By Larry Wigge
The question was sort of a contradiction in terms in today's NHL, where teams are always looking for more goals.
Ask Dustin Brown if he would rather score a goal or make a big hit? Yes, indeed the question and answer produced all teeth ... a big smile from Brown.
"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."
Impact player. An in-your-face player. Ready to knock your block off. A power forward with the intensity and determination of the position. He and New Jersey captain Zach Parise are threatening to become the first U.S. born leaders since Dallas' defenseman Derian Hatcher led the Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup championship.
Hit or be hit.
In his first three seasons, Dustin Brown might have smiled a wry smile and bit on the question. He had one, 14 and 17 goals. But then came the turnaround season -- 33 goals in the 2007-08 season.
Andy Murray his first coach in the NHL, who was coaching in Los Angeles at the time, convinced the Kings to keep Brown right out after the team made him the 13th pick overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, because ...
"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."
Now, Brown has an established persona. The right wing from Ithaca, N.Y., doesn't care who is driving the car that he collides into ... or vice versa. He's more than just a one-dimensional player. He hits. He scores. And then he hits some more.
Dustin credits the hard-charging, big-hitting part of his game to former Kings' center Ian Laperriere, a feisty competitor who will not back down from anyone.
"I think it's important to be hard on the other team's top player and I make an effort of finishing my checks," said Brown. "But those big, impact hits? They just happen."
"He's like a tank with nitro because of how hard he skates and how thick, how dense, how solid he is," Kings forward Dustin Penner said. "It’s an art the way he hits."
Kings GM Dean Lombardi does what the big-name leaders in other sports do.
"He's doing what leaders do -- recognizing critical moments and getting it done," said Lombardi. "That's still the bottom line. You look at Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and all those guys, that's still the ultimate leader. And we've seen numerous instances of that with Dustin."
It hasn't come easy. Brown's evolution, and maturation, as a captain on and off the ice has had its peaks and valleys. As a young player, Brown was a shy person and being an NHL captain hasn't been a fit overnight for him.
Call it all a matter of timing. Dustin's name was posed as trade bait in late February after the Kings obtained Jeff Carter from Columbus. Lombardi considers it follow -- he would never deal off his captain. But ...
In his final 23 games of the regular season, Brown amassed 9 goals and 16 assists — compared with 13 goals and 16 assists in the Kings’ first 59 games. He has added seven goals and 10 assists in 19 playoff games.
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."
Being in Los Angeles, Dustin Brown figures he had to grow up quickly.
"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."
In this role to the Cup finals, Brown has taken only the Sedins and Vancouver in the first round, David Backes and St. Louis in the next round, Shane Doan and Phoenix in the Wester Conference Finals.
"He has played exactly as their team plays, with speed, tenacity, and a real edge," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, his team run over by Brown in the second round, said. "He has that look like he is willing to go a little further than you are."
Coach Darryl Sutter said simply, "He's still the physical guy, the hard guy to play against. I think in the earlier rounds ... he was more of an offensive guy.
"You have to be careful of that because he's a 20-goal scorer who scores big goals. We still need him to do that. We still need him to be a physical guy and a strong guy on the walls. Everybody asks about our captain and those things. But it doesn't change, right? He had an identity. If he plays in that identity, that's what he does for us."
To Dustin Brown some things never change. He can remember with he was 15- 16-year-old playing with Parise.
"I've known Zach since very well since we about 15 16-year-old," Brown said. "We roomed together in a tournament in Germany. We created a fast friendship playing for our country."
And now, Brown and Parise want the same thing -- the Stanley Cup.
Brown said, "We both do a lot of the little things right. He probably has more skill. I probably have a bigger impact on the game from a physical standpoint."
There's still that question that draws a smile. Would he rather score a goal or make a big hit?
Going into Game 6, Dustin Brown would take whatever it takes to help the Kings win the Stanley Cup.