoted as saying in a story that appeared on greatesthockeylegends.com. “He would never hurt anyone, and it used to always surprise us when he actually would fight.”
RIP Dave Semenko. One of the toughest, most intimidating guys to ever play. Semenko passed away at the age of 59 after a battle w/cancer pic.twitter.com/TmCqliJBIp
Semenko was drafted 25th overall to the NHL by the Minnesota North Stars in 1977 and by Houston of the World Hockey Association the same year. The Aeros traded Semenko’s rights to Edmonton, where he joined the Oilers for the 1977-78 campaign and played until he was traded to Hartford on Dec. 12, 1986.
Over that time he amassed 1,279 penalty minutes over 596 WHA and NHL games while opening up the ice for Gretzky and the Oilers’ skilled forwards. He helped Edmonton win its first two Stanley Cups in 1984 and 1985 and scored the last ever goal in WHA history before the league merged with the NHL.
The Oilers joined the NHL once the WHA folded by the 1979-80 season, but Minnesota still held Semenko’s rights. Edmonton dealt second- and third-round draft picks in 1979 to Edmonton, one of which turned out to be the high-scoring Neal Broten. In return, the Oilers received Semenko and a third-round pick in the 1979 draft they used to select centre Mark Messier, who won five Cups with Edmonton and ranks eighth on the NHL’s all-time points list with 694.
Off the ice, Semenko once went three rounds with boxing legend Muhammad Ali in an exhibition bout in Edmonton on June 12, 1983. The match was judged a draw, though The Associated Press’ report on the fight said Ali, a three-time world heavyweight champion, mostly toyed with Semenko.
After retiring, Semenko became a colour commentator on Oilers radio broadcasts and an assistant coach with Edmonton during the 1996-97 season.