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Too Soon, Sammy

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.

THE REACTION

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.

SAMMY

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.

RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE  



  • Mike Modano's Dog

    So sad to see you go, Sammy!! Thanks for keeping our beloved Oilers safe all those years. It was a joy to see you play…you were as much a part of our dynasty years as anyone, in my opinion. You will be sadly missed!!!

  • Derian Hatcher

    I always thought what it would be like being so nervous before a game and looking over and seeing Semenko lacing his skates and knowing he was on your side! RIP big man. Way too soon.

  • FootballJimmy

    Semenko was my favourite player growing up, probably because I was told I skated like him… He scored in the very first game I ever went to (1/24/82 vs Colorado). By all accounts, including this one, he was a great person, and I think his impact on the Oilers dynasty has been underestimated – at least up until today. Sad to loose him so young.

  • Semenko27

    My dad used to give me a lot of heck over my love of D. Semenko. How can that be your favorite player on a team that has Gretzky, Messier etc. he would say. I wore #27 my whole hockey career in honor of him. He was my favorite player in the WHA and the NHL when he and boys got here and he was the only player i ever followed and rooted for after he left town. R.I.P big man.

  • Elliot McKenzie

    Sad news – there is still a place in the game for guys like Semer imo protecting the ‘stars’, then you wouldn’t get all the cheap shots, head snaps and injuries from cowards to star players (McDavid) that are ruining the game these days.

    I know it was cancer but does anyone know if Sammy suffered from any fight related/concussion type symptons that could’ve somehow attibuted to his untimely demise?

  • Serious Gord

    I might be wrong on this – am forgetting someone – but I think of all the old boys he is the only one who is entirely Identified as an Oiler – the others had significant portions of their NHL career played elsewhere.

    He struck me as a guy who played the game very seriously but off-ice he didn’t – and I mean that as a sincere compliment. He played as pivotal a role on those teams as almost any other member and i consider it a great omission that the HHOF doesn’t in some way recognize players like him.

  • Spaceman Spiff

    If you’re looking for an unique perspective on Semenko, see if you can pick up a copy of CALLING THE SHOTS: Memoirs of an NHL Referee, by former NHL zebra Bruce Hood. It was written around 1988 and I’m not even sure where you’d get it, other than Amazon or another online provider (here’s Amazon’s link so you can see the cover: https://www.amazon.ca/Calling-shots-Memoirs-NHL-referee/dp/0773722092)

    Hood was a referee in the NHL during an interesting time when the WHA and expansion basically created the role of the enforcer. He shoots off on several former tough guys, including Dave Schultz and Terry O’Reilly, as well as rats like Bobby Clarke. But Hood has a soft spot for Semenko, whom he said was always a gentleman with him off the ice … and on it.

    As a kid growing up in Northern Alberta and a huge Oilers fan, I was close enough of a follower that I thought I knew Semenko, but far enough away from him that I never heard what he was like off the ice. The passage about Semenko in Hood’s book provided me with an image of a man I wasn’t expecting to see or hear and it was pretty cool.

    Rest in peace, Sammy.

  • ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    So sad to hear this. He was such a big part of the team and the franchise. My thoughts go out to his friends and family.
    I remember being at an Oiler game, with the Oilers on the power play, and Semenko playing the front of the net. The puck went behind the net and he followed to clear it back to the point. Kevin Lowe one-timed the puck right back toward the net, missed, and hit Semenko squarely in the forehead. The crowd fell silent and all the players stopped skating, fearing the worst had happened. Only Semenko kept playing. He spun around and fished out the puck from his feet and fed it into the slot for a shot on net. 17,000 people sat stunned. Semenko didn’t have a scratch on him. I can only imagine the fear he inspired in his opponents after that story went around the league. Heart of a lion.

  • O.C.

    Dammit. This sucks so hard.

    Finally got to meet Mr. Dave Semenko in January. Gracious, personable, and clear he still didn’t have a fear of anyone. Defeated only by something that didn’t fight fair.

    In my Top 5 favourite Oilers. I won’t say where.

    We need another statue at the Arena.

    (Now I gotta find that other guy and tell him to stop cutting the onions already!!!)

  • Sorry to see the big guy go.
    The eighties in Edmonton would not have been the same without big Dave handing out knuckle sandwiches. Some of his fights against Hunter and Paplinsky come to mind. Hockey was different back then and Dave was one tough customer.