Dustin Penner’s improbable journey to the National Hockey League began much like any other kid growing up on the prairies.
There were plenty of outdoor rinks in Winkler, Manitoba and Penner would spend hours on the ice with friends and family simply having fun.
“It was a good experience, especially for a kid my age who loved hockey. You could go within 500 or 1000 feet of your house and find an outdoor rink or someone’s backyard rink,” said Penner. “Any time you wanted to skate, you could. I remember shovelling snow off the outdoor rinks and spraying them down with water just to continue playing.”
As a youngster, Penner was like many elite talents. He played on the top teams and was one of the top players – that is, until he reached his teenage years.
“I was (on the top teams) until maybe 13 or 14 years old. That’s when I started getting cut from other teams. For whatever reason they didn’t pick me but I think I’m a stronger individual because of it,” Penner stated.
Once he reached age 15 and was cut from the local Midget AAA team, Penner opted to play high school for the Winkler Zodiacs. At the conclusion of his high school career, he thought he might be finished with hockey.
However, it was his love of the game that resurrected his hockey career.
After graduating high school, Penner’s cousin Darryl was attending junior college at Minot State University – Bottineau. He suggested to Dustin that he attend the school as well and try out for their hockey team.
The school is located in the small town of Bottineau, North Dakota. The town has a population of just over 2,000 residents while the school’s enrollment is around 500. The Lumberjack hockey team plays an independent schedule against Division III teams, junior teams, and college junior varsity teams.
“I walked on to the team there because I was a late birthdate and at 17 I didn’t have anywhere to play after high school. My cousin, Darryl, who was going to school there said ‘I’ll call the coach and see if you can come try out.’”
Darryl contacted Lumberjacks head coach Travis Rybchinski and Dustin was invited at the last minute.
“He called and I came on the last day of enrolment.”
Still, things didn’t come easily for Penner at MSU-Bottineau. A leg injury in pre-season meant he missed his entire first season at college.
“Broke my femur the first year so I didn’t play that many games,” Penner said.
In his second year, he was one of the team’s best players. In 23 games, he scored 20 goals and had 32 points and suddenly people started paying attention to the 6’4” 230 pound winger.
“The second year there I got noticed by a couple junior scouts out of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I went to a development camp in the summer in Saskatoon. That’s where Grant Standbrook of Maine found me.”
Like Penner, Grant Standbrook was originally from Manitoba. As primary recruiter and assistant coach of the Maine Black Bears, he brought in such talents as Paul Kariya. He attended the development camp looking to see a defenceman but came away impressed with the size and skill of Dustin Penner.
"I asked him afterwards, 'Alright, you're 6-foot-4, 225 or 230, you're 19 ... you've either played Major Junior or you're not a good student,' and he said, 'Neither one' and it progressed from there," Standbrook said.
Transferring from one college to another, Penner was ineligible to play his third year as per NCAA rules.
“I flew down there the next year, which was my third year of college eligibility, but I didn’t play – I red shirted,” Penner stated, noting that having to sit out didn’t bother him.
“I really didn’t know much about college hockey at that time. Once I found out the Kariyas went there, I was just happy to be there.”
It was a big change for Penner. Having grown up in Winkler, he was only a three-hour drive from home in Bottineau. Now he found himself on the East Coast, thousands of miles from Manitoba and North Dakota.
“It was a fun adjustment but it was a lot different. You go to a school where there’s 12,000 people as opposed to 500. You’re not a car ride away from home and it’s a different culture out there than it is in the Midwest or in the prairies.”
The year after, he got his opportunity and was welcomed to college hockey in a big way. Scoring 11 goals and 23 points in 43 games, Penner played a huge role in the success of the Maine Black Bears that season.
His University of Maine team went on to the Frozen Four and in the semi-finals, Penner scored the go-ahead goal 1:05 into the third period to lift his team over the Boston College Eagles and into the finals.
|Dustin Penner, playing for the University of Maine, gets knocked down in front of the net during the NCAA National Championship Game on April 10, 2004. (Getty Images Photo) |
“That’s the pinnacle of your career, especially for a guy like me,” said Penner, looking back on that moment. “I’m thinking, ‘this is unbelievable. I’m playing in the National Championship game on ESPN. This is awesome.’”
His thoughts were that he had risen so far, so quickly. He had gone from playing high school hockey in Winkler to a junior college in North Dakota to now playing in front of 20,000 fans in a nationally televised game in Boston. But Penner had many more heights to climb.
“I start talking to scouts and GMs after the (championship) game and started thinking ‘wow, I might have a shot at the NHL!’”
Up to that point, it was never a realistic possibility in Penner’s mind that he would even play pro. His thoughts were that he would complete his degree at University and then enter the workforce.
