EDMONTON — Dave Semenko, the former NHL tough guy who served as Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard and once went three rounds with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 59.
The Oilers confirmed Thursday that Semenko passed away in Edmonton, where he played the bulk of his pro career.
“The news of Dave passing this morning literally took my breath away,” Hall of Famer Mark Messier, a longtime teammate of Semenko, said in a statement. “I loved Semenk like we all did. He was a great teammate, a loyal friend, a loving father, and a worthy champion. Rest in peace my friend.”
In an era where hulking enforcers roamed the ice alongside the league’s top stars, Semenko was one of the toughest. And he had plenty of competition, often going toe-to-toe with the likes of Bob Probert, Basil McRae and Tim Hunter, who served a similar role for the arch-rival Flames. Oilers executive Kevin Lowe, a star defenceman on Edmonton’s Stanley Cup champion squads, called Semenko the “Wayne Gretzky of the tough guys” in his book “Champions.”
“He really kept us all grounded,” 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, a Winnipeg native, played for years with the Brandon Wheat Kings before being drafted 25th overall by the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars and 21st overall by the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros in the leagues’ respective 1977 drafts.
He started his pro career in 1977-78 with the Oilers, when the team was still in the WHA, and played in Edmonton 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 ’85.
Not the swiftest skater — he was often called “Cement” by fans of opposing teams — he was still a considerable force who often played on Edmonton’s top line. He would use his six-foot-three, 215-pound frame like a bulldozer, clearing a way for offensive wizards like Gretzky and Jari Kurri to work their magic.
“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.”
Semenko was not counted on to be a prolific goal-scorer, in fact he had 81 over his pro career in a career playing on some of the most potent offensive teams in hockey. But he did score the last ever goal in WHA history before the league merged with the NHL.
“He was a good hockey player. As he pointed out many times he scored a bunch of points in junior and did have a hat trick in the NHL,” Lowe said with a smile. “In fact he was NHL player of the week one week.”
Semenko’s famed scrapping skills off the ice earned him a fight with a 41-year-old Ali in an exhibition bout on June 12, 1983 that was organized by Mark Messier’s uncle Larry. The three-round match, took in by some 6,000 fans in Edmonton, was judged a draw, though The Associated Press’s report on the fight said Ali, a three-time world heavyweight champion who had recently retired, mostly toyed with Semenko.
Semenko retired after the 1987-88 NHL season. He had 65 goals, 88 assists and 1,175 penalty minutes in 575 NHL games with Edmonton, Hartford and Toronto, and 16 goals, 20 assists and 298 penalty minutes in 142 WHA games with the Oilers.
The role that Semenko helped make famous has gradually faded from the NHL, as tough guys have been phased out in favour of smaller, more skilled players.
It’s a trend that has been lamented by some. Former enforcer Marty McSorley, speaking in 2000 after he was convicted of assault for hitting Donald Brashear with his stick during a game, said restrictions on tough guys would allow checking-line players to take liberties with the NHL’s stars.
“If Dave Semenko had the restrictions on him there are now, it would have made life a lot tougher for Wayne Gretzky. The enforcer’s job is to keep stars healthy and focused on the finesse part of the game.
“Maybe the enforcer’s role will be obsolete, but only when second- and third-line players raise the level of their game to that of first liners instead of hooking, holding and taking liberties.”
After retiring, Semenko became a colour commentator on Oilers radio broadcasts and an assistant coach with Edmonton during the 1996-97 season.