Commentary

The power of one day with the Cup

Updated: July 30, 2012, 9:24 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Ithaca, N.Y. -- You watch Dustin Brown, his wife Nicole, his children and friends eating frozen yogurt out of the Stanley Cup and you might think, well, that's quaint, but in the end it's just a big tin mug, right?

What's the big deal?

Ha.

We are here to tell you that whether it is full of frozen yogurt or beer or sporting a fireman's helmet, as it was earlier on this late July Saturday in Brown's hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., there remains something far more mystical about the Stanley Cup's presence than just a familiar piece of hardware easily recognizable from television.

In something like 16 hours, this well-traveled symbol of hockey's greatest accomplishment will play a central role in reminding us of the power of friendship, the strength of family and the ability to forge something positive from unspeakable tragedy.

We have seen that power firsthand, have seen its binding force in community after community.

Don't believe us?

Smart Yogurt, a new business venture operated by Nicole's brother Matt Poole, is crowded with family and friends, well-wishers and the curious. The Cup arrived late in the afternoon after a private visit to a local cemetery, where close family members visit the grave of Nicole's cousin Christopher Bordoni.

Bordoni, a corporal in the Marines, was severely injured in a suicide bombing while serving in Afghanistan in mid-January. He died the first week of April. He was just 21. Media reports described hundreds of people lining the route from the airport where Bordoni's casket landed to the local funeral home.

One of the first orders of business when Brown and his wife began planning his day with the Stanley Cup following the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup victory was to ensure that they included a component that would not only remember Nicole's cousin, but do something more.

[+] EnlargeDustin Brown with family
Scott Burnside/ESPN.comFor almost every player, a day with the Stanley Cup is a day with family, and Dustin Brown certainly shared the Cup with his children.

After selling pictures of Brown and raffle tickets for a chance to pose with Brown and the Cup and collecting donations from the literally thousands of people who would come in contact with the Brown Cup odyssey, the family had raised in excess of $15,000 for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a charity that helps wounded members of the U.S. armed forces with a host of financial needs.

"It was a perfect fit for us," Nicole told ESPN.com.

Not long after the yogurt stop, the Cup is on the ice at the local community-built arena where Brown played some of his minor hockey before heading to Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old. Bordoni's brother Casey, a part-owner of the yogurt shop, talked about the emotions the day produced.

"It's putting the Cup to an even better use," Casey said. "I know Chris is watching and he's smiling. It's hard but at the same time you know Chris is being honored because of things like this."

It's not the first time the Cup has been to Ithaca. Joe Nieuwendyk, a star with Cornell's powerful hockey team, brought the Cup to Ithaca after winning with the Dallas Stars in 1999.

He brought it to local burger hangout Glenwood Pines, and a picture behind the bar captures that moment. A few weeks ago, Brown and his wife ran into the now-Stars' general manager at the same location.

Back in the day Brown and his family would make the short trip from Cass Park Arena to the Glenwood for some comfort food after an icy practice or game. The video games in the restaurant remain unchanged from those days, Brown's older brother, Brandon, something of a skee ball legend, confirmed. So on Brown's day with the Cup, it returned to the locally famous restaurant that has a commanding view of Lake Cayuga.

If Nieuwendyk paid homage to his collegiate roots by bringing the Cup to Ithaca -- and the Hall of Famer still has ties to the community -- Brown's relationship is much different.

He is the first Ithaca native to play in the NHL, and ergo the first Ithaca native to win the Stanley Cup.

It is not a subtle distinction.

Not to take anything away from Nieuwendyk or any of the other Cornell players who have gone on to professional success, but Brown is from the town, and that matters.

This feeling is borne out by the crowd that descends on the football field at the local high school to begin Brown's day with the Cup. An accomplished lacrosse player as a youngster, Brown played on this field, although he noted it was just plain grass then, not the impressive artificial surface that now adorns the field.

His wife, brother and sister attended the high school, and even though the skies are foreboding and at times open to issue torrents of rain, some 2,000 people are lined up patiently for a chance for a picture of the Cup.

