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.
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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.