Penner 'staying classy' in Edmonton
The phone rang and it was Dustin Penner at the other end of the line. Actually, as it turns out, it was Ron Burgundy.
"I'm looking for Pierre from ES-PEN," Penner said.
Perhaps he was surprised we just happened to be a Ron Burgundy aficionado.
"Ron Burgundy doing the ESPN audition in the 'Anchorman' outtakes, right?" we asked.
"Yep," Penner confessed.
And so, we began a 20-minute conversation that had its serious moments, but mostly reverted to laughs whenever possible. The Oilers winger, it would appear, has not lost his ability to laugh through two tormenting seasons in Edmonton. In fact, it probably saved him.
"I try to maintain my sense of humor," said Penner. "It's easier when things are going well, obviously."
It isn't lost on him that after being the butt of many jokes, he is now the flavor of the moment thanks to a red-hot start to the season. This time around, Penner is making headlines for all the right reasons.
"I was getting a lot of attention last year, just not this kind," Penner said with a laugh.
"It's nice to see a smile on his face," Oilers president Kevin Lowe told ESPN.com on Tuesday. Lowe was still GM when he signed Penner in the summer of 2007. "At the end of the day, we're all just people, and for anybody to have to go through some of that stuff, it's not fair ... and to see the comfort in the way he's playing, it's nice to see."
Why? Because the pressure to perform was on Penner from the day he signed with the Oilers.
His arrival in Edmonton in the summer of 2007 came amid a nasty feud between Lowe and then-Ducks GM Brian Burke over Penner's five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet, an offer sheet the Oilers wouldn't have even offered Penner had the Buffalo Sabres not matched a previous offer sheet that summer to star winger Thomas Vanek.
(Also, the Oilers likely would have never even given Vanek an offer sheet had Michael Nylander not reneged on what the Edmonton brass believed was a done deal on July 1, 2007. Nylander changed his mind, the Sabres matched Edmonton's offer sheet to Vanek and up came Penner.)
The Ducks had little room under the salary cap and grudgingly let Penner walk in exchange for a package of draft picks. But that didn't stop the vicious public feuding between Burke and Lowe. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had to intervene and tell them both to zip it.
"It was interesting," Penner said of the feud. "You kind of cringed. You felt like you were in the middle of your parents fighting. I had a good time in Anaheim and had always liked Burkie. It was tough, but it made for good TV."
Lowe, recalling the feud with Burke, said: "I'd like to think it was more of a one-sided battle."
The point is, it was a heck of a way for a player to make an entrance into a passionate hockey market like Edmonton.
"No question," Lowe said. "If it's a non-Canadian market, it's probably half of what it was, or 20 percent of what it was."
Penner's weight was also an issue. Then-Oilers coach Craig MacTavish himself put it out there for public consumption when he made Penner a healthy scratch in November 2008.
"He's not competitive enough or fit enough to help us, so why put him back in? He's never been fit enough to help us," MacTavish told reporters at the time. "We signed him to be a top-two line player and that's kind of where it ended. The difference was we thought the contract was a starting point, and he's viewed it as a finish line. I can't watch it for ... certainly not another two-and-a-half years."
Radio callers then started to call him "Dustin Penne."
In Penner's second season of the five-year, $21.25 million contract, he posted 17 goals and 20 assists in 78 games, all the while locking heads with MacTavish, hearing taunts from fans and knowing full well the Oilers were shopping him around the league. This past summer, Penner was part of a deal that was supposed to send himself, Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid to Ottawa for Dany Heatley, a deal Heatley nixed with his no-movement clause.
"Hey, that's life in professional sports, expect the unexpected," Lowe said. "As tough as it was on Dustin in both circumstances, the way I would be and I suspect he is, you appreciate the fact you have an opportunity to play professional hockey. You don't ever underestimate how fortunate you are. All the other stuff you just deal with the best you can."
But Penner stayed put and showed up for his third season in Edmonton more ready than ever. The result has been a team-leading 15 points (8-7) in 12 games.
So what happened?
"There's a lot of variables at play into how I started the season," Penner said. "Each one has a different size and piece in the pie. Some have more merit than others."
That was a subtle hint to your ESPN.com reporter -- don't make too big a deal about his weight loss. But no matter who you talk to, people who cover the Oilers will tell you Penner is now in the best shape of his NHL career. But you can excuse Penner if he's a little sensitive about the topic.
"I'm not sensitive to the point where it hurts my feelings, it's sensitive from the fact that people get so focused on it," said Penner. "People are like, 'Well, that's it right there.' If it was, then I'd write a book and get it on The New York Times' bestseller list on how to lose weight and get 15 points in 11 games. You know what I mean?
