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Remembering Dave Semenko: Hockey’s most important tough guy

Back in November, I had the opportunity attend the St. Louis premiere of Ice Guardians at The Pageant. Since I was a huge fan of enforcers in the game and their unsung role, this movie was a dream come true for me, but that was only the beginning of the allure. I got to watch the movie with a room full of tough guys that included Kelly Chase, Cam Janssen, Reed Low, Ryan Reaves, Joe Kocur, and Dave Semenko.

In case you didn’t know, Semenko was Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard during the golden years of the Edmonton Oilers. When other teams handed over their pink slips to the Canadian band of hockey destroyers in October. Without Semenko watching his back, Gretzky may not have turned into the Great One. Hull admitted as much: “There’d be no Brett Hull if it weren’t for Kelly Chase and Tony Twist.”

Semenko passed away Thursday at the young age of 59. It took a vicious round of cancer to take down one of hockey’s toughest competitors. Semenko was hockey’s most important enforcer, because without, fans may not have gotten the pleasure of watching Gretzky bedevil hockey teams for all those years. For eight plus NHL seasons, Semenko was the warden of the ice, kicking anyone who stared twice at #99 into next week.

Semenko recalled the first time he laid eyes on Gretzky: “Seeing how skinny he was, I thought to myself, I was going to be busy.” Semenko amassed 1,175 minutes of penalties during his NHL career, but also notched double digit goal seasons four times in his career.

During the trailer for Ice Guardians, Semenko talked about getting into the NHL fight game. “They sent someone after me during a scrimmage. I had no idea what I was doing. I just started throwing punches, watching my fist go back and forth. It was like slow motion. I was doing pretty well,” Semenko said.

If you couldn’t already tell, I have a thing for enforcers, because I believe they carry a place in the game. Until the NHL weighed down the aggression with roughing minors and instigating penalties, the players ran free. Before the game was pussified, guys like Semenko and Dave Schultz were legends, paving the way for Twist and Chase.

Gretzky talked about his impact during a statement released today: “One of the first Oilers I met in 1978, I didn’t know at the time the impact he would have in my life and my career. He was the toughest player I knew and yet the biggest Teddy Bear you would ever know. A beloved Oiler that will be missed dearly because of his kind heart and funny sense of humor. He made us all better people. RIP # 27, thanks for your friendship.”

Rest in peace, Dave. You were a true badass, and someone who wasn’t afraid of the trenches, even if it meant taking a punch. He wasn’t a St. Louis Blue, so I apologize if this isn’t a hot take on free agency. It is a commentary on a worthy player in NHL history. One of the unsung heroes.