LOS ANGELES – Steve Yzerman. Joe Sakic. Jonathan Toews. Scott Stevens. Dustin Brown.
I believe it was those timeless philosophers on “Sesame Street” that once posed the question: “One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong…”
Brown is the captain of the Los Angeles Kings, and has the opportunity to join the ranks of these players and other somewhat famous names – some dudes named Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Clarke, Denis Potvin – in becoming a captain that’s led his team to the Stanley Cup on more than one occasion.
But how many of those players have been called “the worst captain in the NHL?”
How many had their fans holding polls on whether they should be stripped of the ‘C’? Or had fans questioning whether he properly represents the image of the team?
How many have been called out as one of the NHL’s most accomplished divers by ex-referees? How many have been called a borderline predator for the way he hits by former NHL players? Or were benched in an Olympic medal game?
Dustin Brown isn't everyone's ideal captain. And yet through all of it, there are efforts like Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks, when Brown was arguably the most active offensive player on the ice, setting the tone for this team. And there are moments like Game 2 against the New York Rangers, when Brown scored the double-overtime game-winning goal to put the Kings two wins away from the Stanley Cup.
“Hard, physical, leads by his play. No other guy should have the ‘C’ on his jersey, that's for sure,” said teammate Jarret Stoll after Game 2. “Big goals, big plays. He does it all.”
Except play the role of captain as the stereotypes demand it.
Dustin Brown was drafted by the Kings No. 13 overall in 2003, having played with the Guelph Storm of the OHL and ranked as the second-best American in the draft at the time. The Ithaca, NY native was a grinder with a goal-scorer’s touch; the Kings rushed him into their lineup as an 18 year old in 2003-04 for 31 games, before spending the following season in the AHL to round out his game.
His early years with the Kings were marred not only by the team’s struggles on the ice but by his now infamous bullying by Sean Avery, who targeted not only Brown’s lisp – he went through speech therapy in fifth grade in an attempt to control it – but his girlfriend and now wife Nicole. As Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated wrote in 2012:
According to L.A. players and coaches from that era, Brown's lisp was not Avery's primary target. Avery also zeroed in on Brown's girlfriend—now his wife—a slender, fresh-faced girl-next-door-type from their hometown of Ithaca, N.Y. Apparently Avery didn't think she was glamorous enough to be the girlfriend of a hockey player in Hollywood.
"I am not a trophy wife," says Nicole Brown, who has been with her husband for almost a dozen years (and married to him for five). "By any means."
Shy by disposition, Dustin coped by withdrawing. Nicole says he was the last one to arrive at the rink every day and the first one to leave. He disputes that the teasing bothered him—"I have a thick skin, and that was just Aves being Aves," Brown says—but later adds, "Maybe it affected me in ways that I didn't realize." He scored all of 31 goals his first two full seasons while facing the equivalent of being shaken down daily for his lunch money.
When Avery left via trade, Brown finally arrived, scoring 33 goals in 2007-08, and being named the Kings’ youngest captain (23) in history later that year after Rob Blake left via free agency. Anze Kopitar and Matt Greene were his alternates.
“I’ve been here for five or six years now, and I think once I got comfortable here, over the last couple years, I could kind of come out of my shell a little bit and take on more of a leadership role,” said Brown at the time. “Last year, I tried to lead by example, game in and game out. All great leaders, I think that’s the first and most important thing they do.”
Just like the way he speaks was a challenge growing up, the demands for a captain to be the vocal one in the locker room were equally challenging. There are players that lead by example, and then there’s Dustin Brown, whose leadership is nearly all about what happens on the ice.
“In the room, I’m pretty quiet. I’m getting myself ready in-between periods. My vocal leadership is more in-game, on the bench. There’s more ups and down on the bench. It’s about keeping the guys upbeat,” said Brown.
“We have a lot of rah-rah guys in general,” he said, on his leadership style. “But the big cliché speech before a big game … if that’s what you’re relying on to come back, you’re probably not playing at this time of year anyway. It’s one thing to talk, say the right things. It’s another thing to go out and do them.”
Brown has been the captain of the Kings through five straight playoff appearances and two conference final championships, along with his Cup raise in 2012. He’s 29 now – a few more creases on the Brad Pitt-esque baby face that’s covered in patchy scruff by the final round of the postseason. He’s now the father of four children, having his first around age 24, which in NHL terms basically made him an MTV Teen Mom.
He was a settled down family man at 23, in love with a girl he met when they were 15. It’s a life that isn’t shared by many of his contemporaries at that age, which sometimes can lead to alienation in the locker room.
Now, he wears that responsibility as a father well, as a captain pushing 30.
Like Brown was, Doughty is captain material at 23 years old. He’s the emotional pacesetter for the team, sometimes overly so.
“Knowing him well, living with him, there’s a certain way how to handle certain guys. For me and Drew, it’s give and take,” said Brown.
Brown and Doughty were roommates when he was a rookie. Brown's influence on the young star resonates today, as Doughty continues to mature as a leader on the team. And Doughty has nothing but respect for how Brown has endured through down times for the Kings that he never really had to experience.
“Brownie’s been through it all. He’s been on the worst teams since he’s been in LA. I was his roommate as a young kid in this league, and that’s all he’d tell me: That he wanted to bring this team to a level where we can win a Stanley Cup. He’s done a great job of that. That’s why he’s our captain and our leader,” he said.
When asked about his qualities as a captain, his teammates don’t spin tales of big speeches or locker room dramatics.
“He brings a physical style of play to our team. He sets the table for everyone else. He comes through in big games. He had a great Game 7 in Chicago, and that’s what we need in this next series,” said Kopitar before the Final. “He’s a physical guy. But he can make plays. Sometimes for him it’s about relaxing a little bit more. He knows he can play his game.”
Said Mike Richards, a former captain with the Flyers: “With our team, we have a lot of different leaders. It doesn’t have to be the same guys that say things. But if something needs to be said, or something needs to be done, he’s the guy that everybody looks to do it.”
Kopitar, Richards, Doughty, Stoll … the Kings locker room is filled with players that are made of captain material. One gets the sense, being around the Kings, that Brown is the captain due to longevity rather than anything else. It’s the team of Kopitar, Doughty and Jonathan Quick, not Dustin Brown.
Brown acknowledges that the bench is deep for leaders in Los Angeles, which is one of the reasons the team is so resilient.
“I think that’s what makes us successful,” said Brown. “They’re generally our best players every night, but we can win games with them just being good because we have other guys. It’s about relying on each other, rather than just one or two guys.”
The Kings felt Brown was an integral part of that success, to the point where they inked him to an 8-year contract extension last summer. It was a sign of respect for a captain that doesn’t always receive it from outsiders, who don’t see Brown as a prototypical captain.
Doughty thinks he doesn’t need to be.
“He’s not the most talkative guy or loudest guy in the room,” said Doughty.
“He leads on the ice, always. He cares.”