Enforcer Olympics – Edmonton Oilers
As the Edmonton Oilers suffered yet another early playoff loss, it felt like the perfect time to boost morale for Oil fans, myself included. The younger fans may not believe me, but there was once a time when Edmonton was known as The City of Champions. During the 80s, Edmontonians were fortunate enough to witness their NHL squad win Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990, while simultaneously enjoying their CFL franchise raise the Grey Cup in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1987. Unfortunately, it’s not the 80s anymore. After a devastating Stanley Cup Finals loss to Carolina in 2006, the Oilers entered their fabled Decade of Darkness. Four first-overall picks, and no playoff appearances in 10 years. These failures combined with the Edmonton Elks (formerly known as Eskimos) winning their last Grey Cup in 2015, and Edmonton’s City Council voted to remove their legendary City of Champions tagline from the city’s welcome signs. Was it because “we live in a post-tagline era” as Mayor Don Iverson said? Maybe. I say they were stripped of the moniker because they didn’t deserve it anymore. It’s like me saying I’m the King of Goldeneye. I was in the late 90s, but in 2021, I would probably get rolled by some young buck who got his hands on an N64. The league isn’t the same as it was during the dynasty years of the Oilers, and fans lament their franchise’s inability to adjust and adapt. And while it’s easy to do, we aren’t here to criticize the front office. We’re here to hand out medals to some of the toughest and most feared enforcers. It’s time for the Oil Edition of the Enforcer Olympics.
Bronze – Marty McSorley
Our Bronze medalist is the man with one of the most elegant mullets to ever be muzzled with a hockey helmet. Marty McSorley racked up over 50 fights, 600 penalty minutes, and back-to-back Stanley Cups during his three seasons in Alberta’s capital city. Wayne Gretzky had several bodyguards in his career and McSorley was one that never hesitated clockin’ into work. The Hamilton native takes pride in his work ethic, no matter what he’s doing. Whether it was playing, coaching, or analyzing hockey, McSorley always did and does it to the best of his abilities. He transitioned this work ethic to the big screen with some cameos in Bad Boys, Forget Paris, and one of my faves, Con Air. But like many enforcers, McSorley always played on the edge, which meant sometimes going too far. The incident with Donald Brashear on that ugly night in 2000 certainly falls in that category. But a year removed from the incident McSorley said, “I’ve had people say they feel sorry for me, no one should feel sorry for me, absolutely not. I’m comfortable with what my intent was that day and I’m comfortable with who I am now and the direction I’m going. I’m glad Donald Brashear’s healthy. Everything’s fine.” We all make mistakes and the majority of us aren’t having to make split-second decisions at the highest level. So while it may be easy to cast judgment on our Bronze medalist, remember that warriors don’t have the luxury of looking in the rearview mirror, because at any given moment they could be called upon to do their job again. McSorley was and still is a warrior, and that’s why he deserves his spot on the Edmonton Oilers Enforcer Olympics podium.
Marty McSorley vs Jim Kyte – October 10, 1985 – 2nd period – 5:05
Some people may remember the 80s for Back to the Future, Care Bears, or the car-door ashtrays that used to burn your arm in the summer. But for Winnipeggers, it was watching their Jets get beat down by the dynasty of the Oilers. McSorley intended to maintain the status quo on the opening night of the 1985-86 season with a beatdown on the scoreboard and by dropping-the-gloves with big Jim Kyte. The heavyweights squared off to start the second period, and McSorley quickly showed Kyte that the big man’s 4-inch reach advantage wasn’t going to matter. After exchanging a couple of rights each and a little dancing, our Bronze medalist landed a series of right hands. Kyte tried to respond, but McSorley was too fast for the Jets’ defenseman. The linesmen were forced to intervene after the former Belleville Bull delivered two more big right hands to a chorus of cheers from the Northlands Coliseum crowd. The Oilers rode that momentum and enjoyed a late game-winner from Craig MacTavish to send the Jets home with a 4-3 loss.
