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The luckiest Duck

Hockey dealt Dustin Penner a hard hand, but he hit the jackpot

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It was another gorgeous summer morning in the Happiest Place on Earth when the break and enter occurred.
Well, there was no break, technically, because Dustin Penner, a good Winkler boy, hadn't bothered to lock the door to his apartment. Maybe he forgot. Or maybe it was because the last few days had been a hazy, blissful blur.

After all, back in mid-June the 24-year-old Penner had been seeing more dawns than Tony Orlando in his prime. Fair enough, since Penner had been working every day for the past two months. Had travelled plenty, too; Minnesota, Vancouver, Detroit, Ottawa.

Anyway, about the enter part. Penner's peaceful sleep was about to be shattered by a group of foreigners who -- with apologies to Dylan Thomas -- were not about to go gentle into that good night.

"They came barging into my bedroom," he recalled. "They were yelling, 'Penner! Get up! Let's have some beer!!' "

Shaking off slumber, Penner realized that his home had been invaded by unruly Finns, family and friends of a work colleague named Teemu Selanne, who affectionately referred to them as the Finnish National Drinking Team. And they were in mid-season form, to be sure.

Alas, such are the perils of winning a Stanley Cup, the National Hockey League's Holy Grail. And Penner, a member of the recently-anointed Anaheim Ducks, was up for the challenge.

"All you can think about is celebrating," he explained of the days that followed the Ducks victory over the Ottawa Senators in the final. "We proceeded to party like it was the only Stanley Cup we'll ever win. And for some of us, it might be.

"It was one of the greatest weeks of my life. Just walking into a place holding the Stanley Cup... that's one of the most recognized trophies in sports. It's like a magnet. I was pretty surprised at how ecstatic everyone was to see it."

But the real question wasn't how the Finns got into that bedroom. No, better to ask how did Penner?

How did a young man, who just a few years before was playing for an obscure junior college in North Dakota -- a team regularly beaten by the Boissevain Border Kings of the Southwest Manitoba Hockey League -- end up holding the Stanley Cup over his head? How did a player who was cut three times by the Winkler Flyers reach hockey's highest summit?

You see, it should have been a dream that Penner had wakened to that morning. No one gets that good that fast. No one can be "one of the best players" on the Bottineau Lumberjacks in 2002 and play in the NHL in 2005. Then score 29 goals and win a Stanley Cup in 2007.

"It's amazing, it really is," marvelled Dave McNab, the Ducks assistant general manager. "I've been in this league for 29 years and you don't stumble onto guys who really come from nowhere. It's the darnedest thing."

One former Maine teammate, Jeff Mushaluk, insists that Penner is "arguably the biggest underdog story ever to play in the NHL."

Added Penner's father, Terry: "It's been so fast. You just go from minor hockey, to Bottineau, to Maine, to Cincinnati, to Portland to Anaheim to the Stanley Cup. How do you put that in a small story?"

You don't. You put it in a story as big as dreams that come true. You put it in a story that defies all the traditional odds, littered with last chances, chance meetings and, yes, a lot of sweat dripping on ice.

You put it in a story that ends with the Finnish.

But it begins once upon a time, on the day when Dustin Penner first touched the Stanley Cup, certain that he'd never see it again.

* * *

Back in December 2001, the Bottineau Lumberjacks set off for the small town of Deloraine, which just happened to have a special visitor.

The Stanley Cup was on a grassroots promotional tour so the boys from Bottineau, a stone's throw south of the U.S. border, jumped on the bus for a field trip, of sorts.

That's the draw of Lord Stanley's mug, easily the most coveted prize of every Canadian kid who through childhood watched their hockey idols hold it aloft in some far-off arena, with the confetti raining from the rafters. Just to have your picture taken with it, to run your fingers over the names etched in the silver chalice. Names that evoke the game's storied history; Morenz, Richard, Howe, Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux....

