Remembering Dave Semenko, protected Gretzky and fought Muhammad Ali

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Dave Semenko was “Gretzky’s bodyguard.”

It was the job that came to define him, and the role he played to perfection during the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty, along with fellow “bodyguard” Marty McSorley. Semenko, who died of cancer at 59 this week, played from 1979-87 with the Oilers, amassing 981 penalty minutes. He was, to put it simply, one of the most feared men in hockey – the kind of enforcer for whom the threat of a fight was as intimidating to opponents at the fight itself.

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The Winnipeg native retired in 1988 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, having amassed 153 points in 575 NHL games – and 1,175 penalty minutes.

Semenko was the tough guy who protected Wayne Gretzky during an era when enforcers were a necessity. He did it so well that Oilers teammate Kevin Lowe referred to him as “The Gretzky of tough guys.”

“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,” said Lowe at the time.

That was the thing about Semenko, as it was with so many enforcers: Savage grizzly bear on the ice, teddy bear 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” said Wayne Gretzky, via Greatest Hockey Legends.

Semenko died this week after what the Oilers called a “short but courageous battle with cancer.” John Shannon of Sportsnet said that Semenko was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer.

Said the team, in a statement: “Dave will be remembered as a fierce competitor, loyal teammate, fan favorite and dear friend to so many. His legendary toughness on the ice is surpassed only by his kindness and caring for others, and his equally legendary wit and sense of humor.”

The word “legendary” applies to Semenko, if only because of the oddities in his career. Like scoring 16 goals in 142 games in the World Hockey Association, but having his last one be the last one in League history:

And then there was the fight against Muhammad Ali.

It was a three-round exhibition boxing match at the Northlands Coliseum between the Baddest Man on the Planet and the Baddest Man on the Oilers, held on June 12, 1983. It was a match for charity.

It’s quite possible that Semenko was more into it than Ali.

OK, he totally was.

“When I was first taken over to his house to have a meeting about the fight, Ali came walking into the room, put his hands up and said, ‘Okay, show me something.’ I threw a few combinations and Ali said ‘Don’t worry, kid, we’ll make it look good,’” recalled Semenko. “Then he left to take a nap.”

Here’s a bit about the fight:

It ended in a draw.

They don’t make’em like Dave Semenko anymore. Mostly because they don’t need to, in an era where fighting is at historic lows and the role of the enforcer has been reduced to a handful of pugilists looking for a fight.

But as fighting has decreased and fighters have become scarce, we’ve also lost the undeniable cults of personality that grew around players like Dave Semenko. Players whose fans treated them with as much reverence as they did the stars on the team. Players who made opposing fans show up at the rink just to see them get waylaid by their own tough guy, as they would when “Cement Head” and the Oilers would come to town.

To that end, he was a legend.

RIP, Dave Semenko. As Gretzky would tell it, he was “everyone’s bodyguard.”

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.


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