Though the grind of more games than any player in Kings franchise lore and the most official hits of anyone in NHL history was long and arduous for Dustin Brown, it was aptly summarized in an instant this week.
A 300-foot, three-dimensional animated billboard, sprawling across the structures at South Figueroa Street and West Pico Boulevard, shows Brown checking an opponent through the glass, smiling at his adoring audience and hoisting the Stanley Cup. The display’s form and feats alike are unique: No other athlete infused as much emotion into the Kings organization, no one took them to greater heights as a captain and no hockey player achieved such a strong connection to the second-largest U.S. market.
Not even current captain Anze Kopitar, whose relationship with Brown flourished into a fraternal one across three decades and two ascents to the summit to capture the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. Nor Dave Taylor, who was a rock on the consecrated Triple Crown line and then later drafted Kopitar, Brown and Jonathan Quick as the Kings’ general manager. Even Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One” credited ad nauseam with sparking interest in hockey in a market defined more by droughts than frozen ponds among other exploits as the league’s all-time leading scorer, never captained the Kings to one Cup, let alone two, or found himself featured so prominently in the downtown skyline.
A 300-foot, three-dimensional animated billboard, at South Figueroa Street and West Pico Boulevard features retired Kings great Dustin Brown ahead of Saturday’s statue unveiling and jersey retirement ceremonies. (Photo courtesy LA Kings)
“I’m not sure anybody’s going to be able to compete with Brownie in that aspect, because he was the captain of multiple Stanley Cup teams,” General Manager Rob Blake made it a point to say before discussing the team’s season, success and shortcomings after Brown’s final campaign.
Saturday, the Kings will retire Brown’s No. 23, raising it to the rafters in a pregame ceremony about 6 p.m. before they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. Brown will also join Gretzky, former teammate Luc Robitaille, broadcaster Bob Miller and legends of other sports immortalized in sculpture in Star Plaza. Brown’s statue outside Crypto.com Arena will also be unveiled Saturday, cementing his place among the icons who made the venue historic.
“I’m excited for it, but there’s like this nervous energy. It’s not really, per se, about speaking in front of people, I’ve done that before,” said the 38-year-old Brown, who overcame speech difficulties to become a Mark Messier Leadership Award winner and a pitchman for companies like Toyota. “It’s just a pretty big moment and there’s no hiding when the night is about you. I don’t really particularly like the spotlight, but I’m proud of my career and I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Selected 13th overall in the 2003 draft, Brown developed into an All-Star right wing for the Kings, for whom he played his entire career, and an Olympic medalist with Team USA. But the Ithaca, New York, native wasn’t a natural goal-scorer like Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya were for the Ducks, nor did he have the brilliant hockey imagination of Gretzky.
What he was was a rock solid, up-and-down player for 18 seasons whose intensity never wavered and often reached its peak in big games. Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter, who guided Brown from 2011 to 2017, told the Kings’ website that he felt Brown was “underrated” as big-game performers went. He often lagged behind in reputation to players like Kopitar, a perennial team scoring leader, and Justin Williams, who earned the sobriquet “Mr. Game 7.” But in 2012’s postseason, Brown was neck-and-neck with Kopitar in points, and in 2014 he and Williams each delivered an overtime game-winner in the Stanley Cup Final.
“If you look at the playoff games and playoff history, Brownie is one of the best players ever,” Sutter said. “In fact, one of those playoff runs, I believe Brownie was tied with Kopi for the scoring race in the playoffs. In regular seasons, guys have ebbs and flows in their games, but Brownie, in playoff time, every shift, every game he was right there. When the series was over, you know he’d given his all, he’d left it all out there and he played hurt through it all, and the playoffs were his type of game.”
The Kings’ Anze Kopitar celebrates his goal with Dustin Brown to take a 2-0 lead over the Vegas Golden Knights on April 12, 2021, at Staples Center. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
As a civilian since playing his final game nine months ago, Brown has been a popular figure at games and, despite no longer feeling as invested in the outcome, his winning ways have carried over from ice level to event level. He’s been to half-dozen contests and the Kings have won them all.