So, sure, Dustin Penner, a forward with the Lumberjacks, was just as happy as any other red-blooded teenager to have his picture taken with Stanley. But that's about it.

"I wasn't taken aback by it," he recalled, "because I knew I could never win it."

So Penner turned to his teammates and said, "Let's go back to Bottineau. The cafeteria closes at eight"

And why would Penner think any differently? After all, he wasn't delusional. He was a 19-year-old who made the Lumberjacks the previous year as a walk-on after getting cut - for the third time, no less - by the junior club back in his home town, the Winkler Flyers.

It was a very ordinary Canadian story. Penner just loved hockey. Always had, since he was a little five-year old ankle-bender, and his father Terry first took him to the Winkler arena. At first, young Dustin balked. The ice was "too slippery," he said.

"I'll get you a chair," his dad replied.

So it all began.

A few years later, Penner was just another hockey-mad adolescent whose bedroom was plastered with Pittsburgh Penguins memorabilia, a tribute to his favourite player, Mario Lemieux.

By the age of 14, Penner stood about 5-foot-6 and weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. So when he tried out for either regional teams or the Flyers, the verdict was always the same: Too small.

Even after a growth spurt, there was always some perceived deficiency. Can't skate. Bad hands. Take your pick.

"I never was the worst player," Penner said, of his minor hockey days, "but I was always the odd man out."

Upon graduation in 2000, Penner's father gave him two choices: Work or school. Penner figured he could get a job at the local cabinet-making factory and make about $12 an hour. Not bad for a 17-year-old kid.

But the lure of hockey persisted. Penner's cousin Darryl was headed for Bottineau in the fall and he was coaxing Dustin to come along, too.

There were no scholarship offers. No recruiting trips. Not for Penner. Just a promise from the Lumberjacks head coach that he would get a try-out.

Penner waited. He procrastinated. He mulled.

Finally, at 2 p.m. on the last day of registration, Penner called his mother Linda, a nurse, and said, "I'm going to Bottineau." Registration closed at 5 p.m.

Linda raced home from work. "So we packed up both of our cars (theirs and Dustin's) and off we went," she said.

It was a two-hour drive from Winkler to Bottineau. The Penners arrived at 4:45, with 15 minutes to spare.

Said Linda: "We kinda left him there and hoped for the best."

Of course, the Penners didn't know it at the time - how could they? - but that last-minute decision and two-hour journey was to become a life-altering moment.

"It was probably one of the biggest days of my life," Dustin noted, in retrospect, "because it put the events in motion that would lead me on the road I took until now."

But you have to understand. It's not like the Bottineau Lumberjacks were some well-known hockey factory on the path to the NHL. The Lumberjacks didn't even have a league to play in, settling for a hodge-podge schedule of exhibition games with a few senior teams in southwest Manitoba, some other small college clubs and even high school teams.

This is a team that, more often than not, would lose to senior teams in small towns like Boissevain, population 1,500. They played in an arena dubbed the Lumberdome, a typical small-town prairie barn that seats about 750. Only half that number usually showed up for Lumberjacks games, and even fewer on the weekend.

And it's not like Penner set the world on fire, either. He was a healthy scratch more than once during his freshman year, before a cracked femur ended his season in March.

So a little perspective: When Penner's Ducks won the Cup in June, his linemates were Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

When Getzlaf was 19 and already the Ducks' first-round pick in the NHL entry draft, he helped lead Team Canada to a gold medal victory in the 2005 World Junior hockey championships in Grand Forks.

In that same tournament, a 19-year-old Perry, also a first round pick of the Ducks, played on a line with phenom Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron, now with the Boston Bruins. The Canadians went undefeated and trounced the Russians in the gold medal final. Perry then proceeded to win a Memorial Cup championship with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights after a regular season in which the slick forward recorded 130 points.

Penner? Also 19, he finished his second and final year with the Lumberjacks, scoring 20 goals in 23 games for a junior college team that finished 3-20-2.

