EDMONTON -- Fans and former teammates of Dave Semenko, including Hockey Hall of Fame members Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glen Sather, Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson, gathered at Rogers Place on Thursday to pay tribute to the late Edmonton Oilers forward.
Semenko, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and linemate of Gretzky's, died June 29 of pancreatic cancer at age 59.
"He meant more to our career than anyone, he was such a positive influence on our entire team, not only on the ice but off the ice," Gretzky said in his remembrance speech. "I would always tell people he was like Santa Claus: Parents couldn't wait to meet him, parents couldn't wait to get a picture with him, and kids were scared to death."
A Winnipeg native, Semenko joined the Oilers in 1977-78 when they were part of the World Hockey Association. He scored the last goal in the history of the WHA during a 7-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in Game 6 of the 1978 Avco Cup Final.
Video: SEMENKO TRIBUTE | Wayne Gretzky
Edmonton moved to the NHL for the 1978-79 season, but Semenko's NHL rights were held by the Minnesota North Stars, who selected him No. 25 in the 1977 NHL Draft. He was traded back to the Oilers for a second-round and a third-round pick in the 1979 draft. Edmonton also acquired a third-round pick from Minnesota that was used to select Messier.
"He was always proud to tell everyone that, 'Gretz and I were protected when we went to the NHL,'" Gretzky said.
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds during his playing days, Semenko acted as a mentor and protector for the Oilers in their early years in the NHL.
"I think that's the first place everybody looks to, is the role Dave did in that regard, which was a huge one," Messier said. "He came out of the WHA with a tremendous amount of respect, and coming into the National Hockey League, word travels fast. Even back then, without the social media, word traveled fast. He came out of the WHA with a lot of respect in the NHL, which immediately gave our team respect in that regard."
Semenko was remembered at the memorial as a charismatic person with a great sense of humor who had a way of bringing levity to any situation. Semenko's daughter Hannah, brother Brian and childhood friend Randy Donkersloot spoke at the gathering of about 6,000, as did Gretzky, Sather, Coffey, Al Hamilton and Kevin Lowe.
Former teammates Anderson, Dave Hunter and Ron Low were among the pallbearers.
Video: SEMENKO TRIBUTE | Paul Coffey
"He was a little older than us so he was definitely a big brother in that regard," Messier said. "He had a way of keeping things on an even keel and putting perspective on things. He could laugh at himself and he could make fun of everybody, but in a good-mannered way, which always kept the dressing room kind of light. And of course, he could call anybody out too if someone was getting out of line. He had a beautiful way of blending all that."
Semenko played eight NHL seasons for the Oilers before being traded to the Hartford Whalers during the 1986-87 season. The following year, he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he finished his NHL career.
He returned to the Oilers and worked as an assistant coach, radio color commentator and professional scout. His most recent role was as an ambassador.
"I can't really describe upon hearing the news of Dave's passing," Sather said. "Players will tell you that he was a brother, a big brother, a guy who instilled the spirit of what he stood for in all situations. Always keenly measuring the moment and striking with humor and insight and he remained that way always."
Semenko is the first original member of the NHL Oilers to pass away.
"Most of the celebrations here have been pretty darn good and this is one that has taken a different turn," Messier said. "I think everyone in the building today, and everyone watching on TV, is looking at their own mortality and their own lives and futures. We're not here forever, and that's for sure, and today was a reminder of that, and it was tough day for sure."
Video: SEMENKO TRIBUTE | Photo Memorial