It was a somber morning at THN as we learned Dave Semenko, a cherished member of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, passed away at 59 after a battle with cancer.
We were lucky enough to have spoken with the gentle giant and longtime protector to Wayne Gretzky just a couple months ago. For an upcoming special edition of THN, I caught up with Semenko and asked him to reflect on his career. He shared some fascinating memories – including a long-forgotten tale of him stepping into the boxing ring with the greatest of all-time.
Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, and perhaps Semenko was the opposite. He was one of the most intimidating characters ever to take the ice, but he was a modest, easygoing, self-deprecating man off it. Our hearts go out to the Semenko family, and we’re honored to share what, sadly, turned out to be one of the final interviews he ever gave. Here it is, untouched.
Would you recognize freshly retired Florida Panthers tough guy Shawn Thornton if he walked past you on the street? Imagine he was so famous, such an institution as an NHL enforcer, that he could successfully challenge Floyd Mayweather Jr. to an exhibition match.
Fighting continues to dry up in modern hockey, and its pugilists are no longer faces of the game. But that wasn’t the case for young Dave Semenko in the 1980s. Known for playing on Wayne Gretzky’s wing and pummelling anybody who tried to hurt No. 99, Semenko was a big deal. So much that he earned himself a bout with of one the most renowned athletes ever to walk this planet: Muhammad Ali.
The tilt went down at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum June 12, 1983. Semenko was 25, a year away from winning his first Stanley Cup. Ali was 41 but only 18 months removed from his last official pro fight. It was one of the greatest thrills of Semenko’s life. He idolized Ali and had followed his career closely.
Semenko spent a couple weeks training for the exhibition and, a few days before they threw down, Ali visited Semenko in the Oilers’ dressing room.
“He just moved around the dressing room with me,” Semenko said. “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.’ Nothing was choreographed. He just wanted to see if I knew what I was doing.”
Semenko looked the part enough that he and Ali could put together a fun show, which ended in a draw, even if no real punches were thrown. That was the plan, at least.
“I did accidentally,” Semenko said. “We’re pulling punches, but he moved in, and I couldn’t stop my punch in time. I sort of caught him. 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. Didn’t really hit me, but they were warning shots across the bow.”
Semenko was a fan favorite then. How could you not be as protector of Gretzky, the world’s greatest player? Not that it was the most accurate descriptor for Semenko. He wasn’t a hired goon to guard No. 99. Semenko was an Oiler before Gretzky and scored 10 or more goals four different times.
“I played on all sorts of lines, but to play on that team and to be trusted and play with Wayne and Jari Kurri in the playoffs and throughout the season, they’re not going to give them an anchor,” Semenko said. “Even though they’re great, you don’t want to affect their game.”
The Oilers hired Semenko as a pro scout in 1997, and he held that role through 2015. He saw the game change over that time and recognized that fighters were on their way out. Still, the trait he admired most when he scouted players was a form of toughness. More like mental toughness. The way Semenko sees it, every player can skate and shoot nowadays, but who will take a hit to make a play?
“You can also pick up the way they are, the body language,” he said. “You can tell if they’re a team player. You can see if they get frustrated with a player who doesn’t make a pass to them, how their reaction is if things aren’t going their way. Will they work themselves out of it or are they looking around to blame someone else?”
He left scouting in 2015 and now works as a team ambassador for the Oilers.
Now 59, he gets approached in the street plenty but says he doesn’t get singled out as an enforcer as often as one may think. Mainly, fans just thank him for being part of the Oilers dynasty. In the years since he’s retired from playing, he’s moved away from the goon label. He doesn’t even belong to the tragic fraternity of former enforcers affected by concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Semenko insists he was very lucky in his career and says he never sustained a concussion from a fight or hit, nor did he even lose a tooth.
He may not think of himself as hockey’s most famous bodyguard anymore, but he’ll always hold a place in history as one of the game’s most feared and celebrated enforcers. We’ll never see another player of Semenko’s mold achieve the type of notoriety he did in his heyday. The hit TV show Fargo even named one of its henchman characters after him. And he’ll always have the Ali fight.
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