To the teammates and many friends who loved him, those who knew him and fans who watched him play with the Edmonton Oilers or had the chance to meet him, news of the death of Dave Semenko today at age 59 after a brief battle with cancer hit like a punch in the mouth.
I was blinking away tears in disbelief this morning, as a lot of people were, when the news first broke, followed by a statement released by the Oilers: “It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Oilers legend Dave Semenko after a short, but courageous battle with cancer. Dave will be remembered as a fierce competitor, loyal teammate, fan favourite 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 humour.
Our hearts go out to Dave’s family and many friends.
Once an Oiler, Always an Oiler”
For fans who grew up watching the Oiler teams of the late 1970s and 1980s, Semenko was the wild-eyed, willing fisted enforcer who rode shotgun for Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the Boys on the Bus. Semenko, simply put, was the most intimidating fighter of his era. Look at Gretzky sideways and you’d pay the price. Teammates respected him. Fans loved him. Foes feared him. Was there a more popular Oiler, aside from Gretzky himself?
I didn’t really know Sammy that way. I didn’t arrive in Edmonton until 1989 when Semenko’s playing days were over. I knew him as a broadcaster and a scout. We played some golf, shot the breeze in the press box at Rexall Place and had some laughs – mostly at my expense when he’d cut me up for something or other. The Sammy I knew was quick with a quip and a laugh, a slap on the back. He was gentle man and a gentleman under that public tough guy skin.
Reaction to Semenko’s passing has been pouring in since the news came out this morning. We will, no doubt, hear much more about Semenko today and in days to come.
“I’ve never seen a man that big taken down that fast,” Paul Coffey told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. “He won every fight (NHL) but, unfortunately, this wasn’t his battle to win. He’s the first guy in our group to pass away.
“You never would have thought it would be Dave,” said Coffey, who flew into Edmonton from Toronto to see Semenko last week. “He was in incredible pain (before diagnosis). He said he’d get up in the middle of the night and go driving on the Henday to try and calm the pain.”
“This is like a punch to the gut for me. This is really upsetting,” said Detroit Red Wings scout Archie Henderson, a tough guy who battled Semenko on the ice and knew him as a friend within the scouting fraternity. “You know what, he was as much a big part of the Edmonton Oilers as any one of those guys.”
Yes, he was. I have two pictures hanging in my office at home. One is a canvas of Gretzky’s cover shot on Sports Illustrated. The other is the well-known “Battle of Alberta” photo of Semenko and Tim Hunter. They represent people and moments that will forever link Semenko with Edmonton and the Oilers. It had been nothing less than wonderful to see Semenko and Gretzky back together again at events around the city and sitting together at Rogers Place watching the current edition of the Oilers in recent months.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Sammy. I referred to it in a profile piece I wrote for the Top 100 Oilers list this past season.
“Years before I arrived in Alberta late in 1989, I remember thinking while watching Dave Semenko pummel anybody who even looked at Wayne Gretzky wrong, “Man, that dude is big and tough and mean.” When we eventually met, up on the catwalk at Northlands Coliseum in a corner where smokers gathered, I remember thinking the same thing. “You can’t smoke up here,” Semenko said straight-faced as I lit up. I was just about to stub it out and go wipe my ass when he laughed and took a drag of his smoke.” Sammy had a good laugh over that one.
Sammy had a lot of good laughs. We’d tee it up at Belvedere from time to time years ago. He took great, albeit subtle, delight in every hooked drive, every stubbed chip – and there were many of them – as I hacked my way around the course. “Nice shot,” he’d say, putting one of those big mitts of his on my shoulder. A lot of people — teammates, friends and fans — will be recalling and sharing similar memories over the next several days. Sammy touched a lot of people in this town.
The last time I talked to Sammy was at the closing of Rexall Place. “A lot of good memories here,” he said, shaking my hand during the festivities with so many former Oilers milling about. I was waiting for the punchline. It never came. Yes, a lot of good memories. Now the news today.
Too soon, Sammy. Too soon.