What’s Best for You

“As I  mentioned, the hurt in the locker  room  was  deep team-wise, but it was very deep for Brownie. It’s  very rare in this  sporting  world—forget about hockey—sporting world that one individual spends that many years, wins championships, and finishes the night with his team.“

And that’s how Coach Todd McLellan summarized his press comments on the  Kings’ playoff loss to Edmonton last week. Not only would the team be going  home (literally and end-of-season wise), but Dustin Brown, a lynchpin in the team’s progress from jokey  also-ran to two-time Stanley Cup  champion, would put on  the  gear no more after nearly two decades as a professional hockey player.

I’m not sure how  much more bad news I can take. Maybe the  retirement  of Dustin Brown is not a tragedy. It’s the natural course of time. But it sure doesn’t feel good to know that the first active NHL player I interviewed, back in 2005, has  left the game, though it has been one heck of a  good run.

It was a Saturday night in October, 2005. I had written a couple of profiles for Inside Hockey and was now covering my first NHL game. The interview with Brown had been pre-arranged. I had a long list of questions, sure  in my naïveté  that he would be able to enlighten me on every aspect of the  NHL that I ever wanted a peek behind the curtain at.

I’m not sure why I picked Brown to request to talk to.  At the time, he was a possible top-six player, but also considered as someone who would grind his way through a career that would in no way see him a star. That actually makes little sense for a 13th overall, first-round draft pick. Maybe I was listening too much to the newspaper writers of the day if  I had this  opinion.  Then  again, nobody much was covering  the  Kings back then. One night, the only two people in the  coach’s  post-game press conference were me and the  guy operating the camera. In any  case, #23 patiently fielded all my inquiries.

What I remember most is him saying something  like,  “They let you  do  what’s best for you” when I  asked about  how regimented the meals and off-time rules were. Brown knew, in other words, that it wasn’t just  that the team let him do what would work for him, but that he had the  responsibility to do that. No hockey police were going to come in and snatch the hamburger from his hand. And it was precisely  because he took this seriously that  he  made something of himself in hockey. A big something.

Brown has played a gritty game, but he’s not someone who  could ever have  been dismissed for lack of skill.  He’s someone with a work ethic that has taken him from uncertain prospects to prospective Hall-of-Famer.

His numbers on the career look like this: 1296 games played. 325-387-712 points. And 92 more playoff games with 19-30-49 points. In the regular season, he averaged about a penalty every three to four games. In the playoffs, one every two. But great as those  numbers are, they do not  sum up  his  contribution to the Kings, and to hockey  in general  in Southern  California, because, as was said, he did what even the Great Gretzky couldn’t do, and that’s  make the club a winner.

Kings fans probably do not forget that the 2004-05 season’s being wiped out due to a labor problem was actually very good for the  Kings, because it allowed their (at the time) AHL affiliate in Manchester, NH, to keep its core together to mature. These players included Brown, Michael Cammalleri, and Tom Kostopolous.

Brown notched 74 points in 79 games that year and came up ready for the NHL in the Fall of  2005. (He had played 31 NHL games in 2003-04 with a paltry single goal and four assists—maybe where his early reputation came from.)

That night, my questions went from “Where do you live when you first get called up? To “What do you eat and does the team regulate that?” I imagined that every moment of the player’s life was controlled and watched by the team, kind of like the old Soviet players were in their hockey camps that I had learned about when the  CCCP team came to Canada to play Team Canada in 1972.

Brown answered everything standing in the doorway to a room across the hall from the  Kings’ dressing room, and everybody who walked by and saw us was one more person of whom I thought, “Yup, I’ve made it and you  see that, right?” Since then, I’ve  covered the  Kings to the tune of more than 700  games, and  Brown has distinguished himself as a star.

In the course of time, in Brown’s early years with the Kings, he put up with what all the local players and fans put up with—ineptitude in management and a constantly revolving science experiment in the nets. Nothing went right, and the team didn’t even make the playoffs until the 2009-10 season. They went out in six games.

By then, Brown was the team’s captain, a job he took in the 2008-09 year. After that playoff loss, if memory serves, Brown took charge of the team in a way that nobody had before, and that I don’t know to have happened with another team. He did that by suggesting that rather than disperse home (Canada and places like Ithaca, NY, where he is from), the guys would stay in LA and train, and bond, over the summer.

The next year, it was six-and-out again, but the pattern had been set, and Brown hoisted the Stanley Cup in the Spring of 2012 for the first time.

Not to discount the sea change in motivation and accountability that Darryl Sutter brought with him as a mid-year replacement, it was largely Brown’s leadership that made the difference. He never took a night off. He usually led the  team in hits on a daily, and season-long, basis. He was the poster boy for the hard and heavy hockey that was a winning formula twice, in 2012 and 2014.

Brown remained captain until the end of 2015-16, when he was stripped of the title. People wondered how he would react. The speculation a year later was that he would be off to Vegas in the expansion draft. Never happened, and he showed no signs of animosity, but only supported his friend, Anze Kopitar, as he took over the C even as Brown became a yet more  effective player himself and a mentor for a generation of young players now looking to go a further step towards another Stanley Cup.

Kopitar, first with the biggest hug for Brown after his last regular-season game, gave Brown back the C for that night,  and fans hoped for  a long  playoff run. That wasn’t to be, though most people are proud of the way the team pushed the Oilers to seven games despite a  depleted, injury-plagued lineup.

So as summer approaches, one thing we know is that Dustin Brown will be free of the pressure to get in shape for another season of hockey.  What we don’t know is what he’ll be doing instead. Speculation has him taking a place with the Kings’ organization, but that’s the easy call. If he wanted to move back to his home state, the league office would likely have something for him. Isn’t it about time for a new Director of Player Safety?

Whatever comes to pass, Dustin Brown’s leadership made him a star, and were he playing in the East, he’d be on a lot more people’s A-list. Oh well—they can just be surprised when he gets that Hall of Fame call, which would only be the right thing to have happen.

In the meantime,  whether he takes a job in hockey, another field, or not at all while his family grows up, Brown’s  retirement marks the passage of time for fans—and for the writer for whom interviewing him in 2005 helped launch a long run that he (me) is not ready to  give up yet.

Note

Since that night  in 2005, Brian Kennedy has written Growing Up Hockey and written or edited nine other books. He is a member  of the  Professional  Hockey Writers Association.