“For me to just go and sit back and relax and watch the games has been fun. It’s been pretty enjoyable to just go there, be in that environment and not have the pressure of performing,” Brown said.
For the rugged side the 6-foot, 220-pounder showed opponents and the somewhat stoic nature of his meticulous daily routines, Brown was also a source of confidence, guidance and even levity, albeit sometimes unintentional, for his teammates. Kopitar was hardly the only King to forge a strong bond with Brown, whose career spanned generations and encompassed the ups and downs of two rebuilds to go along with a pair of championships.
The Kings’ Dustin Brown, center, celebrates his goal with teammates Anze Kopitar, left, and defenseman Drew Doughty during the third period against the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 16, 2021, at Staples Center. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
When Brown last attended a Kings home game, there was a moment that felt like a flashback to triumphs past when he and franchise defenseman Drew Doughty exchanged ear-to-ear, gap-toothed grins and a spirited embrace after the match.
“He was my roommate my first year in the league. He was somewhat of a father figure/brother to me, 100 percent. He taught me so much from the get-go. I love him so much,” Doughty said.
Life away from the rink
While a break from competition may be welcome, Brown described himself as “antsy” and has continued to train five to six days a week, albeit without “running into human bodies” or putting his own through the rigors of 82-plus games.
“When you play, there’s days when your body hurts just getting out of bed. I haven’t had any of those days in a long time now, which is really nice for me,” Brown said.
The Kings’ Dustin Brown kisses his 1-year-old son Cooper Brown after winning the Stanley Cup as they beat the New Jersey Devils 6-1 in Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Final on June 11, 2012, at Staples Center. (Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News)
In his rationale for skating away from the game, Brown naturally emphasized his desire to be with his wife, Nicole, and their four school-aged children.
Dustin has seldom if ever failed to recognize Nicole’s companionship, support and sacrifice, and said he began to get a feel for life as a full-time dad and husband during the pandemic. With play suspended and the world in an eerie sort of holding pattern, Brown grew accustomed to quotidian life being at the fore.
“It gave me a little preview of what it was going to be like and it’s been pretty much how I expected,” Brown said. “A lot of pickups, a lot of dropoffs. I’m like an Uber driver with my kids for school and sports.”
Brown’s leadership was integral in an era that emphasized character, toughness and a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts under the stewardship of Sutter and former GM Dean Lombardi.
In 2012, Brown’s physical play and boundless energy sparked the Kings’ domineering run from last-second qualifier to one of the shortest paths to the Stanley Cup in NHL history. He sprang up from massive checks to deliver even more of his own and provide frequent, timely scoring as well.
In 2013, he injured his knee in the second round against San Jose after taking incidental contact, severely limiting his contributions in the rest of a run that culminated in a conference finals loss to Chicago.
In 2014, he and the Kings returned to the pinnacle, giving every last drop of blood and drip of sweat, but saving the tears for the celebration of a historically exhilarating run.
They fell down 3-0 against San Jose – and current Kings coach Todd McLellan – before becoming the fourth team in NHL history and fifth in the history of major North American sports (NHL, NBA, MLB) to surmount such a deficit. They’d court disaster and conquer glory again and again.
Dustin Brown and family celebrate with the Stanley Cup after the Kings defeated the Rangers 3-2 in double overtime during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 13, 2014, at Staples Center. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
They toppled the Ducks in Games 6 and 7 in the next round. In what some considered the series of the decade, the Kings became the first team to win three Game 7s in a single playoff run when they knocked off the defending champion Blackhawks in Chicago. A five-game Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers wasn’t as simple as it sounds: It featured nearly seven games’ worth of action thanks to five overtime periods.
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Even with so many magnificent moments in those series and beyond, Brown did not hesitate when proffering his favorite memory from his illustrious career.
“The one moment above all else is just lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time,” Brown said. “Being the first King to lift the Stanley Cup was a pretty special moment for me personally but it was a pretty special moment for thousands of people is what I’ve learned.”