By Larry Wigge
There's something about hearing your name in a trade rumor that is morbidly heart stopping.
For Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, it was more than a wake-up call. The 27-year-old power forward has loved being a big hitter for the team for the last 7 1/2 season. He has wanted to remain a King. So, he had to kick himself in the rear and start to perform. Live up to his 27-goal performance over the past four season -- and be a leader, a physical presence among the league leaders in hits each season.
Call it motivational scare tactics on the part of the Kings, but it worked.
Since the trade rumors, founded or unfounded, Brown scored three goals in an early 15-minute stretch and matched his career high with four points in an impressive response in a 4-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks February 25. He followed that by totaling seven goals and 14 assists in the 18 games -- running his total to 21 goals and 31 assists in 79 games. It was that wake-up call that resulted in a three goal and one assist performance on February 25 against the Chicago Black Hawks.
"I've been a King my whole career ... and I expect to be a King beyond the next few days," Brown said. "With all the rumors flying around, it's my responsibility to prepare myself to be the best I can. Tonight felt good."
Coach Darryl Sutter called the Ithaca, N.Y., native, out.
"He's a straight-line, up-and-down, go-to-the-net, shoot-the-puck, run-over-people player," Sutter said. "So just break it down. If he's doing those four or five things, he's effective. If he's not doing all those things, he's not effective."
That's not a bad thing -- if you produce.
If not ...
That's why Brown, the hit man, who was the first pick, 13th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft became such a valuable young leader on the Kings.
Brown's relentlessly energetic, pedal-to-the-metal game and his tendency to play far bigger than his listed 6-foot and 209 pounds remain attention-getting, but he also has progressed so far as a leader, the "C" on his sweater this season seems to fit.
"The main thing here in L.A. is changing the culture of our team and making it a winning team," said Brown. "Once that happens, you'll see all the other stuff happening, especially in L.A. Playing in L.A. is great, but there's a lot of work to be done before we reap those benefits."
"He came on board, and he was such a quiet kid, just playing the game and so forth," said Luc Robitaille, a Kings hero, and now a front-office man. "Now, he's taken on that leadership role. No matter what the score is, he just plays hard. I don't think I've ever seen a player hit that hard, that often. He seems to never miss a guy. He's a force and he's becoming more and more a better power forward, like some of the great ones. He's the image we want our team to have."
The question was sort of a contradiction in terms in today's NHL, where teams are always looking for more goals.
"Ask him if he would rather score a goal or make a big hit," former St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray said when asked what he remembered about the thing that stands out most about Kings power forward Dustin Brown. "I'll bet you get a big smile from him."
"He plays like he's from Southern Manitoba rather than upstate New York," Murray said with a laugh, referring to the culture of Western Canada hockey players who are usually come to play the game with a grit and enthusiasm that is contagious. "He'll do whatever it takes to make an impact in a game, whether that means make a big hit or score a big goal ... or anything in between.
"I remember early in the 2005-06 season seeing him play a game against Anaheim in which he hit Chris Pronger once and got a look of annoyance that a young player would challenge him in front of his own net. Then, later in the game, Dustin tried to bowl him over in the corner. The look of anger on Pronger's face was priceless. This kid had gotten under his skin and took him off his game."
"Yeah, I'll never forget that," Brown exclaimed. "You don't want a big guy like Chris Pronger angry at you. But I think it was those two hits that started getting me noticed. It certainly wasn't because of my goal-scoring."
Now, Dustin Brown is making an impact as more than just a one-dimensional player. He hits. He scores. And then he hits some more. He can clearly change momentum with a big hit, or a key goal -- as he has done lately.
And, oh, yes, he did flash a big smile when I asked him if he would rather score a big goal or make a big hit.
"I don't know," he laughed. "I made it in this league by making a few big hits. That was my way to create a little time and space for my teammates and motivate my team.
"Now, I guess I'll do whatever it takes to make the Kings better."
Dustin credits the hard-charging, big-hitting part of his game to Colorado Avalanche and former Kings center Ian Laperriere, a feisty competitor who will not back down from anyone.
Brown started in hockey by following older brother Brandon around. Quickly, he was making his own way. And he was doing it despite the breakup of his parents, Bryan and Sharon.
"Both my parents were always there for us, so it wasn't like we had a big obstacle to overcome," Dustin said. "They have been there for every big decision, every big event."
Dustin and Nicole, his wife, don't have a lot of free time since Jake came along. When he does, he likes country music, most notably Tim McGraw. He's a sucker for a good dog -- he has three ... Macy, Bailey and Milo. Fight Club is his favorite movie and Edward Norton his favorite actor. His first extravagant purchase was a BMW. His first job was working at a golf course, although lacrosse has always been his favorite sport aside from hockey.
"You grow up fast when at 18 you're in the NHL ... in Hollywood ... you see Shaquille O'Neal at one of your games along with all sorts of movie stars like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Goldie Hawn," he said. "You're wide-eyed. Naive. You're wondering if you're going to be able to do enough to stay in the NHL.
"When you start to feel a little more comfortable, feel like you belong ... then you get married and the terms accountability and responsibility on the ice to your teammates take on a completely different definition. You come home to a wife and son. That's the ultimate in having to grow up in a hurry."
Dustin said he plays faster now that he is eating better -- the result of a more determined offseason of training once he and his new bride returned to L.A.
"I think I'm a little quicker and faster. I'm a little lighter. That obviously helps," said Brown, whose quickness has enabled him to jump into the holes more easily and get his shot off faster. "Nutrition. Training. That's something I never concerned myself with before. I'd just put on my skates and jump on the ice and play. With more responsibilities, I realized I had to be more ready for whatever this season had in store for me.
"That's why I made sure that last summer would be the hardest I ever worked in the offseason -- and I think it's paid off."
"He's a throwback to about 15 years ago when players came into this league and looked for hits up and down the ice," Kings veteran defenseman Rob Blake said. "He hits like a truck. But he's never out there running around out of control."
What is most exciting for Dustin Brown is that he doesn't have to decide if he'd rather score a big goal or make a big hit. Because he's doing both with great regularity.