Perhaps, then, you can understand why Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey declared that of all the hockey players in the world -- the w-o-r-l-d -- no one has improved more than Penner in the last four years.

"That's one of the things that endears us all to Penner," Hrudey told the Free Press recently. "We've sort of witnessed his growth as opposed to players who are more refined at this level."

"It can be argued that Getzlaf for sure is going to be a superstar and Perry's going to be an incredible player, but maybe the most important part of that line is Penner," Hrudey added. "Because when he plays at his best that line dominates, but when he's not at his best that whole line suffers."

Incredibly, Hrudey is talking about the same player who, in Bottineau, wasn't even considered the team's best player.

To this day, in fact, the boys on the Boissevain Border Kings can't believe they played against the same guy who scored the overtime winner last month in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final against the Ottawa Senators.

"We still laugh about it all the time now," noted Border Kings head coach Ken Pringle. "But we can't remember him playing. He didn't really stand out. I can think of a lot of good, young players that have played for Bottineau, but...."

Penner couldn't have been any further off the hockey radar unless he got on a space ship.

"I'll be honest," acknowledged Ducks assistant GM Dave McNab, from his office in Anaheim, "I've been involved with college hockey since 1973 (as a player at Wisconsin) and I've never heard of Minot State University at Bottineau -- and I lived in Minnesota for 10 years. I've never heard of any of the teams Bottineau played, either."

But something happened in Bottineau those two years which was in some ways magical. Penner kept growing. And growing.

At the end of his second season, in 2002, Penner was 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. It was a wide frame, too, not lanky and gangly like many sprouting teenagers. In other words, a body type that triggers the saliva glands of any self-respecting hockey scout.

Sure enough, a bird dog or two started sniffing around Bottineau. The OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, based in The Pas, was definitely interested. But first they wanted Penner, his college career at Bottineau over, to attend a camp in Saskatoon designed for players of all ages to showcase their talents.

Again, Penner hesitated, failing to get the registration for the camp in on time. A last-minute call to Saskatoon paved the way to get him entered for $200.

Father Terry wasn't amused.

Just before getting in the car for one more road trip, Terry Penner told his son, "This is the last 200 bucks we're going to spend on hockey."

"It's not that they didn't believe in me," Dustin explained. "It's just that it was tough on my parents seeing me get cut so often and walking around like a zombie for a couple days - and not having caught a break in the last four or five years.

"I always tried not to show (the disappointment) on the outside, but my mom saw exactly how it affected me."

Such was always the dilemma facing Terry and Linda Penner. They would do anything to support Dustin's modest hockey dreams -- like maybe someday get a major college scholarship or an offer to play junior -- but they also know how crushing it was for their son not to make the final cut. Again.

So this was going to be it: one final car trip to chase the dream, this time to Saskatoon. But no farther. Either the kid gets an offer or hockey is done.

Mother Linda was already thinking of a future where Dustin might got to university. Maybe play a little recreational hockey on the side. She just wanted her son to be happy.

Terry Penner? Secretly, he'd never given up on the boy he handed a chair for balance on the ice about 14 years before. Perhaps he was just being like any other hockey father, always believing that if the stars ever aligned, Dustin would be discovered. Nothing boastful, more hopeful.

"I guess I had the advantage of knowing him as a person and what made him tick," Terry said. "And having been around hockey, I kinda knew he had the tools.

"And he never liked to lose. Even when he played Nintendo or something. He was very competitive. It didn't matter what he did. Even if he was reading an eye chart, he'd want to read one more than you."

So it was that Dustin Penner arrived in Saskatoon in early July 2002, a virtual unknown.

Funny, though, how a chance meeting can change the course of a life. But it's OK if you have a hard time believing what happened next. Penner himself can hardly believe it.

* * *

Grant Standbrook is a hockey scout who bleeds bad coffee.