"For me, it's a small piece of the puzzle," he continued. "I've used the same trainer in Newport Beach [Calif.] for the last two summers, same kind of exercises. There wasn't a huge overhaul in that department."
Lowe also downplayed the weight loss.
"The discussion about his weight was such a public one, you'd think by the sounds of it that he had showed up to camp like an offensive lineman or like Keith Tkachuk did a couple of years ago after the lockout," said the Oilers' president. "It wasn't anything like that, but that's what coaches typically gravitate to if a performance isn't at a [certain] level."
Whatever the reason, he's a different player on the ice. He gets from A to Z so much quicker these days. The puck seems to follow him.
"I do feel faster," said Penner. "I've watched some of my shifts on tape."
I'm not sensitive to the point where it hurts my feelings, it's sensitive from the fact that people get so focused on it. People are like, 'Well, that's it right there.' If it was, then I'd write a book and get it on The New York Times' bestseller list on how to lose weight and get 15 points in 11 games.” -- Dustin Penner on how much focus has been put on his weight since arriving in Edmonton
Perhaps he's simply had his eureka moment. The 27-year-old would be following in the long line of power wingers that have taken a bit longer to figure it out. From Cam Neely to John LeClair to Todd Bertuzzi to Johan Franzen, they all took two or three NHL seasons to find their A-game.
"Anticipating is a huge part of it because I'm already moving my feet because I know where the puck is going to go and I'm confident I want to get it," Penner said of his new mindset. "Before, it was like, 'Geez, if I touch the puck now, I could screw up and I'll just compound a problem that's already there.' So when you're tentative, you tend to look lethargic and slow."
The mental improvements have been just as important as the physical ones. To that end, Penner credits the help he's received from a Newport Beach-based firm called Personal Management Consultants, a company owned by baseball mega-agent Scott Boras. Penner's agent remains Edmonton-based Gerry Johannson, whom he credited for also helping him get through the past two seasons. But Penner also signed on with the Boras folks and they helped get things in order off the ice.
"They're new to hockey, but they understand the life of a professional athlete," said Penner. "They've been instrumental in helping me with that part and understanding the game. Their whole company is very good at what they do. They made me at peace for my life outside of hockey, which is probably helping me on the ice."
A new coach in Edmonton hasn't hurt, either, as Pat Quinn replaced MacTavish this past offseason.
"It was nice for me just because it was tough dealing with that," said Penner. "We didn't see eye to eye on occasion. Now, I got a clean slate with Pat Quinn and [assistants] Tom Renney and Wayne Fleming. It's worked out. They've created an environment for the team and me that is pretty positive."
And if things get tough again this season, there's always that sense of humor. Last Thursday night, after a career-high five-point night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, an evening capped by a standing ovation from the folks at Rexall Place, good ol' Ron Burgundy showed up in the postgame interview.
So Dustin, how about that career night and standing ovation?
"Felt like skyrockets in flight," deadpanned Penner to the Edmonton media.
Penner said he's not sure people always know when he's joking or quoting movies.
"Some people call me maybe arrogant or cocky, which doesn't really affect me because my friends understand, they get it, they pick up on the movie quotes and references," said Penner. "I'm still just a regular guy and that's what my buddies and I do."
Last week, Penner had some buddies up from Newport Beach, guys who work at a bar called Sharkeez. There's a walkway connecting the Oilers' dressing room to the ice area where fans can catch a glimpse of their heroes as they march out. The boys from Sharkeez gave it to Penner as he walked by.
"They were standing there yelling movie line quotes and that's the first time I've broken up laughing walking through there," Penner said. "My buddies were dying laughing."
That sense of humor may not have gone down well with the locals a year ago.
"When things are going well, they say he's got a great sense of humor," Lowe said. "When things aren't going so well and he behaves that way, they say he's not serious enough, he doesn't care enough. The one thing I know about this sport for certain is that you're never as bad or things are never as bad as they seem, or you're never as good and things are never as great as they seem."
Edmonton isn't a big place; you can't hide if you play for the Oilers. But these days, walking around town is a whole lot easier for Penner.
"It's a lot more fun here now than it was before, when it was, 'Penner is a bum,'" Penner said. "Now it's, 'I knew you could do it, I never said a bad thing about you.'"
Those same fans who booed him last season were on their feet for that ovation against Columbus. Penner being Penner, he had fun with that, too.
"It was a great feeling. I didn't expect that," he said "Although, I wasn't really sure at first. I was looking around and wondering, 'Me?' I didn't stand up just in case [the ovation] was for somebody else and they started booing me if I stood up."
Will the real Dustin Penner stand up? We think he has this season.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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