Steamboat’s Dustin Henning’s road to success in the Federal Hockey League
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Dustin Henning didn’t know if he’d make the Connecticut Junior Whalers hockey roster when he packed everything he owned in his truck and left Steamboat Springs 15 years ago.
“I was a homebody,” Henning said. “Somehow, I found the courage to jump in my truck and leave town. Here I am … still playing hockey.”
In his 11th year of playing professional hockey, Henning, 34, was named as one of the Federal Hockey League’s 2019 defensemen of the year.
“We got put out of playoffs last weekend,” Henning said. “I got the award two days later like, ‘Man, that’s pretty cool,’ I’ve blown all my single season statistics out of the water. But it’s not quite as fun when you’re not winning a bunch.”
Henning currently plays for the Danville Dashers in Danville, Illinois. His first start in the FHL was six years ago, and since then, he’s played for the Watertown Wolves, Port Huron Prowlers and the Dashers. This is his third season with the Dashers, but he’s bounced around in between each year.
Finding a fit
Before making the FHL, Henning spent his junior hockey career in Connecticut before enjoying one-year stints at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts, and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
He started his professional hockey career after Eastern Michigan, playing in the Mid-Atlantic league for the Indiana Ice Miners in Indiana, Pennsylvania, winning a league championship title. He moved to the Eastern Professional League, playing a season with the New Jersey Rockhoppers and winning another league title. His last stop before the FHL was in the All-American Hockey League, where he played with the Madison Ice Muskies and West Michigan Blizzard.
Henning doesn’t mind the nomadic life of being a professional hockey player. Until he was 18, he spent all his time in Steamboat with occasional trips to see grandparents in Missouri. Hockey has enabled him to see different places and foster connections across the U.S., even when he does move to a new team, he usually knows the people he’s playing with.
“I got to fly out a month ago to Chicago and went and visited him for a long weekend and watched a couple of games,” longtime Steamboat best friend Charlie Townsend said. “It was apparent that he’s made it. He’s got fans all over the country he’s in touch with, so that’s wonderful. What keeps him going is how enthusiastic the people are that he’s left an impression on.”
Henning always had to work to belong, starting with the Steamboat Braves hockey team during his high school years. His position on the team was in question during his senior year, and he fought to make it.
“He’s got a character type that, if you tell him he can’t, he’ll prove you wrong,” Townsend said. “The coach was considering putting someone else on the team instead of him, so he felt that he was the underdog and was treated as an underdog. He wanted to prove to himself that he was better than that.”
Now, Henning is captain of the Dashers, keeping tabs on his younger teammates on and off the ice. This year, the Dashers’ coach was removed mid-December, and Henning was left in charge of a team that, at times, played short-handed. He even recommended coach Rod Davidson, a previous coach of his in Madison, Wisconsin, to take over as coach of the Dashers.
“That’s where he really shined,” Davidson said. “Captain and playing coach, he had so many other duties that could have interfered with his play.”
Henning’s strength on the ice is his consistency and experience. Younger players come into professional leagues worrying about getting the stats to move up, but Henning has proven that if you play for your team, the stats and upward climb come with it.
“He’s not flashy, not a spectacular player,” Davidson said. “But his consistency is probably his greatest strength.”
Taking unusual steps
Henning found an unusual hobby contributed to his success on the ice this season.
Four years ago, Henning decided to step into the rodeo scene as a bull fighter. Growing up in Steamboat, Henning had always been around the rodeo, but he didn’t start bull fighting until four years ago.
Originally interested in cowboy protection bull fighting, Henning found himself more interested in freestyle bull fighting.
Cowboy protection bull fighting involves making sure the Cowboy who falls off a bull escapes the arena safely by guiding the bull away. Freestyle bull fighting involves a Spanish bull, where you stand in an arena with a bull and attempt to choreograph its movements and tricks for 40 seconds. Both the bull and the fighter are scored on a scale of 1 to 50 and the scores are added together for final placings.
“There’s a lot of footwork involved. The training is why it carries over so well to hockey as far as footwork skills and agility,” Henning said. “Part of my success this season is how much time I put into training for bull fighting. My foot speed and agility improved.”
At Henning’s age, his future in professional hockey is in question. He joked with Townsend that this would be his last season to get him to come watch.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever played anywhere based on my talent,” Henning said. “It’s been on my focus and work ethic and determination more so than anything.”
As for his career in bull fighting, Henning is just along for the ride.
“I had my first competition in Vernal, Utah, last year and I’m hoping to get some more of those under my belt,” Henning said. “But that’s probably going to last as long as hockey does.”
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