For those who don't get a chance during the three-hour event, Brown parades past the crowded metal grandstands as people reach out to congratulate him and to touch the trophy.

Brown met his future wife at a high school athletic competition. She was 16, and he was 15. A few months later he would head north to play hockey in the Ontario Hockey League.

Nicole was a hockey player, too, and one of her teammates was dating one of Brown's friends.

They have been together ever since and last winter bought a home just outside Ithaca where they will spend their summers.

Among the guests at Brown's visit are Paul Osborne and his family from Guelph. Brown went to stay with the Osbornes as a shy 15-year-old to play his first of three OHL seasons before making the jump straight from junior hockey to the Kings after they made him the 13th overall pick in the 2003 entry draft.

"He was extremely shy, very shy," Osborne said.

So much so that when Osborne knew there was a team social gathering, like a movie night, he would call the team's captain and tell him to come to pick up Brown at the house, otherwise the youngster from Ithaca was just as likely to stay in.

In many ways Brown became like a fourth child to the Osbornes. When Nicole would come and visit, Osborne would often send his youngest daughter down to the basement just to keep an eye on things.

Now their daughter is 14, a year younger than when Brown first walked through their door, and Brown is a doting father himself.

"They just make such a great team together," Osborne said of Dustin and Nicole Brown.

Striding around Bredbenner Field with her hood pulled over her head to keep away the at times driving rain, Nicole appears to be a woman on a mission -- a good one, but a mission nonetheless.

Her wedding to Brown was nothing compared to this, she confides while taking a brief break in the action.

"This is way harder," she said with a smile.

Most of the details for the Cup visit have come together in the past three weeks, while she had months to prepare for her wedding.

"Plus, I had a wedding planner," she said. "Now I am the Cup planner."

These annual days with the Cup are often likened to planning a wedding -- except on shorter notice -- and with such strong connections to the community, given that both she and Brown grew up in Ithaca and still have family in the area, it was a challenge to make sure all of the appropriate touchstones are, well, touched.

Still, while looking across the field at the hundreds of people, some of whom camped out overnight to get a chance to rub shoulders with Brown and the Cup, it was clear to her the importance of the Cup's visit.

"It's absolutely amazing. You just never know what to expect," she said.

Among the clutch of people Nicole has pressed into service to help ensure the day's plans unfold as closely to the blueprint as possible are four or five close friends who grew up with Brown in Ithaca.

Some played hockey with him before he went to the OHL, some played other sports or simply fell into a close circle that remains unbroken in spite of the passage of time and changes in geography. At one point during the day, a handful of the boys jumped out of the stretch limousine ferrying the Brown entourage around the city and posed for picture with the Cup beneath a sign that notes the local high school hockey team's success in the state tournament, including in 2000, when it took state honors.

Some have gone on to careers in New York City, others have remained in Ithaca. They speak almost with one voice when it comes to Brown, though.

Changed?

Not one iota.

"Not at all. That's the crazy thing," said Matt Hedge, who now works for a hedge fund in New York City.

About a week before, it began to sink in that he would be returning to his hometown to share in the day with Brown and his close friends from childhood.

"I slept for about an hour last night. I was like a kid before Christmas morning," Hedge said Saturday.

For the hockey friends, they conjure up the same memory of Brown at a tournament in Buffalo. In a game against a team from Ohio, Brown scored two mirror-image goals in the final minute of a tournament to send the Ithaca lads to the championship.

Perhaps because it's a moment that was shared by many of Brown's friends or perhaps because it was a harbinger of things to come, including winning a Cup, as it turns out, that moment in that tournament is a powerful memory for them.

Hedge said he never has been at all surprised by his friend's success.

"He knew he wanted it and he was willing to do what it takes to get there," he said.

With about a minute left in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals and the Kings already starting to celebrate on their bench at the Staples Center, across the continent in New York, Hedge began to weep.

"I called my mom and she was crying, too," he said.

He was not the only one among his group of friends to share this emotion.

"I think he's the least changed person of all of us. And he's the one with the most reason to have changed," offered Brandon French, one of the few of Brown's close circle of friends who have stayed in Ithaca.

