Downtown Dustin Brown
When Dustin Brown landed in Los Angeles as a 19-year-old rookie in 2003, he had a baby face, a shy demeanor, and a slight lisp. Had Brown been arriving for a Hollywood casting call, the naïve teenager from Ithaca, NY, would have typed as the awkward teen in one of those old John Hughes movies.
Nine years later, when the small-town boy symbolically ended 45 years of Kings frustration by hoisting the Stanley Cup in downtown Los Angeles, there was only one role Brown was fit to play: Superhero.
“It was special,” Brown says of his unique role as both captain and King in the franchise’s first-ever Cup win. The same adjective could be used to describe Brown.
Statistically, Brown has been a model of his consistency throughout his NHL career. His five consecutive seasons of 50-or-more points and 22-or-more goals depict a rock solid power forward. But Brown’s development as a team leader, community activist, and family man are a more accurate barometer of the captain’s development.
“Brownie,” says teammate Anze Kopitar, “is a great leader. I have so much respect for him.”
Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi marvels at Brown’s ability to recognize a crucial moment and then rise to the occasion. “That’s what leaders do,” Lombardi says.
Respect for Brown is universal after last spring’s run to the Stanley Cup. For much of the postseason, Brown looked for all the world like the best hockey player on the planet. He finished the postseason with eight goals and 20 points.
The Kings and their fans have witnessed a remarkable transformation in Brown over the past decade, but there were always clear indicators that the winger drafted 13th overall in 2003 had something deep inside that set him apart.
Long before his name was etched on the Stanley Cup – and in the hearts of Kings’ fans – forever, Brown left his cozy upstate New York home to play junior hockey in a Canada. It was a decision that would help define him and set him on a course
“I made that decision with my parents and my agent at the time,” Brown said. “I was three years away from college and it seemed like the best thing for my development. (The Ontario Hockey League) was the best league that I could play in and it all work out for the better.”
That time in Canadian Juniors helped him become a unique player: Brown is fast but gritty, skilled but grinding.
By the time Brown joined the Kings after the 2004-05 lockout, he had a gap-toothed grin, courtesy of a collision with the boards in a minor league game at Manchester that belied his low-key demeanor. The Bobby Clarke smile screamed hockey player, and a tough one at that.
All you had to do was watch Brown play to see the aggressive player on the ice was different from the easy-going guy off it. And if you couldn’t watch him, a quick look at the stat sheet told the tale. Brown is perennially among the league’s leaders in hits; a year ago, his 293 hits were second in the NHL, trailing only the Islanders’ Matt Martin (374).
By 2007, it became apparent that Brown was no longer a kid. He had married his high school sweetheart, Nicole, and the couple became parents. The Browns now have three kids (and a fourth on the way), and after welcoming their first child, Dustin said that fatherhood was life altering.
“Even in the locker room,” Brown said, “you have a different perspective of everything that goes on. I remember after I had my son, I noticed things that maybe I didn’t notice before. Things like the chemistry of the team and how certain players interacted. It was the best thing that’s happened to me.”
Brown was not only the head of a household; he was about to become the king of Kings.
Before the 2008 season, Brown was tabbed as the 15th captain in Kings history. When the ‘C’ was stitched on the front of his jersey, Brown joined a fraternity that includes all-time greats Wayne Gretzky, Dave Taylor, Rob Blake, and Luc Robitaille.
Naming the 23-year-old captain was not an obvious choice. Brown has never possessed the fiery, in-your-face leadership style of a Mark Messier or Kobe Bryant. Nor is Brown given to passionate speeches and, at times, his body language has been called into question. It took a while for Brown to grow into the responsibility that came with his captaincy.
All of which seems hard to believe now. When you look at Brown today, you see the quintessential King.
“When I look at Dustin Brown,” Lombardi said. “I see that the kid’s an LA King. He’s not a Flyer, not a Ranger. He’s a King. He was drafted, he came up through the system, and wherever Brownie ends his career, he’ll always look back and say, ‘I’m an LA King.’”
Brown was king of the entire hockey world during much of last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, when he played at a level that made him a leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate before the award ultimately went to teammate Jonathan Quick. Brown’s emergence, however, couldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention.
Two years earlier, at the Vancouver Olympics, Brown had spurts of unparalleled excellence while playing for Team USA. By the time the games ended, Brown had a silver medal and understanding of what it takes to compete on hockey’s biggest stage.
“The one thing I took away from the Olympics that I applied not only to the regular season but even more so to the playoffs,” Brown said, “is it’s a matter of little things that really make a big difference in key games at key times. Whether it’s getting a puck out of the zone or making sure a puck gets out of the zone, that can be the difference.”
Long before Brown’s name found its place on the Stanley Cup, it seemingly had a permanent position among the league leaders in hits. But as he has gained experience, the more mature Brown has become more selective when it comes to lowering the boom.
“If I have a chance to finish my check,” Brown said, “I’m going to do it. But I have become more selective with the big hits that might take you out of position. I got smarter as a physical player. If you go for the big hit all the time, it could take you out of position to score a goal, so I’ve become selective with the timing of my hits and where I go about it.”
Brown has delivered numerous game-changing hits over the course of his NHL career, and few have been more memorable than the crunch he put on Henrik Sedin in Game 3 of the Kings’ first-round series upset of Vancouver last spring.
“I got a chance to finish my check, and I did,” Brown said. “That’s part of playoff hockey.”
Later in the postseason, Brown delivered a bone-crushing check to Phoenix’s Michal Rozsival that was symbolic of playoff hockey at its best.
Playoff hockey, of course, ends with one team skating with the Stanley Cup. By virtue of his captaincy, Brown became the first member of the franchise to hoist hockey’s Holy Grail.
History will say NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to Brown. Witnesses to Brown’s remarkable transformation from bashful rookie to self-assured champion will say he went and got it.
However history has also not yet been completely written, as the Kings – led by Brown – are heading back to the Western Conference Finals.