Marty McSorley vs Bob Probert – March 22, 1988 – 2nd period – 10:42
As I mentioned, Marty McSorley never hesitated clockin’ into work. Well, seeing Bob Probert waiting at the punch clock must not have been the easiest day for McSorley to pull out his punch card. But on that Tuesday night in Joe Louis Arena, he didn’t bat an eye. The two heavyweights squared off midway through the second period and as Don Cherry once said, “nobody was getting up to go for a coffee.” McSorley started the bout strong with a big right jab and just missed following it up with a right hook. Probert responded with two jabs of his own. Our Bronze medalist was able to land a good right hook to the Wings’ legend, but as fight fans know, Probey only got stronger as the fight went on. Probert landed a big right hook, and luckily for McSorley he missed a huge uppercut blow. The linesmen finally intervened and ended an epic bout between two fight legends. The scrap ended in a draw, while the Oilers got to leave Hockeytown with a dominant 6-4 win.
Silver – Dave Semenko
Trivia time – Who was the last player to ever score in the WHA before the merger? Wayne Gretzky? Bobby Hull? Nope! Dave ‘Cementhead’ Semenko. Feel free to use that bit of trivia to get a free drink from your friends one day because it’s unlikely they will pick the bodyguard over the star. Our Silver medalist may have been brought in to protect Gretzky, but during his 8-year tenure with the Oilers, he protected everyone that wore the oil drop on their chest. Some may only remember Semenko for his lunchbox-sized hands and his menacing presence on the ice. But for teammates and fans, it will be his dry sense of humor, contagious smile and joie de vivre. These endearing qualities were the reason why Semenko’s memorial had to be held at Rogers Place because of the number of friends and fans that wanted to pay their respects to the fallen enforcer. Whether it was the fans sharing stories of meeting Semenko at a local pizza shop or how he’d pop into random rinks around town to surprise some local hockey players, the outpouring of love for Semenko was special because the man was larger than life. The Winnipeg native won countless fights and lifted two Stanley Cups, but by Semenko’s account his favorite memory was getting the opportunity to spar his idol, Muhammad Ali. Before the two got into the ring, Semenko joked that Ali was nervous to get in the ring with him… Ali proceeded to have a nap in the Oilers’ dressing room, so I’m guessing he wasn’t that nervous. The former enforcer was able to achieve all his dreams and spoke candidly about having no regrets about his career. So, while Oilers fans are used to seeing the Wayne Gretzky statue outside Rogers Place, I doubt there would be any objections to seeing a statue of his former bodyguard right next to him. But until that happens, let’s give him a spot on the Enforcer Olympics podium.
Dave Semenko vs Garry Howatt – April 17, 1981 – 2nd period – 5:55
Semenko may not have been the boogeyman, but when you slashed ‘The Great One’ he always magically appeared. Unfortunately for Gary Howatt, he didn’t even slash Gretzky and still had to deal with Semenko. During Game 2 of their quarter-finals playoff series, Wayne Merrick was the one who actually slashed Gretzky as he cut past the blue line. But Semenko didn’t care who it was, someone had to get punched for the slash and he didn’t waste any time exacting his revenge. In fact, this unconditional loyalty is the reason The Great One gave Semenko the Pontiac Transam he won for being awarded the 1983 All-Star MVP. Well, that loyalty was on full display on that Friday night when Semenko unloaded a flurry of punches to an unsuspecting Howatt. Our Silver medalist was seeing red when he tossed about 20 punches in Howatt’s direction, but somehow Howatt and the Islanders were able to keep their cool. The Isles kept their dynasty alive by sending the Oilers home and forced them to wait until 1984 to start theirs.
Dave Semenko vs Joel Otto – April 18, 1986 – 1st period – 13:35
Getting to watch a hockey game in Edmonton is always a good time, but getting to watch the Battle of Alberta has always had that certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe it’s the fact that there have always been big hits, tons of fights, unreal goals, and an intensity you can cut through with a knife. Or maybe it’s the fact that these cities are only a 3-hour drive apart and they just flat out don’t like each other. Whatever it may be, it’s awesome for fight fans. That Friday night in the Alberta capital, poor Joel Otto didn’t stand a chance when Dave Semenko took exception to a cheap shot he gave Mark Messier. Cheap shots never went unnoticed and certainly never went unanswered in the battle of Alberta. The Manitoba native jumped Otto and started teeing off punches as punishment for his previous indiscretions. 20 punches later and Semenko casually skated to the bench unscathed, while Otto was left bewildered and bloody. Our Silver medalist may have easily won this scrap, but it was the Flames who had the last laugh. Calgary won the thrilling 7-game series and denied the Oilers their opportunity for a 3-peat. Although on that Friday night, I’m guessing Joel Otto fired back a couple of cold ones more for pain relief than celebrating their win.
