Mason Brown bounded into his parents' bedroom last Thursday morning, marched over to their bed and surveyed his father's face. "Daddy," he said, "you have a new boo-boo." This is a favorite game in the Brown home. Some young children like to play Candy Land or with Legos. The rough-and-tumble Brown boys prefer to play boo-boos, scanning their father for abrasions, cuts, lumps, bumps, sutures and the always-popular hematomas. Ever since four-year-old Jake and three-year-old Mason saw their father on the Staples Center video screen with blood streaming down his face, they have been obsessed with boo-boos. They show him theirs, and he shows them his.
This is an article from the April 30, 2012 issue
Dustin Brown is the undisputed boo-boos champion.
The exciting new find was a black-brown smudge, five stitches directly under his nose and above his lip, which looked as if it had been stung repeatedly by wasps. It was the residue of an errant puck that had struck the Kings' captain some 12 hours earlier in the second period of a 3--1 loss to the Canucks in Game 4 of the conference quarterfinals—a defeat that, for the moment, kept eighth-seeded Los Angeles from sweeping Vancouver, the Presidents' Trophy winner, out of the playoffs. There also was a clump of congealed blood on his right ear, the result of his helmet's being knocked askew. Brown gestures toward his left ear with his right hand—his left is swathed in what looks like a fingerless oven mitt that protects his jammed wrist—and shows off remnants of month-old stitches, the by-product of Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk's skate blade. The comma-shaped indentation above his left brow is a reminder of the 2004--05 season, when he spent the lockout in the minors.
Like a Hollywood tour of the stars' homes, every stitch is a story, and every indentation is an anecdote. Brown's otherwise boyish face looks like a baseball that an umpire is about to toss out of play. Nicole, his wife, now limits family portraits to just the three boys (Cooper, the youngest, is one) because she wearied of having to reschedule photo sessions.
"He's pretty much always a mess," says Rob Blake, a manager in the NHL Department of Player Safety who preceded Brown as the Kings' captain. "I'll see him at the rink. Teeth out. Black eye. The reason he gets that way is the way he hits. He comes at guys straight on, face-to-face. He goes right through guys, which makes him more susceptible to errant sticks or elbows."
A straight-on Brown hit left an indelible impression on the 2012 playoffs, not merely in L.A.'s first-round series against the Canucks but on the tournamentwide outbreak of thuggery that Sharks coach Todd McLellan labeled "borderline chaos." Brown wallpapered Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin with a literally breathtaking hit in a 1--0 Game 3 victory on April 15, a check that started the NHL on the road back from an ugly start to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which featured nearly a fortnight of cheap shots and postwhistle mayhem.
Brown's hit, however, which came just in front of the Canucks' bench early in the second period—and Sedin's affirmation that it was clean—was the NHL's adult moment. Within 48 hours of the check, the playoffs seemed to simmer down. The carnage was downgraded. Irrational ceded its place to rugged. (The exception, of course, was Coyotes' forward Raffi Torres's launching himself into Blackhawks star Marian Hossa, who was wheeled off on a stretcher early in a 3--2 Phoenix win on April 17 that put Chicago in a 2--1 series hole. According to the collective bargaining agreement, the league could not give the Coyotes' headshot recidivist 20-to-life, so last Saturday it settled for a 25-game suspension.)
The metaphysical nature of the hit on Sedin was as significant as its physical force, as laudable as Brown's game-winner in the same match and his two shorthanded goals in Game 2. He was stuffed on a Game 4 penalty shot—"I don't know why three games makes you Superman," observed Kings coach Darryl Sutter, a wry gentleman who would need to see more before blurting something as trite as "Heckuva job, Brownie"—and the 27-year-old winger failed to score in Game 5 on Sunday as Los Angeles eliminated Vancouver with a 2--1 overtime win, but he did dish out six hits and block two shots. This was the Kings' first series win in 11 years.
"You can look good and lose," Brown was saying at his kitchen table as his boys tumbled home after their swimming lessons. "Or you can look ugly and win."
Fourteen months ago his seat was considerably hotter, metaphorically at least, than the one in the kitchen of his Manhattan Beach home. Brown was in a second-floor conference room at the Kings' practice facility. General manager Dean Lombardi and assistant G.M. Ron Hextall were there. Terry Murray, then the coach, was there with his staff. For a full hour L.A.'s management gave Brown the devil about the C he had been wearing since Oct. 8, 2008.
