Whatever you may think of Dustin Penner as a hockey player, one’s thing for sure – the Los Angeles Kings’ forward is one funny man. It’s something that should have been obvious to people a month ago, when back spasms forced him to miss a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The day after, Penner compared his painful, bent-over posture to being in the “third stage of evolution,” a description that should have provided a clue to the humorous context of what came next – an admission that his back problems originally flared up while digging into a stack of his wife Jessica’s “delicious” pancakes.
But the nuance of his tone and the timing of his delivery was lost in cyberspace, where it was simply interpreted as the worst kind of dog-ate-my-homework excuse from a slumping player, who’d just missed a game against the NHL’s worst team because of a breakfast-related injury.
Penner took it on the chin from fans, mostly of them unhappy with his lack of offensive production – only two goals up to that point in the season – and from there, the episode went viral, causing a massive, continent-wide Internet sensation. It’s surprising he didn’t land on Leno.
Penner did for flapjacks what Colonel Sanders did for chicken and permitted everybody to retell the stories of all the other oddball injuries suffered by professional athletes.
On Monday morning, Penner brought the whole thing full circle, turning a negative into a positive by playing host to a pancake breakfast for 75 hungry Kings’ fans at an IHOP in Westchester.
L.A. had just completed a six-game trip the previous night in Dallas, exiled from the Staples Centre by the Grammy Awards, and while the rest of his teammates got the day off, Penner was there at the IHOP, bright, early and right on time.
Dressed in a Kings’ sweater, jeans, flip flops and wearing a chef’s hat, Penner served pancakes and then went from booth to booth, signing autographs and chatting up Kings’ fans, some of whom had spent hours fighting rush-hour freeway traffic to attend the event.
A total of 386 applications were received for the event, but the Kings had to cut it off after 75 because of the restaurant’s limited seating capacity. About $3,000 was raised for charity. Penner was trying to put a positive spin on Pancake-gate, acknowledging that he was “obviously too candid” about detailing the terms of his injuries and noting that reporters “can take a certain comment and spin it any way you want. You can put a different slant on it. I guess that’s up to the person that had the pen and paper in their hand.”
Much of the vitriol directed toward Penner actually came in comments posted by fans – and the legacy of the flapjack fiasco followed him on the Kings’ January tour through Western Canada. In Calgary, he was asked to autograph a box of pancake mix. Up in Edmonton, a TV host demonstrated what had happened to the ex-Oiler, using a plate of pancakes as a visual aid. In Vancouver, Penner found a maple syrup bottle placed anonymously on the visitors’ bench.
At the moment, Penner’s issues run deeper than just bad press. Two games ago, the Kings reached into their minor-league system for a pair of young forwards – Dwight King and Jordan Nolan (son of Ted) – pushing Penner to the sidelines as a healthy scratch.
The fact that both King and Nolan scored their first NHL goals during Sunday’s 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars would suggest that Penner’s press-box exile could continue into Thursday night’s date with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Apart from the back injury, Penner has also missed time this year, with a groin problem, and bruises to both his knee and his hand. There is talk the Kings may trade him before this year’s deadline and that old familiar companion, Internet speculation, has Toronto as a possible destination, given that it was Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke who originally gave the Winkler, Man., native his professional start.
In the meantime, Penner says he will learn to watch that quiet wit of his more carefully in the sometimes too-literal web world. His back, by the way, is fine again: “Until you’ve been in that position, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s another injury I wouldn’t want to have again.”
An hour into Monday’s proceedings, Penner took a break to visit with reporters covering the event – two local TV stations, both local newspapers, the representative from nhl.com. At that juncture, Penner still hadn’t had a chance to tuck into his breakfast yet, so there was no way of getting an answer to the million-dollar question: How did the IHOP version’s of pancakes compared to his wife’s?
“I have to wake up and have some coffee first,” Penner answered. “I’ve been signing autographs. But I’ll get in there yet.”