Dustin Penner, Eric Fehr and Winkler, Manitoba


(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

The Caps roster includes players from Gavle, Sweden, and Trebic, Czech Republic; from Wawota, Saskatchewan, and North York, Ontario; from Minnetonka, Minn., and Natick, Mass.

It’s a pleasant mixture of far-flung countries and towns, with major cities like Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary mixed in.

Also, there are two players from Winkler, Manitoba. Winkler’s population recently grew from 9,000 and change to 10,000 and change. It was a big increase. It’s still a pretty small place.

The addition of Dustin Penner, though, doubled the team’s Winklerite presence. Eric Fehr, of course, is from Winkler, and once gave me quite a sales pitch:

“I love to be interviewed about Winkler, Manitoba,” he told me. “We’re a city now. It’s starting to boom a little bit. We’ve got a Superstore, we just got a Wal-Mart, and some bigger buildings. How do you call those things?”

“Skyscrapers?” I suggested.

“Not skyscrapers,” he replied. “More industry, they’re coming in. There’s some big factories. We have Triple E, it’s a huge RV sales place. You know, they pretty much give RVs to everyone in Canada. There’s a couple other big places; Lode King makes semi-trailers for lots of people across Canada and the U.S.”

And how’s the agriculture? Why, I thought you’d never ask.

“The farmland is rich, the soil is really, really good,” Fehr said.

Good soil or not, you’d imagine that in a city that small, every famous pro athlete would somehow be connected. You’d be right.

“We’ve played high school hockey together a number of years ago and we skate with each other in the summer and stuff,” Fehr told the Patriot News in 2006, when Tim Leone noted that Winkler led the world in per-capita AHL goals. “We’ve got a bit of a rivalry with each other.”

“I grew up with him and played high school hockey with him,” Fehr told Corey Masisak in 2009 “I hung out with a little bit – not too much. He was a little older than me.”

From the Winnipeg Free Press in 2008:

In an interview, Dustin couldn’t explain why there is sudden surge of hockey players from Winkler knocking on the NHL’s door but he follows their progress with great interest. For example, he was aware that highly-touted Winklerite Eric Fehr of the Washington Capitals played this week for the first time in a year. His career has been threatened by a herniated disc.

“It’s exciting to see the guys get as far as they have and hopefully they’ll reach their goals. It’s especially good to see Eric back.”

Edwin Penner, Dustin’s uncle…coached pure scorer Eric Fehr, drafted 18th overall by the Washington Capitals, David Schulz; who was taken in the seventh round by Vancouver; and Josh Froese, who is playing college hockey in Massachusetts right now — all on the same team.

Penner — who has also been given an honorary certificate of citizenship in Winnipeg — is known for his size now, but that wasn’t the case in the Winkler years. From the Globe and Mail in 2006:

Growing up in Winkler, Man., Penner played high-school hockey only because he couldn’t make the local junior team. From there, he attended an obscure junior college – Minot-State Bottineau – just across the border in North Dakota for two seasons.

In the summer of 2002, he attended a last-chance tryout camp in Saskatoon, where a University of Maine assistant coach named Grant Standbrook turned up.

Standbrook, a former college teammate of [NHL personnel man David] McNab, was there to see someone else play, but his eyes couldn’t stray from Penner, who by then had had his growth spurt and suddenly developed an eye-popping physique.

“When I entered high school, I was 5-6 and 120 pounds,” Penner said in an interview. “I grew late. Between Grade 11 and 12, I grew about six inches. I was about 6-2 after high school and I stayed 6-2 through most of my junior college days. Then I grew a couple of more inches between junior college and Maine and topped out at 230 pounds after Maine, and now I’m about 6-4, 245. I didn’t finish growing until I was 21 or 22.”

The Winnipeg Free Press takes up the story from there:

So optimistic was Standbrook, in fact, that his efforts to sell the Penners on Maine rang a little suspect. Only a few days after Saskatoon, Standbrook visited the family in Winkler. They were driving through nearby Carman when they passed the sign on the outskirts of town that boasted: “Home of Stanley Cup Champion Eddie Belfour.”

Standbrook turned to Penner and said: “One day we’ll see that sign in Winkler.”

The kid wasn’t impressed.

“I’m thinking this guy is trying to blow smoke up our rear end,” Penner admitted. “He was laying it on thick.”

Standbrook remembers the conversation, too. “He looked at me like I had rocks in my head.”

In 2007, that same paper recorded the festivities when Penner — the first Winklerite to have his name etched onto the Stanley Cup — brought that trophy home.

Winkler Mayor Martin Harder presented Penner with a key to the city, and Garden Valley Collegiate, where Penner played his high school hockey, announced his No. 27 jersey would be retired.

Harder reminded Penner to keep both feet planted on the ground and not to “forget your Creator — and no, I’m not referring to Randy Carlyle.”

In his brief remarks to the crowd, Penner said it was “humbling” to see so many people brimming with pride over what he had done. This was the same young man, now 24, who had been cut three times by his hometown team, the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

But Penner kept chasing his hockey dream, and Harder sees the young man’s skyrocketing career as a metaphor for the city.

“Never give up. That’s the attitude Dustin’s brought to the game and to his career, and that really is the attitude of Winkler,” Harder said. “This is an absolutely awesome day for the city.”

But seriously, two kids who grew up in a town of about 9,000 people wind up as teammates on a pro sports franchise 1,500 miles away. Dibs on the trip to Winkler if the Caps make a postseason run.

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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