“It was a far off distant dream that I only had once in awhile that I would be playing in the NHL when I was at junior college in Bottineau or high school in Winkler,” he said. “Thinking that you might have a chance to play in the NHL ignited a fire.”
Penner signed an entry-level contract with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and his first professional year was 2004-05 – the year of the lockout.
“I got healthy scratched through the first four games and played every game after that. I had about 28 points and one thing I managed to do was continue to improve.”
He put up five more points in nine playoff games, setting the stage for the dramatic improvements to come the following season.
“The next year I had a great year in Portland, which was Anaheim’s (new) affiliate,” said Penner.
Now back in Maine – the state where he enjoyed success in college – Penner’s performance exploded in the American Hockey League. The previous year he had 10 goals in 77 games but this year he picked up 11 goals through his first 17 games of the season – earning him his first recall to the National Hockey League on November 23, 2005.
“I think it was about 12:15 a.m. and they told me I was on a flight that leaves for Dallas at 6 and we played that night,” Penner recalled. “I barely slept. I just packed up, made sure I had everything and was off to Dallas.”
|Edmonton Oilers' Dustin Penner, left, prepares to shoot and score on St. Louis Blues goalie Hannu Toivonen, of Finland, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008, in St. Louis. Penner later scored the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Oilers a 3-2 victory. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) |
That night, he had five shots on goal and picked up two penalty minutes in 15:02 of icetime. Two nights later, Penner picked up his first career NHL point – an assist – versus Detroit. Five nights after that, he netted two goals and three points against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Penner returned to the AHL shortly after that but continued to dominate. He ended up scoring 39 goals and 84 points in 57 games. He was recalled to the Ducks again during the playoffs.
It was during the 2006 playoffs that Penner solidified a spot in the National Hockey League. He netted three goals and nine points in 13 playoff games.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said of that first NHL experience. “It just kept getting better and better for me. We made it to the conference finals and lost to Edmonton that year. For me, it was hard to believe that it was the first time Teemu Selanne had made it that far in his career so I’m thinking maybe that’s the pinnacle.”
Then fast forward one more year and the accomplishments start to grow even more for the Manitoban. In his first full NHL season, Penner scored 29 goals in 82 games and helped the Ducks capture the Stanley Cup that spring.
Some players go their entire careers without even seeing the conference finals but in a season and a half, Dustin Penner had gone to two of them and got his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.
“It’s probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Probably the most real and wholesome feeling of accomplishment that I’ll ever get,” he said. “It’s almost like a calm comes over you, it’s pretty amazing.”
This past offseason, Penner joined the Oilers from the Ducks as a restricted free agent. With that rare status comes a lot more pressure. That, plus the short offseason as a result of going so deep into the playoffs last year has presented some challenges for the 25-year-old forward.
However, Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish has been very impressed with not only Penner’s work ethic but also his constant improvement from the start of the season.
“He’s a guy that I have a lot of time for because of the work that he’s put in since we talked to him at the start of the year,” said MacTavish.
“I really see a lot of good Oiler qualities in him. Not the least of which is a developing work ethic. His work ethic has been exceptional and his coachability has been exceptional.”
Coming to the Oilers, Penner is being called upon to play on the top lines more often. In Anaheim, he played anywhere from the first to fourth line but generally averaged closer to 11 minutes a game.
“We can’t discount the fact, either, that he’s playing a more prominent role. He’s gone from 11 minutes a game to 20-plus minutes. I’ve really been impressed by the way he’s responded to the pressure that’s been put on him.”
|Dustin Penner visited his hometown of Winkler, Manitoba several days before Hockey Day in Canada. (photo by Joe Bryksa/Winnipeg Free Press) |
MacTavish was quick to point out that Penner’s hockey career didn’t start to take off until he played in Maine at age 21.
“I have very high hopes for him,” he continued. “There’s nothing he can’t do in a game. It’s just a case of developing. He’s a late developer.”
Many nights, Oilers fans have also been impressed by Penner’s ability to control the puck down low and outmuscle defenders to the net.
“He gives us a physical presence. At times he doesn’t know his own strength,” the head coach stated. “My philosophy as a coach is you try to create the culture in the player and set the guidelines. If he follows, he’s going to be supported and I very much support him.
“I know we have to start acknowledging the positives that he’s bringing to the team right now and the work ethic he brings. We need to realize he’s a player that’s very much developing right now. I’ve been really happy with his progress since the start of the season. “
Future Dustin Penners out in Winkler, Manitoba will get an early glimpse of the spotlight this Saturday when CBC’s “Hockey Day in Canada” is hosted in the southern Manitoba community.
“I haven’t heard all that’s going to go on there but I heard it’s a big day. Cassie Campbell’s going down there, Wendel Clark, Ron MacLean, Don Cherry,” said Penner.
“It’s great for the city. It’s probably going to spark a lot of interest in hockey back in Winkler. I’m excited for them.”