You know the kind, scouring North America's hockey rinks in a solitary pursuit of talent. From town to town to town, fueled by a tank of gas and concession food.

"I wish," he said, "that I had a buck for every hockey game I've seen."

Standbrook, a Winnipegger who taught at Churchill High School in the early 1960s, claims to have been in every hockey arena in Western Canada. Just try him.

The 69-year-old assistant head coach of the University of Maine Black Bears doesn't need a map for what he's looking for, either: "Hockey sense and heart."

But this was one trip Standbrook was regretting.

Already, his wife was upset that Standbrook decided to go to Saskatoon, of all places, to watch hockey players instead of staying for the July 4th Independence Day socializing back in Bangor, Maine.

After all, Standbrook was the only college scout in the entire arena that weekend.

"I kept saying to myself, 'What am I doing in this rink?'," Standbrook chortled. "I may have been divorced when I got back home."

The Black Bears were in the market for a defenceman, however, specifically one of the kids attending the Saskatoon camp. So dutifully, Standbrook did what he always did: Grabbed a cup of coffee, a seat, and watched.

But darned if the big defenceman under Standbrook's watch didn't just keep getting beat by some large leftwinger, who literally swooped over the defender, almost at will.

Dustin Penner.

Up in the stands, Standbrook's mouth started to water, just a little.

All the while, Penner was scoring about three points a game -- and more. Because during the first two periods of one particular game, a tough guy from Flin Flon decided a fight was required. And he decided Penner would be his dancing partner. Penner kept pushing the guy away.

"Dustin would have no part of it," Standbrook remembered.

But at the start of the third period when the players came out of the dressing room, the guy was waiting for Dustin. This time, Penner knew there were no other options. Not in a camp where players are expected to show their mettle.

"There was no question about what was going to happen," Standbrook continued. "So Dustin reluctantly takes his helmet off, takes his gloves off, sets them down on the ice...."

And?

"And he threw the only 20 punches of the fight."

Standbrook's heart fluttered, a lot.

Huge kid. Can skate. Can fight. Pretty good hands. All this, out of nowhere.

"I didn't even know he (Penner) was alive," Standbrook admitted.

At the end of camp, Penner told Standbrook his story. How he'd never made junior and played the last two years in Bottineau. Everything.

Now Standbrook knew hockey players. He'd scouted 15 years for the University of Wisconsin, where he'd served as an assistant coach for the late, legendary "Badger" Bob Johnson. Standbrook was also essentially the GM for the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team. He'd recruited future NHL stars such as Mark Johnston, Mike Richter and Tony Granato.

Since 1988, Standbrook had been with the Black Bears, one of U.S. college hockey's finest programs, with graduates including Paul Kariya, Mike Dunham and Garth Snow, all NHL veterans.

Now they wanted Lumberjack grad Dustin Penner.

Go figure.

But Grant Standbrook had an epiphany that long weekend. Immediately, he got on the phone to Winnipeg-based player agent Don Baizley and predicted: "This guy is going to play in the NHL."

So optimistic was Standbrook, in fact, that his efforts to sell the Penners on Maine rang a little suspect. Only a few days after Saskatoon, Standbrook visited the family in Winkler. They were driving through nearby Carman when they passed the sign on the outskirts of town that boasted: "Home of Stanley Cup Champion Eddie Belfour."

Standbrook turned to Penner and said: "One day we'll see that sign in Winkler."

The kid wasn't impressed.

"I'm thinking this guy is trying to blow smoke up our rear end," Penner admitted. "He was laying it on thick."

Standbrook remembers the conversation, too. "He looked at me like I had rocks in my head."

Like we said, Penner wasn't deluded. Sure, he was jacked about the possibility of playing in Maine. And it's not like Penner thought the NHL was a pipe-dream, but he was only two years from being cut by the MJHL's Flyers and light years from The League.

