When the captain’s “C” was ripped off Dustin Brown’s jersey in the summer of 2016, a little piece of his heart went with it.
He had broken in at 18 and excelled while the Kings’ perpetual rebuilding stalled and their locker room seemed to have a revolving door. He was rewarded in 2012, when the Kings went from the eighth seed to Stanley Cup champions and he became only the second American-born captain to lift the trophy. Two years later he became the first American-born captain to hoist it twice. He had given them five straight seasons of at least 20 goals while embodying their identity as a formidably physical team, ranking in the top 20 in the NHL in hits each season from 2005-06 through 2015-16. Once a shy kid with a mild speech impediment, he fueled their 2012 Cup run by dismantling Vancouver in the first round and, overall, scoring 20 points in 20 games. He became their face, their leader.
“He was almost like a father figure to me,” defenseman Drew Doughty said.
But when Brown’s production declined and his differences with then-coach Darryl Sutter grew, then-general manager Dean Lombardi took away the letter that means so much in hockey and gave it to Anze Kopitar. Brown, though upset, continued to be a valued voice in the locker room.
“If I was OK with it being taken away, then it was probably the right decision. And I still feel that way,” Brown said. “It’s one thing if we’d been a failing organization for the last 10 years. But we haven’t. At the end of the day, it was certain people’s decision, and I’m still here to play.”
Brown, 33, is scheduled to play his 1,000th NHL game Thursday night at Staples Center. With family and friends on hand, he will join Dave Taylor as the only men to have played 1,000 games playing only in a Kings uniform. It’s a neat twist because Taylor, later the club’s general manager, chose the native of Ithaca, N.Y., with the 13th pick in the 2003 entry draft.
“It’s one of those things you don’t really think about when you’re playing,” said Brown, who will be recognized Thursday and honored by the NHL on Dec. 28. “But now that it’s kind of here, you definitely think about what it means to myself and everyone I’ve played with, and the organization.”
The beauty of it is Brown isn’t just hanging on. He’s a force again with 12 goals and 28 points, on pace to surpass last season’s 14 goals and 36 points. He’s second among Kings forwards in average ice time at 19 minutes 49 seconds and is as durable as ever: after losing time to an ankle problem as a rookie in 2003-04, he hasn’t sat out more than three games in any season, remarkable for someone who’s so physical. He’s third on the team in goals, tied for second with four power-play goals, and 10th in the NHL in hits through Tuesday.
His rebirth partly stems from the faith of new coach John Stevens and new general manager Rob Blake.
“I never really stopped believing in myself,” Brown said, “but when you have a coach that is putting you in situations and you’re responding the right way, things can go well. I don’t know if that’s always been the case here.”
It is now.
“I think a lot of the success early on here is where he’s been able to get to in the offensive zone. He’s probably more around the front of the net,” Blake said. “We’ve done some work the past few years and we looked at his game early on in his career and where he was scoring from, and I think he made a conscious effort to get back to the front of the net.”
Stevens met with Brown in the summer and expressed high expectations. Brown didn’t flinch.
“I told him if he wasn’t a 20-goal scorer again I’d be disappointed. And he agreed,” Stevens said. “He’s well on his way.”
Not that it has been easy. The subject of trade rumors before the 2012 Cup run, he faced uncertainty again last season when he wasn’t protected from the expansion draft.
“I’m pretty sure he was not enjoying coming to the rink and there were times you could see he was down a little bit,” Doughty said, “but for the most part he tried to keep those things between him and Darryl and not affect the team. He did a great job of that. He worked hard every day to get back to playing well. And now he’s there and I couldn’t be more happy for him.”
Above all, Brown wanted to do it in the only NHL uniform he has worn.
“There were definitely doubts, being honest. Just the dynamics. The expansion draft coming up and prior to that I wasn’t sure I was going to be a King,” he said. “But I always say everything happens for a reason.”
His renaissance has earned attention around the NHL.
“It’s like he’s found the fountain of youth. Just a new sense of everything,” said Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, who coached Brown in 2004-05 when both were with the Kings’ top farm team in Manchester, N.H. “He’s playing like a teenager again. And quite frankly, I’m quite fond of him. He plays hard, he plays in your face. He gets everybody to dislike him but that doesn’t bother him a bit. He goes to the dirty places. He does what a really good captain would always do.”
After the season finale in April, with the Kings out of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, Brown urged teammates to remember how awful they felt and use that as motivation to avoid feeling that way again. He’s doing his part.