Gold – Georges Laraque
I know it’s tough, but imagine you’re not a hockey fan. If you saw Georges Laraque walking down Jasper Avenue in Edmonton with his charming smile, calm demeanor, and gentle nature, there’s not a chance you would guess he was one of the strongest, baddest, and most intimidating players to ever lace em’ up. Guess that’s why you never judge a book by its cover. While countless Oilers deserve their spot on the podium, ‘Big Georges’ is a no-brainer, especially for me. I wasn’t fortunate enough to watch the likes of McSorley, Semenko, or Dave Brown play live, but I was able to enjoy every time Laraque dropped-the-gloves. It’s also been pretty special to watch one of my heroes become a true Renaissance man with his work as a spokesman, politician, commentator, and slapping COVID-19 in the face. During his 8-year tenure with the Oil, the Montreal native racked up nearly 100 fights, over 800 penalty minutes, and was a game away from winning a Stanley Cup Laraque may not have raised the Cup like his fellow medalists, but he is and will always be a legend in Alberta’s capital city.
Georges Laraque vs Stu Grimson – January 10, 1999 – 1st period – 1:54
In a moment of vulnerability, Georges Laraque described his feelings about lining up against Dave Brown in 1995. The ambitious 18-year-old couldn’t stop thinking about the beat-down Brown had previously put on Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson and opted out from fighting the legendary enforcer. Luckily for Laraque (and the rest of the league), Brown retired. Instead, Laraque overcame his fear by battling Brown’s old foe in his sophomore season. This was the definition of a heavyweight bout. Laraque stood 6’4,” 245 lbs, and Grimson at 6’5,” 230 lbs, which meant both fighters had knockout potential. Grimson landed the first blow with a big right hand, but Laraque answered back with a flurry of left hooks. Both players lost their grip, took a quick breather, and then started dancing again. It felt like déjà vu when Grimson landed the first punch, and Laraque came back with a storm of left hands. The two wrestled for a bit until the linesmen finally intervened to end the minute-long scrap. In the end, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim got the win, and our Gold medalist put the league on notice that he wasn’t an 18-year old kid anymore.
Georges Laraque vs Rob Ray – March 03, 1999 – 1st period – 10:42
Rob Ray should have checked the schedule in 99’, because he paid the price for not knowing the Oilers were coming to town a week later. Ray took advantage of Laraque not being in the lineup when the Sabres went to Edmonton and ran every Oiler in sight. Well, Laraque got the tap when they met the next week in Buffalo and Ray knew he was going to have to answer the bell. This scrap was special because it pitted two Enforcer Olympics Gold medalists against each other, and they sure as hell didn’t disappoint. Our Gold medalist outweighed Ray by over 30 lbs, so credit to the Sabres enforcer for throwing down with the big man. But credit is the only thing Ray limped away with at the end of this scrap. Laraque started the scrap strong with a storm of left hooks while Ray did what any of us would do, duck. This one-sided fight ended with Big Georges manhandling Ray to the ice. While it was nice to see Laraque skate to the box unscathed after a fight with a legend, it was disappointing to see Ray limp to the dressing room with a knee injury. Overall, this tilt acted as a harsh reminder to others in the league not to take liberties with an Oiler ever again.
This concludes the Edmonton Oilers edition of the Enforcer Olympics. Alberta’s capital city had the likes of Dave Brown (Philadelphia Enforcer Olympics Gold medalist), Louie Debrusk, Jeff Beukeboom, Kevin McClelland, Steve MacIntyre, Kelly Buchberger, and the newly retired Luke Gazdic (Congrats Luke). While countless other warriors have proudly worn the blue and orange, there are only three spots on the podium. But that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate them by firing them a message on social media telling them a story about watching one of their fights with friends, or how much you loved having them play on your team. Let us know who you’d have on your Oilers Enforcer Olympics podium. Next week we travel to another city with a generational talent that also suffered an early playoff exit this season. Beautiful Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Will Jay Caufield be on the podium? Eric ‘The Hand of God’ Godard? Tune in to find out!