Penner finally comes up King-sized
Known for his pancakes injury, Penner has a game that hasn't matched his size
A runt in high school, Penner ballooned but was a longshot to make the NHL
Spurred by Darryl Sutter, he has 3 goals, 8 assists in the Kings' playoff run
LOS ANGELES -- Dustin Penner, whose observations of the world are sharply drawn, is not the lunatic fringe of the Kings' magnificent run to the cusp of the Stanley Cup.
No, his beard carries that description.
The growth is luxuriant, thick and black, ideally suited for a lumber camp if this hockey thing doesn't work out, which, at times, depending on the moods of his coaches, still seems like it might not. Penner says the beard tickles his ears, as if someone or something is touching him. Of course, this has been the springtime privilege of NHL players for 30 years since the dynastic Islanders sported beards and made playoff facial hair all the rage. Life, liberty and the hirsute of happiness -- all guaranteed to Stanley Cup finalists.
GALLERY: Great playoff beards
Sixteen teams stop shaving in April, and only one wins the Cup in June. This would make a rational person believe that beards have no intrinsic karmic value. Facial foliage can, however, make a man appear larger and more menacing, which can only help someone like Penner, who, on Jeff Carter's Game 2 overtime goal for the Kings, cuddled up to Devils goalie Martin Brodeur's crease and screened.
The matter of size always has defined Penner, who skates the wing with Mike Richards and Carter on the Kings' impressive second line. In high school in Manitoba -- Winkler (pop. 10,670) -- he was a runt: 5'-6" and 120 pounds through 11th grade. He spurted in one year, entering junior college at 6'-2" and 210 before growing to his current height. When asked his size last week, Penner replied, "6-4, two mmmmmm."
Penner is listed at 245, but it certainly is his prerogative to fudge -- which is different than being allowed to eat fudge. Until he perked up in the playoffs, Penner, whose conditioning level has been questioned throughout his career, had been having a grim year: seven goals, 10 assists and minus seven in 65 regular-season games. And that was the good part. He was going through a messy, public divorce. He also sustained the most ludicrous-sounding injury in sports: the Curse of Aunt Jemima.
In January, Penner said his back locked when, as he told Rich Hammond of L.A. Kings Insider, "I just leaned over to dip into some delicious pancakes that my wife made." (You always compliment the chef, even if, like Penner, you wind up doing lawyers at 20 paces.) Penner is extraordinarily clever. He grasped that you can handle ridicule in two ways: take it or turn it around. Penner subverted the flapjack flap by poking fun at himself, raising $3,000 for charity at a Los Angeles-area IHOP. It takes a big man to do something like that, even one who grew into his girth.
You do not play high school hockey in Canada because you are a wonderful player. You play high school hockey in Canada because you are not good enough to play major junior hockey or any of the layered tiers below it. (When asked if knew of any other Canadian-born NHL player who had played in high school, Penner said he couldn't think of one.)
You do not play junior college hockey in Minot, N.D., basically barnstorming against any team that will play you, because an NHL future awaits. You do not eventually make it to the University of Maine and skate like Bambi -- "Guys asked if this was my first year playing hockey," he says -- and anticipate that one day Anaheim general manager Brian Burke will threaten to rent a barn and fight Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe because the Oilers have signed you to a bloated offer sheet.
"The blessing is also the curse," Penner says. "If you're smaller, you can hide yourself better. But when you're usually the biggest guy on the ice, you tend to stick out like a sore thumb." Pause. "Especially when you're not moving.
"I was a centerman until college," Penner continues. "That helped me. I tried to be a playmaker, a passer, a scorer. That developed my skills ... I heard from [assistant coach] Dan Bylsma my first year in [AHL] Cincinnati that you have to find your game, that you have to know what you're going to hang your hat on as a player."
Bylsma, now the Penguins' coach, nudged Penner down the boulder-strewn path of a prototypical power forward, a role that suits his physique but not his natural inclinations. This has sorely tried the patience of some of his coaches. Once asked if it were indeed true he was Randy Carlyle's favorite whipping boy with the Ducks, Penner told SI, "Nine out of 10 dentists would agree."
Craig MacTavish also housed Penner in Le Chateau Bow Wow in Edmonton because he did he not sense sufficient commitment. (Penner scored a career-high 32 goals in 2009-10 under a new Oilers coach, Pat Quinn.) The Kings' Darryl Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray last December, is not a lollipop-and-rainbow fellow. He scratched Penner for three straight games and five times in a stretch of six matches. Upon reinserting his 29-year-old winger into the lineup, the coach said, "It's not just giving him another shot. He's a veteran. He better step up to the plate. It's very simple. He went out of the lineup because he was horse....so he'd better step up to the plate or he might not get another look."
Although stepping up to the plate proved dangerous in the aforementioned breakfast incident, Penner says, "It's been a great coach-player relationship for me. The knee jerk reaction when he was hired here, especially what I'd heard about him when I was playing in Edmonton, is you don't know what to expect. He seems very rough on the exterior. But once you get to know him ... I really like playing for him."
Certainly Penner has responded in the playoffs. He has three goals (including the overtime conference final winner against Phoenix) and eight assists as the Kings have moved to within one win of the franchise's first Cup, after an impressive 4-0 victory over New Jersey on Monday. One of his cousins calls him "Claude Lemieux" -- after the right winger who won four Cups in a career that included championship stints with the Canadiens, Avalanche and Devils -- because "I'm doing now in the playoffs what I should have done during the regular season."
So, is it nice to have the focus on your play rather than your sense of humor?
"I think [my play] tends to make me a lot funnier than I am."