GLENDALE – Both hockey in general and the NHL in particular are chock full of outstanding people. And they don’t get much better than Toronto Maple Leafs pro scout Mike Penny, who is celebrating 50 years in the game this season.
Mike Penny discovered Pavel Bure. He doesn’t go around bragging about that, even though it’s one of those career-defining achievements. The 72-year-old was working as the chief scout of the Vancouver Canucks at the time and it’s interesting to note that, like Penny, the Canucks are celebrating their 50th anniversary. While it’s acknowledged that both Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and a number of other players, had better careers as Canucks, Bure is the most dynamic, superstar level player ever to don a Canucks uniform.
For those of you not familiar with the story, the Canucks took Bure in the 1989 draft and other teams went berserk. The Detroit Red Wings, who had already taken Mike Sillinger, Bob Boughner, Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov by the time the Canucks took Bure 113th (and would get Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov in later rounds to round out the greatest draft in NHL history), had every intention of taking Bure, but thought he was ineligible. But more on that later.
The Griffiths family, who owned the Canucks at the time, was starting to make inroads in the former Soviet Union and kept inquiring about how to get one of their best young players. So Penny started going there. If this were today, the hockey world would have known Bure by the time he was 13 or 14, but so much of that country and its players were shrouded in secrecy. It was a very different time. Penny remembers going to Moscow and checking into a hotel that had two channels. “One had the ballet,” Penny recalled, “and the other had Soviet tank maneuvers.”
The Canucks had already taken Igor Larionov in the 1985 draft and KLM linemate Vladimir Krutov the next year and both would go on to play for the Canucks. Two years later, Penny was in Moscow watching the Red Army practice and inquired to Larionov about a small, dynamic forward who stood out from the others. “I asked Larionov, ‘Who’s that guy?’ ” Penny said. “And he said, ‘Oh, he’s a young kid they brought up. His name is Bure.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really. How old is he?’ And Larionov said, ‘Oh, 16 or 17.’ If you look at the teams (former Red Army and Soviet national team coach Viktor) Tikhonov had at those times, and I’m thinking, ‘This kid is playing with those guys? Put him on your radar screen.’ ”
By the time Bure’s draft year came around, he was well known by scouts. After all, he was playing in the top Soviet League and had torn apart the 1989 World Junior Championship in Alaska with linemates Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. Any team could have taken him in the first three rounds, but with no guarantees he would ever play, none did. At that time, in order to take a European junior aged player after the third round, he had to have played at least 11 International Ice Hockey Federation-sanctioned games with his country’s men’s national team and it was generally thought that Bure had only played 10. And that’s where Penny’s diligence became his biggest advantage.
That season, Penny had been in Finland over Christmas and was told by European scout Goran Stubb that the Soviet national team was playing against Finland in Vierumaki on Christmas Day and Bure would be playing. Penny borrowed Stubb’s car and drove to the game and was the only scout there. For some reason, that game was not included in the total, but Penny knew it should be because it was recorded on an IIHF scoresheet. And that game gave Bure the 11 games he needed to be eligible.
“We were in Minnesota for the draft and it came to our pick and I said, ‘Pat (Canucks GM Quinn), take this guy,’ ” Penny said. “And I said, ‘Yes, he is. Let’s take him. What have we got to lose with a sixth-round pick? If he’s not eligible, who cares?’ ”
The pick was suspended for a league investigation. Brian Burke argued the case to the league on behalf of the Canucks and prevailed. A little more than two years later, Bure was in the Canucks lineup and one of the most dynamic, jaw-dropping, frustrating and, ultimately, acrimonious careers in Vancouver got its start.
Penny began his management career when he was hired by the New York Rangers as an amateur scout in 1970, doing college scouting on the weekends and scouting for the Kitchener Rangers (in the days when NHL teams still had affilations with junior teams). He went on to become GM of the Kitchener Rangers in 1975 and stayed there until he was hired by the Canucks in 1981. It was there that he forged a friendship with Pat Quinn when the latter was hired as coach of the Canucks in 1990.
“I didn’t know Pat personally and the first time I met him was in Detroit at the Great Lakes college tournament,” Penny said. “I walked up and said, ‘Pat, Mike Penny. I’m your chief scout.’ He said, ‘Were.’ I said, ‘Hold it, big guy.’ ” Once Quinn became GM in Toronto, he hired Penny as his director of player personnel in 2000 and Penny has been with the Leafs ever since.
One of the game’s great all-time storytellers, Penny talked about a scouting trip to Molot Perm to view a goalie by the name of Nikolai Khabibulin. Shortly after taking off, Penny noticed that there were dogs and chickens emerging from the washroom. “We’re flying along and on comes the pilot, talking Russian. I don’t know what he’s saying,” Penny said. “A British guy is sitting next to me and he says, ‘What did he say?’ And I said, ‘They’re all out of red wine and there aren’t enough meals for anybody. How am I supposed to know what he said.’ A Russian guy beside me said, ‘We have engine problem.’ We landed someplace in the middle of nowhere. We ended up stuck there and I never saw Khabibulin.’ ”
So Penny missed out on Khabibulin, but that happens. He also hasn’t won a Stanley Cup. But he still has one year after this one on his contract and perhaps if the Leafs pick up their socks…
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