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As seen in the Spring 2013 issue.

Laugh if you dare
NHL power forward Dustin Penner may be intimidating to play against, but he isn't afraid to show off his funny side.
By Steve Macfarlane | Photography by Gary Livingston

During the NHL lockout, some players headed to Europe to hone their hockey skills. Others sought out a regular ice time close to home. Los Angeles Kings winger Dustin Penner used his ties in nearby Hollywood to work on his comedic timing.

With connections to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, the self-proclaimed comedy enthusiast sought an opportunity to do something different -- a distraction from the debate over whether the millionaire players or billionaire owners were on the right side of the League’s second labour stoppage in less than a decade.

The resulting was an entertaining one minute and 45 seconds on Conan. You can track down the clip on YouTube featuring the big-bodied winger punching, tripping and bodychecking fellow ‘interns’ on the show before delivering, on a pair of inline skates, a (clearly empty) cup of coffee to the faux-fear-stricken host.
 

“I never thought I’d have an opportunity to do that. It’s one things I’ll look back on later in my life and can smile and say I can’t believe I did that coming from where I grew up,” says the small-town Winkler, Manitoba product over the phone during a recent Kings road trip.

It’s not quite in Cam Neely, Dumb and Dumber territory, but the slapstick TV bit is an example of one of the many kinds of comedy in which Penner takes pleasure.

“Oh, it’s on a constant repeat cycle on the TV in my house,” Penner deadpans, waiting a second or two to let that ridiculous idea sink in. “I’ve probably seen it three times. Maybe five.”

Not everybody appreciates Penner’s difficult-to-define sense of humour. If it’s genetics, it’s impossible to pin that funny bone on just one family member. His mom, Linda, has a sharp wit. There’s also a story that his grandfather pulled up to the handicapped entrance for the Pan-Am Games and when told he couldn’t park there, he replied that he only had one left leg. He got in.

Wherever it comes from, the dry, sarcastic wit that got the now-6’4” Penner beaten up as a kid before his big growth spurt has had the unintended side effect of his words being tough for some to interpret. You can’t always tell whether he’s being subtly funny or if his inner smartass is just impossible to restrain.

Even teammate Anze Kopitar admitted to Kings media members that it took him a while to get used to it.

“Probably very sarcastic, I would say. I guess you’ve got to hang out with him quite a bit before you understand him,” Kopitar said last spring. “To be honest, I had trouble at first, when he got here, but once you hang out with him, it’s pretty funny.”

It’s contributed to Penner becoming a polarizing figure in the NHL. Most either love him or hate him.

“We’re pushing a movement here to make sure people find me funny,” jokes Penner, who first flirted with controversy when he left the Anaheim Ducks and signed a five-year, $21.25-million offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers during the summer of 2007. The Ducks didn’t match.

It cost the Oilers several picks in the first three rounds of the next year’s draft, and despite scoring 93 goals and 186 points over 304 games in Oil country, Penner was hounded by high expectations that came with the hefty price tag of $4.25-million per season. He was accused of questionable conditioning and a lack of desire before being dealt to the Kings at the trade deadline in 2011.

That return to the State of California led to his second Stanley Cup championship -- having won the Cup in his first full season with the Ducks back in 2006-07 -- and Penner seemingly had the last laugh.

But his year wasn’t full of start-to-finish smiles. Penner played just 65 games during the regular season, netting a career-low seven goals and 17 points. He was dealing with a wrist injury that required surgery in the off-season, and was hurt in the now infamous pancake incident when his back locked up as he sat down to enjoy his morning flapjacks.

He rebounded with a strong playoff performance, scoring three times -- including the series-clinching goal against the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference final -- and added eight assists in 20 post-season contests. Taking a pay cut from the $4.25-million he previously netted, Penner rejoined the Kings on July 1 with on a one-year deal worth $3.25 million.

As his Twitter bio suggests, however, he remains a lightning rod for criticism. Penner has found himself in and out of the lineup this season, and his head coach Darryl Sutter continues to toss his name out to the media as an underachiever.

