By Adam Brady
Watching Dustin Penner play such a vital role on the Ducks - first in last year's playoffs and in the early part of this year - it's hard to believe where he was five years ago.
Penner was somberly sitting in his living room with his parents, having graduated high school in his hometown of Winkler, Manitoba, and was completely out of options. He considered giving up hockey "and maybe going to work at a plant or something."
Penner's playing career up to that point was hardly stellar. He was cut by his local AAA and junior teams and had to settle for playing on his high school team (which in Canada is a little like playing a junior varsity sport when you're a senior.)
"I'd played hockey since I was 4, and I tried playing at the highest level every year," Penner says. "And I kept getting cut. I got cut from pretty much every team that had a cut to make."
So when there were no offers to play junior hockey in Manitoba, he was glumly pondering his future when the phone rang. It was Penner's cousin Darryl, who wanted to see if Dustin had any interest in joining him at Minot State-Bottineau, a junior college about two hours away in North Dakota. Darryl had talked his coach into allowing Penner to try out as a walk-on, even though it was already two weeks into the semester.
"I didn't know what to do," Penner says. "It was either quit hockey and start working or try to walk on to the team."
He didn't have a lot of time to think it over, since the Bottineau coach followed up with a call at 1:00 in the afternoon and the deadline for new students to register was at 5:00.
"He said I had just a few hours to get there," Penner says, "and it was a two-hour drive. But I got there just before 5, signed up for classes and started the next day."
It turned out to be a decision that would change Penner's life, but it didn't start out looking that way. The Lumberjacks were just a club team with a schedule filled solely with exhibition games, and after only a few (where he was used sparingly), Penner broke his femur. But he came back the next year and played a much bigger role, scoring 20 goals with 13 assists in 23 games and earning the Most Determined Player award. Yes, a future NHL regular wasn't even the MVP of his junior college club team - he was Most Determined. (Today the MSU Bottineau website has a picture of Penner playing for the Ducks.)
But that determination pushed Penner to take the next step, which started when the goaltender on his team handed him a pamphlet for an evaluation camp in Saskatoon. Even though he was late for registration, he made it in the camp and played pretty well, averaging three points a game. That's where he was spotted by Grant Stanbrook, the assistant coach for the University of Maine, who offered him a scholarship. It didn't take long for Penner to accept, though he was forced to redshirt his first year and only practice with the team.
The next year he helped the Black Bears to the NCAA Championship game, scoring the game-winning goal in the semifinals against Boston College. Maine lost the title game to the University of Denver, 1-0, despite a three-man advantage (two penalties and a pulled goalie) in the last minute of play.
But the disappointment of that loss was soon washed away for Penner. After he packed his gear and headed to the bus, he was approached by David McNab, the Ducks' assistant general manager with a reputation for spotting college prospects like Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz and Ryan Shannon.
"He told me I had a shot at playing pro hockey," Penner remembers. "That was probably one of the greatest moments of my life. The emotional high I was on at that time it's hard to put it into words.
"I always thought I could be good enough to play in the NHL, but when I was cut so often I started to think maybe I was wrong. There is nothing I've experienced like the sense of accomplishment I felt at that time."
McNab, who had been with the Ducks since their inception in 1993, says he was floored by Penner's ability. "I went and saw him play a lot and I just really liked him and I had a gut feeling about him," McNab says. "With Dustin, it was just strictly that people just hadn't seen him and he hadn't played a lot of high-profile hockey. When I saw him at the national tournament, he was brilliant. There were games where he was just fabulous. It wasn't difficult knowing that we wanted to sign him."
A month later the Ducks signed Penner to a free agent contract, and he earned his keep with a solid year with Cincinnati, the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate at the time. He put up monster numbers when he was moved to Portland (the Ducks current AHL affiliate), tallying 39 goals and 45 assists in 57 games. The Ducks took notice and pulled him up for 19 regular season games, in which he scored four goals, including the first two of his NHL career on Nov. 30 against Phoenix. He was sent back and forth several times, the last in March, and he started the postseason in Portland before the Ducks recalled him for the last 13 games of their playoff run.
That's where Penner made a major splash, putting up three goals and six assists. He assisted on three of Joffrey Lupul's four goals in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals at Colorado, tying a franchise playoff record.
This year he's scoring more goals, picking up more assists and showing the confidence of a guy who's sure he'll stay here awhile.
"I'm playing more of a consistent and confident type of game to contribute on a nightly basis. There's a comfort feeling from getting to know the guys a little better."
Much of that self-assurance came from his playoff performance last year, which Penner calls, "an integral part of how I'm playing this year. They say one playoff game is worth about 10 regular season games. To be able to play well in the playoffs and contribute so much in that atmosphere, where there is a lot of pressure and a lot of competitiveness, it really spurred my growth in the game."
The 24-year-old Penner's growth can be taken literally, as the 6-4 245-pounder still feels like he's getting used to his big body. "I was still growing in height in junior college and in weight at Maine. I grew so fast and my skating wasn't on par with the level of hockey I was playing at. My body was trying to catch up and I feel like it still is.
"If I was playing in college right now, I'd be a great skater. I'm still trying to make strides in my skating. But I noticed the other day, watching one of our previous games, that my skating has gotten a lot better."
That's why Penner is considered one of the top rookies in the NHL (he's still considered a rookie since he only played 19 games last year). "But on the ice, I don't feel like a rookie," Penner says. "Off the ice they do a pretty good job of making me feel like one."
And Penner knows that although he's made strides at this level, there is still room for improvement. "It's like those video games when they have you rated for agility or endurance or strength," Penner says. "I'm just trying to bring everything up to the highest level possible, whether it's my skating or my shot or moving with the puck."
He also hopes to someday play at the same level he showed in the AHL last year. "If I can do that, I'll be real happy. I don't know when it's going to happen or if it will, but that's my goal."
Even if it doesn't, Penner is plenty thankful for his lot in life. For a guy who got cut numerous times in his teens, broke his leg while playing with a junior college club team and sat out his first college season, every step on the ice in an NHL arena is a dream.
"Whenever I start a game now, I remember starting games in a barn in Bottineau in front of 500 people, including my mom and dad," Penner says. "I always have those kinds of flashbacks where I picture where I started. I think I probably always will."
This article appears in the recent edition of Ducks Digest - the official game day publication of the Anaheim Ducks. Pick up a free Ducks Digest at all Anaheim Ducks home games at Honda Center.
Cover photo: Getty Images / NHL