Captain Brown won't back down
Kings center epitomizes the effort of his team -- he brings the goods at key times
NEW YORK -- Luc Robitaille, the Hall of Fame winger and Los Angeles Kings president, remembers the day distinctly.
There'd been rumors leading up to the 2012 trade deadline that Kings captain Dustin Brown might be in play. The team was still not assured of a playoff spot, even though head coach Terry Murray had been replaced a few weeks earlier by Darryl Sutter, and Brown was not playing well.
But that night, Feb. 25, 2012, against the Chicago Blackhawks, Brown scored a natural hat trick and added an assist for a four-point night and a 4-0 Kings victory. It was an emphatic statement from Brown, who has never played for another NHL team.
"It was almost like, no way" are you going to trade me, Robitaille told ESPN.com. "And then we went on a tear."
Less than four months later, Brown was delivering another virtuoso performance, this one a one-goal, two-assist effort, in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals as the Kings won their first Stanley Cup.
With the Kings one win away from their second Stanley Cup in three years, this spring has once again seen Brown rise to the occasion with inspired, physical play and timely offensive production.
In Game 2, midway through the second overtime period, it was Brown deflecting a Willie Mitchell shot past New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist to stake the Kings to a 2-0 series lead in spite of falling behind in both games.
"He's been our guy. He's been our leader," Robitaille said of Brown, who was selected by the Kings with the 13th overall pick in 2003.
There's an old hockey chestnut that sometimes the best trades are the ones that you don't make. GM Dean Lombardi certainly wouldn't have had any problems unloading Brown if he'd decided to go down that road back in 2012.
But it's hard to imagine this Kings team without Brown. In fact, there is much evidence that he has been integral in establishing and then reinforcing over time the Kings' identity.
"We've been in this position before," Brown told reporters after the Kings' 3-0 victory Monday night set the stage for a possible Cup celebration on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. "Confidence, that's a part of it, but it's more about your will this time of year. It's resetting and reloading. I know that gets boring for you guys, but that's the truth."
Zach Parise was born a few months earlier than Brown and, in many ways, grew up alongside Brown playing internationally at the junior level and then twice on U.S. Olympic teams.
"He fits in very well. He's a very likable guy," Parise told ESPN.com. "But he's also very quiet. He's always been a pretty quiet guy, although he's vocal when he has to be."
Quiet, however, isn't a word to describe his game. Parise laughed as he recalled the first couple of shifts of the 2012 Stanley Cup finals when Parise was still with New Jersey and facing Brown's Kings, and Brown lined up Parise for a crushing hit not long after puck drop.
"Luckily, I saw him coming at the last second," Parise said. "I remember thinking, oh, here we go. I guess we're not going to be friends for a couple of weeks."
But it's more than that, the symbiotic relationship between Brown and his quiet style of leadership and hard, hard style of play and the personality of this Kings' team. It's about the ability to put aside disappointment or distraction. Because it hasn't always been rosy for Brown, even after the 2012 Cup run, just as it's not always been a smooth ride for the Kings as a whole.
This season was an especially difficult time for Brown. After signing an eight-year contract extension that kicks in next season, Brown struggled offensively, scoring just 15 goals. There were a handful of controversial hits and questions about whether he had lost a step. A lock to make the U.S. Olympic team for a second straight time, Brown struggled as the tournament went along and saw his ice time reduced in losses to Canada and Finland to close out a disappointing Olympics for an American team that was a gold-medal favorite in Sochi.
And yet, come playoff time, Brown has played for the most part with the Kings' top line along with Anze Kopitar and playoff goal-scoring leader Marian Gaborik, a reflection of Sutter's confidence in his captain to deliver the goods.
"Well, he's a big part of the identity of our hockey club," Sutter said Tuesday. "I think it's kind of beating a dead horse. He and I have talked a lot about his regular season. The only thing that made the difference then was making the playoffs. Where he was going to make the difference was for our team to make the playoffs and then be a forceful player at playoff time. You know, the type of person he is, that's deep down what he wanted. Nobody was more dissatisfied with his regular season more than Brownie was. It's good to see him have some success. It's good to see him on a team that's still playing."
Certainly, Brown's teammates couldn't care less whether he lit it up in the regular season.
"I think ultimately you're judged on the team's success as the captain of any team. Whether or not he scores 30 goals for us in a year or scores 10, he's still a vital piece of the puzzle, just like everyone else is," Kings winger Justin Williams said. "He'd be the first one to say he didn't have a good regular-season game. But, hey, another guy who could have wilted and went away and said, 'This isn't my year,' pack his bag. Instead he said, I'm going to do this, play whatever role I need to play and help this team. Hits sometimes are overlooked. When Dustin is on the ice, you know it. Whether he's running around or scoring goals, he has a huge impact."
Defenseman Drew Doughty has had the experience of playing alongside Brown as the Kings have risen from fringe team to Stanley Cup power and he's also played against him in two Olympic tournaments.
"Brownie is a great leader, a great captain," Doughty said. "He does a lot of things both on and off the ice, especially on the ice. He works as hard as possible. He cares a lot. The opponents don't like playing against him because he hits so hard and at the same time he can make plays and score goals. When I played against him at the Olympics, basically whenever I had the puck, he was on the ice, I was trying to get rid of it so he couldn't run me."
I had the opportunity to spend time around Brown over the past four or five years through two Olympic tournaments and the long run in 2012. I was in his hometown of Ithaca, New York, for his day with the Stanley Cup in the summer of 2012. One of memories that sticks with me is Brown's unfailing patience with the busyness of the moment. That and his insistence, along with his wife, that the day with the Cup was put to good use in raising more than $15,000 to aid injured military personnel to help honor his wife's cousin, who had died after being severely injured in a suicide bomb blast in Afghanistan.
Maybe those are the moments that help provide perspective at the most important times of life. If there have been disappointments over personal play, they have never become a distraction for his teammates or his team. And if there have been moments of disappointment with how the team has played, those moments have been quickly banished and the focus re-established on the task at hand.
"I think we understand as a group the way we need to play. It's not an easy game to play for 82 games, but we understand about the journey. We're built for playoff hockey," Brown said recently. "Every trade deadline, every draft, you hear media or fans or whoever say 'We need to get rid of this guy, or get this guy' but a big part of our success is that we've been together and understand the type of team we are. It might not be a 120-point regular-season team, but we've been playing in June three years in a row, and I don't think there's any other team in the league that can say that."