"I thought I was at the pinnacle of my career," Dustin said. "I could die a happy man."

It was at Maine where Penner first met his polar opposite, a Black Bears prospect named Jeff Mushaluk, a full-ride freshman who was highly recruited by almost every big-time U.S. college program.

Mushaluk immediately recognized Penner as a rough cut diamond who was treated like a second-class citizen by many of his Maine teammates, a few of whom were first-round NHL picks.

They dubbed Penner "Bottineau", a shot at his unheralded pedigree.

"We'd have intra-squad games and Penner would score half the goals on our team," Mushaluk remembered. "And guys would still make fun of him, that he couldn't skate. They'd be saying, 'Oh, it's just a practice. He'd never do it in a game.' No one ever gave him credit."

That's the thing. Penner never got to play in a real game. He was a healthy scratch for his entire freshman year, which meant that in his previous three years -- considered the most crucial to player development -- Penner played about 40-odd games, the majority of those with the Lumberjacks.

Still, he continued to practise every day with the Bears, doggedly improving his skating. And in his second season in Maine, Penner finally cracked the starting lineup.

Finally, after years in obscurity, suddenly emerged a 6-foot-4, 240-pounder who was competing, and scoring big goals, at the highest level of U.S. college hockey.

Enter Dave McNab, the Ducks assistant GM, who saw Penner early in the season and went, "Hmmm." By the time the Black Bears had advanced to the Frozen Four final, thanks to an overtime winner by Penner, McNab was up to "Ohmygawd!"

McNab was floored by evolution of Penner's game over the course of a five-month season.

It was the classic case of a hockey scout discovering a hidden gem, less hidden with every passing game.

"I was trying to keep it as low key as I could," McNab said. "Whenever I went to Maine, I always told people it was to watch another player. It was really important for me that there was secrecy for this one."

As with anyone who heard Penner's story, McNab was astounded.

"With Dustin, here's an absolute monster who played nowhere," said McNab. "He's a real fluke. With these other guys you look and say, 'OK, they played, but they were smaller. That's the reason they weren't drafted.' But they were always highly recruited and played at a high level.

"Then you get a guy like Dustin Penner and you have to say, 'Wow!'

"I've told it to people in the States because they can understand it this way: His story is like a guy being cut from his high school football team in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades and being an NFL player four years later.

"We couldn't envision he would not be a good player," McNab continued. "Anyone who's that big with such good hands, we couldn't see why he couldn't make it. I'm not going to say I thought he would roar into the NHL and score 29 goals in his first year, but I didn't doubt he would make it. He had the desire, when you met him, to succeed."

In fact, the nanosecond after the Black Bears lost the Frozen Four final to Denver, McNab, who'd spent his time in the shadows, immediately pounced. How fast? Let's just say that when Penner got back to the team's hotel room in Boston, McNabb was waiting in the hotel lobby.

"At that point, we put the full-court press on to get him signed," he said. "It was no-holds barred. I spoke to him on the phone every day for about two or three weeks.

"A lot of guys who are free agents like Dustin, they've been told so many times that they couldn't make it or they can't play, I think it's refreshing for them to run into someone at our level who believes they can make it."

Refreshing? How about mind-blowing. Here's a guy who for his entire young hockey life had been told repeatedly that he wasn't good enough being offered bonuses of upwards of $400,000 to sign with an NHL team.

And it wasn't just Anaheim, either. The New Jersey Devils offered Penner even more money.

Around the same time, the head scout of the then-Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning was trying to get hold of Penner. Only one problem: Didn't have his phone number.

No sweat, thought the industrious scout, who just began phoning every Penner in the Winkler phone book.

Dustin still chuckles at the thought.

"There's probably 10 last names in the phone book in Winkler," he said, of the town's running joke, "and there's 10,000 people."

The scout finally got Penner's uncle, who contacted father Terry.

Penner's genuine reaction?