French works with his father in manufacturing and is also the assistant coach of the local high school hockey team, many of the members among those who lined up for a look at Brown and the Cup on Saturday morning. He will get married next summer, having proposed to his fiancée on a flight to Los Angeles to take in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals.

[+] EnlargeDustin Brown
Scott Burnside/ESPN.com"He knew he wanted it and he was willing to do what it takes to get there," Matt Hedge said of his childhood friend Dustin Brown.

This day is shot through with meaning on various levels, but certainly on a personal one it is a reminder for Brown of the obstacles overcome.

It was a season on a team level and a personal level that had more to do with nightmares than magic for much of the first half of the campaign. The Kings, a team that had not won a single playoff round since 2001, struggled offensively. By midseason they were dead-last in goals per game. General manager Dean Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray and then at the trade deadline, after acquiring Jeff Carter, the team quietly shopped Brown, the team's captain. The trade talk quickly dissipated, and almost immediately Brown responded with inspired play and improved point production, and the Kings qualified as the eighth seed before going on a dominant run through the postseason, posting a 16-4 record.

"There was definitely a lot of stress," Brown said of this season. "I think it's fair to say everyone in that room was frustrated, myself included."

Added Nicole: "The whole time in L.A., nothing's been easy. From day one nothing's been handed to them."

Through it all, through the criticisms and the disappointments, Nicole said her husband has remained unchanged, unflappable.

"No. No. Exactly the same," she said, not without a trace of wonder.

If you didn't know he was a professional hockey player -- and now the captain of the Stanley Cup champions -- you might think he'd be a guy working at the local sub shop, his wife said.

She laughs that sometimes when they go to look for cars they have trouble getting sales people to help because they look, well, like the kind of young couple who shouldn't be shopping in those kinds of dealerships.

"He's the same Xbox-loving kid that he was years ago," she said.

In the deciding game on home ice, Brown was a catalyst to a three-goal first period as the Kings cruised to their first Stanley Cup championship.

Even then, in a suite at Staples Center, members of his family were almost paralyzed by fear that somehow it wouldn't happen.

Brandon Brown chewed on a towel to curb his nervousness.

Later, at a postgame party, he would hoist the Cup in celebration with his father and sister.

"When you lift it you can't help but make that face, arrrggghgh, it's automatic" Brandon said with a laugh.

As youngsters, Brandon was the brother that Dustin emulated.

Now Brandon laces up the blades for men's hockey in Charlotte, where he is a teacher and watches about 80 of 82 Kings games. Sometimes if he's too tired to watch a full West Coast game, he'll get up and watch the rest on tape the next morning.

As captain, Brown was the one to whom NHL commissioner Gary Bettman first handed the trophy. From the Staples Center to New York City to Ithaca, the emotion was almost overpowering.

"It was wild. It was almost like it took a very long time but then it was over in one second," Brown's sister, Seanna, recalled.

Watching her brother on his special day with the Cup, she acknowledges that she sometimes forgets that he's a grown man with three sons and a Stanley Cup ring and not a child anymore.

Sometimes she has to stop herself from asking if he needs to tie his shoes or whether he got a present for his father on Father's Day or called his mom on her birthday.

Brown, low-key and patient regardless of the events swirling around him -- at one point he admitted that he wouldn't be standing in the rain to get his autograph -- acknowledged that the first three weeks after the Cup win were a bit of a blur.

This day, though, promised to be a little more reflective, Brown said.

"I'll probably remember a little more of this day than the three weeks after the Cup for a lot of reasons," he said.

It is late in the day. Guests have arrived for an evening soiree at the Brown house, and later a group will make its way to a favorite downtown establishment.

On Sunday, Brown will stop for milk with the Cup and deliver the trophy to a private party at a local marina via boat before it makes its way to the next stop on the Cup line in Simcoe, Ontario.

But in this moment there is something like contentment, maybe a sense of a job well done, not just in having won the Cup but in having created something special with its visit to his hometown.

"It's cool to see the joy that it brings to people," he said.

"Hopefully I have another chance to do it again."