Somehow, Penner still finds ways to laugh, and make others do the same. While talking with reporters about being a healthy scratch for four straight games, he compared himself to a dog in a car waiting to be let out. Someone asked if the windows were open.

“Just a half inch so I can’t get my snout out,” said Penner, who named his German shepherd Casey Ryback after the Steven Seagal character in Under Siege.

Humour, if you haven’t yet guessed, has been a great coping mechanism for Penner during his rollercoaster career and at times rickety personal life, which has included multiple stalkers and a very public divorce featured on TMZ.

He even turned the overblown pancake incident into a charity effort at IHOP. “Pancakes with Penner” featured 75 hungry Kings fans and their guests contributing funds to the Kings Care Foundation so they could mow down on a stack with one of their hockey heroes.

“Yeah, they say humour comes from pain. Maybe that’s why I’m so funny,” Penner says, the line still blurred between serious and sarcastic. “I think everybody can agree there’s not a better simple pleasure in life than having a good laugh. No matter what, I always find things funny.

“I surround myself with good people and really funny people.”

That, and a collection of old-school video games which help him take his mind off the pressures that come with being a professional athlete.

While rehabilitating his surgically repaired wrist last summer, Penner picked up the classics on the Internet.

“I bought Super Nintendo, Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64,” Penner says enthusiastically. “When my buddies from college come down, we usually just throw 20 bucks on the table and play Mario Golf.”

The graphics aren’t nearly as impressive as today’s virtually lifelike action games, but Tecmo Bowl and the Sega Genesis 16-bit hockey series of the 1990s have a simple and fun feel the 30-year-old appreciates. There’s enough complication in the real-life game.

“I don’t get to play that often during the season, but in the off-season, we get it set up and play for days,” he says of the old gaming consoles.

He’ll mix in a little Call of Duty on the Xbox, but there’s something nostalgic about the retro games that brings this kid from a town of 11,000 back to his video game roots. When he and his University of Maine buddies, Jeff Mushaluk and Travis Wight, get together, the old-school battle is on.

Mario Golf, though, has some competition. The trackball arcade machine Golden Tee has eaten more than a few of Penner’s coins over the years, and tops his list of barroom games to bring home if he ever gets the urge to add one to his collection of classics.

Then again, neither of those video games compares to swinging a real club, and being in California year-round gives him plenty of time to hit the links.

“It’s great. You don’t see any snow,” says Penner, whose hometown hit lows near minus-30°C as he spoke. “There’s nothing to complain about in California.”

Newport Beach may be home now, but his preferred walk through the sand would be to get to his golf ball if it skipped through a trap during a round.

“I’ll go to the beach, but I wouldn’t say I’m a beach guy,” he says. “I’d rather go golf or hang out with friends. If they want to go to the beach, I will, but it’s not really something where I really want to go lie in the sand and get sand in my face and in my bologna sandwich.”

Even if he moves on from the Kings when he hits the open market again as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Penner may never call another city home in the off-season. The culture suits him all too well in Los Angeles. Another of his passions is music. Specifically, electronic dance music, and there may be no better scene in the world than the American West Coast for that.

In fact, Penner’s iPod is always plugged in and playing loudly at the rink. “I’m the one who picks the warmup music that we come out to, that’s played in the room,” he says, admitting his first concert was the Dixie Chicks with his mom. He also went through a Metallica phase.

“I still enjoy every kind of music but right now it’s different variations of house and trance. It started listening to it 10 or 11 years ago and now it’s the most popular in the world. Every other weekend, 50,000-100,000 people are gathering to watch these shows.”

Or about five-to-10 times the population of Winkler, where his two Cups have made him the local sports icon. A banner that depicts Penner kissing the Cup last spring now hangs large in the city’s arena.

“I haven’t been there yet to see it, but one day when I get back there and walk into that rink and see my banner up there, it will be pretty special,” says Penner. “It’s already special.”

Seriously.

Check out more exclusive photos of Dustin Penner from his photo shoot with TFP.

For more stories from the Spring 2013 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.
 


 

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