“You don’t have a lot of time to think about (it) during the season,” said Penner, a member of the Anaheim Ducks. “This isn’t surreal to me anymore. This organization does such a good job of teaching young players and turning them into pros.”
Penner had few hockey-playing options when he arrived at Minot State University-Bottineau in 2000.
“I thought I’d play a couple years in Bottineau,” he said, “then maybe put in a couple of years at a (NCAA) Division III school, then go find a job.”
Penner has found a job with the Ducks. The six-foot-four, 245-pound native of Winkler, Man., has 29 goals and 16 assists this season.
There was a time when Penner didn’t allow himself to even think about becoming a professional hockey player.
He played high school hockey in Winkler – about 130 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg – after the local AAA midget and junior teams cut him.
Penner agreed to play at MSU-Bottineau only because his cousin, Darryl, was there. He suffered a leg injury that cut short his first season. He had 20 goals and 13 assists in 23 games the following season.
“Dustin is a really competitive person,” said Lumberjacks coach Travis Rybchinski, who led the school to a National Junior College Athletic Association title in 2003 and again this year. “We lost a lot that year and I think he got frustrated with the losing.
“But he was a great player for us. He scored four goals in a game three times that year.”
After Penner’s playing days were over at Bottineau, a recruiting co-ordinator for the University of Maine spotted him at a hockey camp in Saskatchewan.
Penner made a name for himself with the Bears, a perennial NCAA Division I power, and later flourished with American Hockey League teams in Cincinnati and Portland after being signed by the Ducks.
Penner said he has fond memories of his earlier years in hockey.
“I loved playing at Bottineau and Maine, but if I do something wrong, I don’t think ‘Oh, that’s because I wasn’t good enough to play midgets,”‘ he said. “I’m a pro now, and that’s how I think of myself.”