The road less travelled

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:05 PM ET

It was about a week ago, and Dustin Penner was in sunny Anaheim, Calif., talking about what he'd have to do to stay in the NHL.

A product of Winkler, Penner had been called up from the minors by the Mighty Ducks three games earlier. And while the 6-foot-4, 230-pound winger had been plenty noticeable, he was still your typical nervous, insecure rookie.

"Because now you feel like you have to do something to stay here," Penner said at the time. "Something out of the ordinary."

Turns out the 23-year-old was quite the soothsayer: the next night, he scored his first two NHL goals in a win over the Phoenix Coyotes.

Penner has added a couple of assists, too, in his first six games.

Not bad for someone who was never drafted and who never played junior hockey.

That's Penner, though -- continually bucking the odds by taking one of the least-travelled roads imaginable to the NHL.

Maybe it's all those years off the beaten track that keeps Penner's feet firmly rooted to the ground.

Reached in Buffalo, N.Y., yesterday, where the Ducks take on the Sabres tonight, the guy still sounded very much like someone whose first crack at the big leagues could be taken away from him at any time.

No, he's not buying property in California, just yet.

"I'm not taking anything for granted," Penner said. "Hopefully, I can earn my spot. But I still feel like I'm on a trial basis."

What about the two goals, which gives Penner as many two-goal games this season as Teemu Selanne, Anaheim's leading scorer?

"It doesn't hurt, that's for sure."

And that's about as much satisfaction as Penner will allow himself.

Not that he isn't wide-eyed as a kid at Christmas.

He had to pinch himself when the Ducks took on Dallas, then the Detroit Red Wings in his first two games.

"Playing against Modano and Guerin and Marty Turco," Penner began. "And then against the Red Wings with Yzerman, Shanahan and Lidstrom, you look on the ice and go, 'I have to play against these guys?'"

Apparently, it's all happened a little quickly, even for him.

Sounds like he isn't the only one who's pleasantly surprised.

"His development has been rapid," Anaheim head coach Randy Carlyle told the Los Angeles Times. "He's come a long way in a short period of time."

After sitting out the 2002-03 season -- he red-shirted at the University of Maine -- Penner played one year of college and one with Cincinnati of the AHL.

This season, he was tearing up the AHL (11 goals in 16 games) when the Ducks ran into injury trouble and decided they'd better take a closer look.

Wasn't good enough

"Dustin has size and a relatively strong skill set, particularly for a big man," Anaheim GM Brian Burke said, via e-mail, yesterday.

Until recently, though, he's always been told he wasn't good enough.

Heck, the guy couldn't make the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior League a few years back.

"Playing with better players -- it brings up your intensity and work ethic," Penner said, trying to explain his rapid rise. "I got more comfortable playing pro hockey my second year. I felt more like I belonged. Everything started to slow down for me at the AHL level."

And now he's trying to keep up with the likes of Selanne, whom Penner used to watch, way back when.

"Teemu probably doesn't want to hear it," Penner said. "But I remember watching him in the Winnipeg Arena. To be able to play on the same line as him is something pretty special."

This whole season is turning out to be pretty special.

"It's hard to explain," Penner said. "I guess you could say it's a dream come true, and all the proper cliches apply. I'm just having the time of my life."


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