To his Edmonton Oilers teammates he was known as Semenk or Sammy; to his National Hockey League rivals, he was that man to be feared, a chiseled-faced, stone-cold bodyguard who made sure no one so much as cast an evil eye at Wayne Gretzky.
And if someone dared hit No. 99; gloves would fly and punches would be thrown so as to make absolutely certain the message had been delivered: You mess with the Great One, you answer to the Great Protector, Dave Semenko.
That was Mr. Semenko's role for eight of his NHL seasons with the Oilers as they rose to Stanley Cup champions. For a lineup that included not just Mr. Gretzky, but the likes of Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey, Mr. Semenko was the 6-foot-3, 215-pound adjustor who earned Edmonton's skilled players a little more time and space on the ice to make their passes and score their goals. For his unrelenting commitment to their well-being, the Oilers – and their fans, too – adored Mr. Semenko and were profoundly saddened Thursday to hear that he had died only three weeks after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He was 59.
As Mr. Coffey told Edmonton sportswriter Jim Matheson, "I've never seen a man that big taken down that fast. He won every [NHL] fight but, unfortunately, this wasn't his battle to win. … He's the first guy of our group to pass away. You never would have thought it would be Dave."
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson expressed his condolences to the Semenko family on Twitter while the Oilers issued a statement saying, "Dave will be remembered as a fierce competitor, loyal teammate, fan favourite and dear friend to so many." Former Oilers captain Mark Messier said in his release: "The news of Dave passing literally took my breath away. I loved Semenk like we all did. He was a great teammate, a loyal friend, a loving father and a worthy champion."
Mr. Gretzky also issued a statement, calling his former teammate "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 his funny sense of humour. He made us all better people."
Mr. Semenko was born in Winnipeg on July 12, 1957. He played major junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and had a monster season in 1976-77 when he scored 27 goals and added 33 assists in 61 games, all while being tagged with 265 minutes in penalties, a little more than four hours of lost ice time.
His abilities caught the attention of the Oilers, who were then members of the fledgling World Hockey Association, a rag-tag assemblage of good teams and wretched teams that would ultimately see four franchises merge with the NHL. The Oilers would be one of those four, along with the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers. Mr. Semenko's arrival in Edmonton meant he was there before Mr. Gretzky, then an Indianapolis Racer, was acquired by Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington. (As a point of trivia: The player who scored the last goal in the WHA wasn't Mr. Gretzky; it was Mr. Semenko.)
With Mr. Gretzky aboard, and a young team around him, Mr. Semenko and his rough-house style became the ideal counter-strike to opposing teams wanting to play it rough. Nowhere was that intent more serious than in Calgary, where in 1980, the Flames relocated north after a failed go in Atlanta. Competitive in all areas from football to politics to which city had the better weather, Calgary and Edmonton took the feuding to a higher level on ice. It was often hailed as the Uncivil War.
And leading the charge for Edmonton was Mr. Semenko, who found a willing combatant in Flames' forward Tim Hunter. Together, Mr. Semenko and Mr. Hunter fought and fought and fought so often that it was almost an obligation for the two big men to drop the gloves and begin punching, almost on cue.
"There's a photo of Dave and I on the ice looking at one another that's become symbolic of the Battle of Alberta," said Mr. Hunter, now the head coach of the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors. "We had each been signing the photos and donating them to charity. But we got together in Edmonton and signed them together and it was really good. We talked for an hour and told stories. He was a good guy. In the end, we laughed."
Those were not words that Mr. Hunter and the Flames were saying in the heat of the provincial rivalry. Mr. Hunter can still recall his first fight with Mr. Semenko.
"I had done pretty well against him so I stuck out my jaw [in a mocking fashion]. The lineman was trying to hold him back but [Mr. Semenko] got an arm lose and sucker-punched me," Mr. Hunter said. "I learned right there that this guy would do anything – punch you, knee you – anything it took to do his job."
Having witnessed the ferocity of Mr. Hunter versus Mr. Semenko, there were Flames who were keenly aware when Mr. Semenko was on the loose.
"I remember there was a bench-clearing brawl and our defenceman Steve Konroyd ripped the jersey off of Semenko," Calgary forward Colin Patterson said. "He was angry, and that was when you'd look for another [Oiler] to grab onto so he wouldn't come after you. You didn't want to look him in the eye."
One of Mr. Semenko's most famous fights took place far from the ice. On June 12, 1983, he and Muhammad Ali, then 41, staged an exhibition match-up in Edmonton with proceeds going to a local charity. After training a few weeks for the fight, Mr. Semenko got an Ali inspection.
"He just moved around the dressing room with me," Mr. Semenko told the Hockey News. "He had his hands in the air and had me throw punches to see what type of skill level and what kind of ability I had, and he said 'We'll be fine.'" They were until Mr. Semenko accidentally tapped Ali with a punch.
"He made light of it and pretended he was a little wobbly-kneed. Then he threw four in a row that came out of nowhere," Mr. Semenko said. "Didn't really hit me, but they were warning shots across the bow."
Like so many of the great Oilers of that era, Mr. Semenko was traded away. He went to the Whalers then finished his playing career with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1987-88. His career statistics with Edmonton, Hartford and Toronto included 65 goals and 88 assists for 153 points in 575 games. His penalty-minute count was 1,175. Unofficial sources say he had 70 fights during his time as hockey's pre-eminent enforcer.
Mr. Semenko found his way back to Edmonton, where he was hired on as a scout. Dave Brown, another former Oilers tough guy who does his scouting work for the Philadelphia Flyers, got to know Mr. Semenko as they watched games together. What Mr. Brown learned was that Mr. Semenko was quite the funnyman, a trait he liked to keep under wraps most of the time.
"He'd line up with guys for a face-off and say, 'Why don't you and me take a little canoe ride up the river?'" Mr. Brown said. "He had different sayings like that. Whenever he'd talk with another [former fighter] he called it, 'witty goon talk.' He was one of the very best who did what he did. He could fight but he could skate. He was a good skater for a big man."
Mr. Semenko's legacy was cemented by his work as Mr. Gretzky's protector. But he brought more to the Oilers than being the biggest, meanest dog in the fight. It was his competitiveness that helped make the Oilers Stanley Cup champions in 1984 and 1985. It was a trait even his greatest foes respected.
"There's a different perspective when you're 20 and in the middle of [the Calgary-Edmonton] rivalry and when you're 56 and reflecting on it," said former Flame Jim Peplinski, a soldier in that Uncivil War. "Looking back, I think Dave Semenko was an absolute warrior who would do what he was told and would so whatever was necessary for his team. He brought a lot of room for [Edmonton's] players."
Mr. Semenko is an honorary member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1989, he published the memoir Looking Out For No. 1, its title a nod to his role as protector of Mr. Gretzky, who was considered the best player in the game at that time.
Information about Mr. Semenko's survivors was not immediately available.
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