Brown is a clenched fist on the ice. ("You can see the intensity oozing out of his eyes," says Jarret Stoll, the veteran Kings forward.) But when things go poorly, Brown's wayward passion, at least judged by arm waving and stick slamming, could be perceived as petulance.
"There are a lot of things about leadership that are intangible," Lombardi said in his office last Friday. "But one tangible thing is body language. In Dustin's case he was trying so hard and getting frustrated, and it manifested itself in bad body language. Nobody should be doing that anyway. But if you're going to be wearing the C and doing it, it really affects everybody."
Brown could barely sleep that night. The next day he walked into Murray's office, and later Lombardi's, and thanked them for making him aware of the problem. "I didn't fully understand the magnitude of the captaincy until then," Brown says. "I didn't completely get [that] what I did was trickling down to the team."
There always had been something speculative about making Brown the youngest captain in franchise history when he was 23 and in only his fifth NHL season. He never had served as a captain at a high level, not with his team in Guelph, of the Ontario junior league, and not in the world junior championships with Team USA. He had the full-bore style that could proudly represent the colors—Los Angeles has worn purple for much of its 44-year history, the shade of a deep bruise—but he was not much for dressing-room oratory. Brown really was not big on chatter at all, at least in situations in which he felt uncomfortable. And for his first year as captain and much of his second, no player in modern NHL history might have been less comfortable.
Brown lisps. He has lisped for as long as he can remember, although the speech therapy he went through as a fifth-grader helped him learn to control it. (The lisp tends to return when he is engaged in casual conversation or after, say, a puck has given him a fat lip.) But in dressing rooms where razzing is the lingua franca, the lisp made him an easy target early in his career. Sean Avery, an occasional linemate of Brown's from 2003 to '07, would insert the needle. "This was bullying, like you might see in high school," says Ian Laperri√®re, the former Kings forward who now mentors young players in the Flyers organization.
The analogy is apt; Brown was still a teenager at the time. 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.
Lombardi traded Avery to the Rangers in February 2007. The next season Brown scored 33, a breakout that might have occurred under any circumstances but coincided nicely with dressing-room changes in Los Angeles. Says Blake, "He really did start to blossom once the stuff in the room dissipated." Brown has not reached the 30-goal level since 2007--08, but he has averaged 26 the past five seasons while leading the NHL in hits, 174 more than the next player, Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck. Brown was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that won silver in Vancouver in 2010.
He is not so much a star as a cornerstone, a straight-ahead player who can score off either wing, kill penalties and hit men harder than the news of a tax audit, all while showing remarkable durability given his abrasive style. (Brown has not missed a match in three seasons and just 10 since the lockout.) He seems perfect for a team whose personality is splashed in earth tones, mostly shades of beige and Brown.
"They are awesome guys," Sutter says. "They are awesome, quiet guys."
Sutter, who took over from Murray four months ago, is famously terse. While Brown lisps, Sutter mumbles. In his first practice the players, spared the on-ice whiteboard talks Murray often gave, jumped directly into a drill that their new coach had ordered. The problem was they had no idea what they were supposed to be practicing because they had yet to sort out Sutter's timbre and speech patterns, let alone his breakouts. Says Brown, "We were completely lost."
The Kings eventually found their game under the guidance of their cattle-rancher coach, exhibiting extraordinary playoff poise given that Los Angeles is the NHL's second youngest team. While the Penguins played like their hair was on fire after they grabbed opening-period leads in the first three games of their series against the Flyers, the Kings were patient, playing a game of minimal risk. Apparently 90% of the postseason really is just showing up. L.A. would hang around against the Canucks and then make their breaks, whether it was Dustin Penner's game-winner late in the opener or Brown's shorties. These Kings might not have won a Stanley Cup together, but seven of them—including Stoll, who scored the series-clinching goal—have played in the finals with other teams.
As is true for Sutter, this is not exactly everyone's first rodeo.
How's the body language?"
That has become their running joke, the G.M. and the captain. Better. Getting better. Lombardi always prods, making sure the desire is channeled in a positive way and does not stray, unlike those errant elbows and sticks that have made Brown the playoffs' marked man.
"The ultimate form of leadership is rising to the occasion," Lombardi says. "What you saw in [Games 2 and 3 against Vancouver] speaks to that. They go and score, and he goes and gets us a shorthanded goal. Next game, the big hit. Scores a goal. You can talk it, but it all comes down to what you do at critical moments. That's leadership."
Boo-boos are transient, but a name etched on the Stanley Cup is eternal. Now there is another series against St. Louis, one more chance for Brown to show he is a cut above.