"What's going on here? Is it April Fools?," he recalled. "I mean, it was early in April."

No joke, it turns out. On May 12th, 2004, Penner signed with the Ducks, his head still spinning.

"I couldn't get my head around it," he said. "I had to be pinching myself."

Congratulations, Bottineau, you finally made it.

* * *

On the night of June 6, 2007, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Dustin Penner touched the Stanley Cup for the second time.

But he was a lifetime, if only five years, from Deloraine.

The Ducks had just defeated the Senators 6-2 to claim the NHL title in five games. As is tradition, the players lifted the trophy over their heads, passing it from one to the other.

And all Penner could remember thinking was:

"The one thing that that was going through my head, 'When it's your turn to get the Cup, be careful'," he confessed. "The ice was soft and it had confetti all over it. Don't catch an edge and hit your ass on the ice or you'll be getting a million hits on You Tube in the next 10 minutes."

Parents Terry and Linda and sister Ashley were in the stands, and their thoughts were beginning to flood back, too.

"Of course, I thought about how many times we thought his hockey would be something he wouldn't be able to do," said Linda, who not so long ago was watching her son play in the Lumberdome. "It was like, wow! How in the world? It's immeasurable, almost. It's more than I could ever have imagined for him."

Back in Bottineau, where the town has turned into a Penner fan club - "People here subscribe to the NHL Network just because of Dustin Penner." - the young son of the Lumberjacks head coach, wearing his Ducks jersey, was running around like a wild man.

"You feel so proud of him," Rybchinski said. "It's almost like you feel he's your son. It's just amazing how he got there.

"Dustin will probably tell you he can't believe it, either. But it just goes to show you how if you work hard and really believe in yourself good things can happen."

In Boissevain, Pringle and his buddies must have been thinking, 'We played against THAT guy!?"

Mushaluk was watching, too, back in Winnipeg.

"I got emotional when that happened," Penner's old Black Bears teammate said. "He's like my brother. I couldn't be happier. I don't think he knows how far he's come to make it to this point.

"When good things happen to him he really deserves it. Not only is it good for his family, but it's good for hockey and good for anyone who's had to battle for things their whole life. "Because here's a person who hasn't been given anything. And he's done it in a short time from where he was, the rags, to the riches, you know.

"He's been dealt every bad hand you can in hockey, but he came out on top."

Yet, it seems, Penner's winding road to the NHL, much less it's pinnacle, remains a mystery to some.

"I still get stopped every so often by someone who asks, 'OK, what really happened?'", noted Penner's uncle, Dale Janzen. "How can somebody at age 17, 18, 19, 20 be nowhere and then next thing be on the Stanley Cup winning team -- and having something to do with it? For some people, that's hard to understand.

"It's surreal. It's a fairy tale story."

Yes, a fairy tale that began with a last-minute car ride to a tiny North Dakota college, and ended with a bunch or rowdy Finns yelling, "Penner! Penner! Wake up!!"

And Dustin Penner did wake up that morning, in the land of make-believe.

But the Finns were already gone, off to hunt for another place to prolong their revelry.

So Dustin Penner rolled over and went back to sleep.

Perchance, to dream.

Dustin Penner's

regular-season stats:

2001-2002: MSU Bottineau, 23 GP, 20 G, 13 A, 33 Pts

2002-2003: University of Maine, red shirt.

2003-2004: University of Maine, 43 GP, 11 G, 12 A, 23 Pts

2004-2005: Cincinnati (AHL) Mighty Ducks, 77 GP, 10 G, 18 A, 28 Pts

2005-2006: Cincinnati (AHL) Mighty Ducks, 57 GP, 39 G, 45 A, 84 Pts

2005-2006: Anaheim (NHL) Mighty Ducks, 19 GP, 4 G, 3 A, 7 Pts

2006-2007: Anaheim (NHL) Ducks 82 GP, 29 G, 16 A, 45 Pts.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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