October 03, 2023

Dave Semenko: Toughest of them all

Dave Semenko is best known as Wayne Gretzky's "bodyguard" but in all fairness he was much more than that. In fact he was a big part of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty years of the 1980s.

"Sammy," a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was one of Wayne's best friends and probably the most popular guy in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room. Everybody liked Dave. He would do anything for his teammates and on many nights he was the only guy who stood up for them.

Dave wasn't the best skater around but he always worked very hard to improve on that. His main strength was when he parked in front of the opponent's goal. That's where he lived up to another of his many nicknames - "Cement." When he camped in front of the net, nobody moved him. It was like trying to move a rock.

Dave grew up idolizing Bobby Orr. Even though he wasn't nearly as talented as the great Orr was, he compensated for that with his tremendous heart.

As a junior he played for the Brandon Wheat Kings between 1974-78. Dave was selected by Houston in the 1977 WHA draft as well as by Minnesota in the NHL (25th overall). He opted to sign in the WHA, but it was with Edmonton rather than Houston, as the Aeros traded his rights to the northern Alberta city.

Semenko adjust to the professional hockey lifestyle nicely over the next two years. By the 1979-80 season, however, the WHA had folded. Even though Sammy's Oilers would join the NHL, the Minnesota North Stars still held his NHL rights, and reclaimed the heavyweight scrapper.

Glen Sather and the Oilers must have really realized Semenko's potential and impact on the young Oilers, and traded away 2nd and 3rd round draft picks to reacquire him before the start of the season. One of those draft picks turned out to be high scoring Neal Broten, but the Oilers were happy with their lovable Sammy back in the fold.

Dave wouldn't score often, just 65 times in 575 NHL games, to go with 88 assists for 153 points. Wayne Gretzky had better single season scoring campaigns than Semenko had in his entire career! But that's not why Semenko was on the team, it could be argued that without Semenko's presence, Gretzky might not have been able to quite reach the scoring levels he did.

Dave became something of a policeman on the Oilers team and on many nights was challenged by big raw-boned rookies who wanted to prove they were tough. One night, rookie Dave "Killer" Carlson challenged Dave who calmly just looked at him and said: " How did you get your nickname, Killer? Did you shoot your dog?"

Kevin Lowe called Semenko "the Gretzky of the tough guys."

"The question has often been asked, how tough was Sammy? Pat Price would tell stories about the Gassoff brothers and Lee Fogolin had a few about Battleship Bob Kelly. Slats never forgot John Ferguson, and then there was Dave Schultz and the Broad Street Bullies. But the general consensus had it that Sammy was the toughest of all. He was in a class of his own; he didn't beat guys up, he'd destroyed them. He employed a combination of sheer strength, sheer power, and sheer quickness, but mostly power. He wasted players with just two or three punches. And all this, although he never really had a mean streak in his body!" added Lowe

Dave had plenty of humour and he loved to tease his coach Glen Sather who he didn't get along with all the time.

Once Sather gave his players a training program for the off-season with push-ups, sit-ups and running among the things to do. One day he called Dave to check up on him.

"It sounds like you're in pretty good shape" said Slats.

"No, problem. I'm doing your program." replied Sammy. "The push-ups and sit-ups are ok, but the running is not going too well."

"Oh, so you have trouble with your knee again ?"

"No, that's not the problem. It's the wind, it stops me from lighting my cigarette."

When Wayne Gretzky won the 1983 All-Star MVP award he gave the car he won to Dave to show him how much he appreciated his work on the ice as well as his friendship off the ice.

"He probably had the most inaccurate image of anyone in the game. He was known as a goon or a rock-head, but the ironic thing was he was pleasant, witty and gentle. I mean, he would never hurt anyone, and it used to always surprise us when he actually would fight. You knew he had to be mad to actually get into a fight because he was such a nice person" recalls Gretzky.

But on December 12, 1986 Dave got traded. When Sather told Dave that he had traded him to Hartford the big winger couldn't keep his emotions inside him. He cried and several of his teammates cried as well. Seeing the most popular and well liked guy on the team be traded was a hard blow to the Oilers players. They lost a lot of the team chemistry from that moment on.

Dave went on to play one season in Hartford and then finished his career with a one year stint in Toronto 1987-88. Dave returned to Edmonton though and became a scout for the team.

When Wayne Gretzky's number 99 was retired on October 1,1999 Dave was one of the few guys selected to share the moment with Wayne on the ice.

Everybody loved Dave except for those who had unpleasant encounters with his fists.

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