Remembering Dave Semenko, a feared fighter and a witty gentleman

With the news that former Edmonton Oilers enforcer Dave Semenko has lost his battle to cancer, here's a quick look at some of his career moments.

Little known fact: The last World Hockey Association goal ever scored came off the stick of one David John Semenko.

“Yep,” Semenko would nod, years after the old circuit had been put to rest, “I made that league what it is today.”

Sadly, it’s big Dave’s turn now, after being admitted to hospital just two weeks ago, a victim of that most wicked foe, pancreatic cancer. Semenko died early Thursday morning, just 13 days shy of his 60th birthday.

As his old team, announcing his death, signed off, “Once an Oiler, always an Oiler.”

The son of a Winnipeg plumber, the role of heavyweight found Semenko by surprise in a mid-70s Western Hockey League that was so violent, he once said, “You almost had to tone it down to keep it believable, at times.”

The burly Semenko patrolled Wayne Gretzky’s left wing through much of the early half of the Oilers dynasty, in an era where the game was effectively policed by the threat of physical violence. Players like Gretzky and Jari Kurri operated in a cocoon provided by Semenko and the abundantly tough Oilers, absent the nightly hand slashes and the hits from behind that today’s stars are subject to.

 
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Pre-internet, Edmonton Sun scribe Dick Chubey would quote Semenko in a game story, and in an effective bit of literary allusion add, “said Semenko, lathered for a shave.”

It was like he was perpetually walking around the Oilers’ bathhouse in search of a razor. But the truth was, when the stubble came on so too did the paralyzing game face.

“I didn’t like the thought of fighting, but once it was going, I was fine with it,” he said during a lengthy interview for my book, The Battle of Alberta. “My teammates were used to me, ya know, winning fights. If someone takes me down, it can deflate the bench.”

That admission of a modicum of success was as much braggadocio as you’d ever get from the man teammates called “Semenk.” He would never celebrate after beating an opponent, or even talk about bragging rights after knocking Calgary out of the playoffs.

“You don’t really take advantage of those,” he said. “They can turn quickly on you.”

Though hockey has given us many a fearsome heavyweight who wouldn’t hurt a fly away from the rink, few men have offered such a stark contrast in personality between the jackhammer enforcer and comic savant that Semenko was.

Detroit scout Archie Henderson, a giant of a man who battled Semenko through juniors, was devastated by Thursday’s news.

“He was such a gentleman,” Henderson said. “He’d say, ‘Listen, are you going to run around? Because if you’re going to run around, we’ll take care of this. But if you’re not going to run around, then OK. We’ll play hockey. All right?’”

In 11 pro seasons, Semenko surprisingly only surpassed 150 penalty minutes three times, in an era where the league leader often posted in excess of 300 minutes. Despite being considered the toughest man on skates for much of his time in the NHL, 36 players had more PIMs than Semenko during his 575-game career, including players like Stan Smyl, Terry Ruskowski and Reed Larson.

A two-time Cup winner with Edmonton, Semenko said the best deterrent was simply the fear of what might occur. “The thought of what could happen if any of our players were cheap-shotted, or ran at,” he said. “We just sort of regulated things. We kept the peace by the possibility of violence.”

While Kurri was responsible for the one-timers, Semenko took care of the one-liners on those old Boys on the Bus teams during the Oilers dynasty. Semenko’s wit was the sharpest in the room, the epitome of what that role used to call for back in the ‘80s.

“He was our protector, our friend, and the guy who kept everyone loose,” Paul Coffey said Thursday.

Drafted by both the Houston Aeros of the WHA and the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL, Oilers GM Glen Sather actually had to acquire Semenko twice, so vital did he consider the role Semenko played.

Edmonton had acquired Semenko from Houston while still in the WHA, but lost him to the North Stars upon entering in the WHA merger of 1979. So at the Oilers’ first draft, Sather dealt his second round pick to Minnesota to secure Semenko. In that trade Edmonton landed the 48th overall pick, which was used to draft a kid out of St. Albert.

His name was Mark Messier.

But it was Gretzky who Semenko will be forever remembered as being a personal bodyguard for, during a tumultuous time in hockey history.

“There were very few times that I actually had to react to something that was done to Wayne,” Semenko said. “I remember Tim Hunter slashing him once when I was right there on the ice, and I reacted to it. And I recall Paul Baxter, when he was with Pittsburgh, coming by our bench and threatening Wayne. I was on the bench. Don’t even think I’d had a shift yet. I dropped him with a punch from the bench. Got tossed out of the game.”

He recalled a Toronto Maple Leaf hopeful named Bill McCreary catching Wayne at the blue line one night at the old Northlands Coliseum, when Semenko meted out no retribution whatsoever.

“That was Wayne’s fault,” he chuckled. “Get your head up.”

Later in his Edmonton years, again, like so many fighters of his day, Semenko battled with alcohol addiction. It led to a trade, and fast-tracked the end of his career, but he came out the other end as a sober, intelligent and well-spoken guardian of the game.

We’ll miss that deep voice in press boxes around the league, that handshake in a boarding lounge that swallowed your mitt whole.

A good man, gone too soon.

Rest in peace, Dave. We’re all better for having known you.

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