June 29, 2017

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) Dave Semenko, the Edmonton Oilers tough guy who protected Wayne Gretzky during the 1980s, has died. He was 59.

He died in Edmonton after a short battle with cancer, the team said Thursday.

''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 Oilers said in a statement.

Semenko was the bodyguard for ''The Great One'' for parts of 10 seasons with the Oilers in the World Hockey Association and NHL. He helped Edmonton win the Stanley Cup in 1984 and 1985.

''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,'' Gretzky said. ''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.''

In an era where hulking enforcers roamed the ice alongside the league's top stars, Semenko was one of the toughest. And he had plenty of competition, often going toe-to-toe with the likes of Bob Probert, Basil McRae and Tim Hunter, who served a similar role for the rival Flames.

Oilers executive Kevin Lowe, a star defenseman on Edmonton's Stanley Cup champion squads, called Semenko the ''Wayne Gretzky of the tough guys'' in his book ''Champions.''

''He really kept us all grounded,'' Lowe said Thursday at a press conference with some of Semenko's former teammates. ''He had an incredible wit and he reminded us often of who we are, and not allow for our heads to get bigger than they were.''

''The greatest of all time are up in the (rafters) at Rogers Place, but those greats couldn't have done it without the support and aid of Dave Semenko.''

Lowe said the cancer was detected about three weeks ago at a medical appointment, and his condition rapidly deteriorated.

''Unfortunately, this wasn't his fight to win,'' Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey said. ''It's a terrible disease. He's the biggest guy I've seen taken down that fast. But he did it with dignity, surrounded by his (loved ones).''

Semenko spent the bulk of his career with the Oilers, finishing with the Hartford Whalers and Toronto Maple Leafs. The 6-foot-3 winger from Winnipeg, Manitiba, had 65 goals, 88 assists and 1,175 penalty minutes in 575 regular-season NHL games. He had six goals, six assists in 73 playoff games.

''I loved Semenk like we all did,'' said Hall of Famer Mark Messier, a longtime teammate. ''He was a great teammate, a loyal friend, a loving father and a worthy champion.''

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