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Brown is a big hit on and off the ice

Kings forward has gone from quiet rookie picked on by Sean Avery to one of the team's best players and a leader in the locker room.

November 11, 2008|Chris Foster | Foster is a Times staff writer.

Dustin Brown can leave an impression.

That was clear early in his Kings career. As a 20-year-old forward with fewer than 40 NHL games on his resume, he went to work. In one week, he clobbered three future Hall of Famers -- Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, the Ducks' Chris Pronger and Colorado's Joe Sakic -- to start the 2005-06 season.

Some remember. "I recall that. I had the puck, then I was on the ice," Lidstrom said.

Some don't. "Nope, don't remember it," Pronger said.

"Who can Brown hit for you?" became a running joke.

That was the easy part of NHL life for Brown. A shy man, with a minor lisp, Brown tried to go unnoticed in what was at the time a volatile dressing room.

So this summer when that same wallflower stood up at the Kings' prospects camp and launched into a thoughtful life-in-the-NHL speech, team officials were stunned.

"I went upstairs and told [General Manager] Dean Lombardi, 'I just saw your team captain speak,' " said Jack Ferreira, special assistant to the GM.

The kid who two years ago said he "had blinders on" in the dressing room was given the jersey with a "C" this season. He had grown into it.

"Maybe two years ago, I wouldn't have believed this," he said.

Brown, now 24, chose to be here, seeking a long-term deal, which Lombardi was more than happy to give. The six-year, $19.05-million contract will probably be well below Brown's market value in a few years.

He is comfortable in Los Angeles, where he is finally among his peers on the ice.

Brown is also now a father, with another child on the way. Nicole Brown, his wife, is due in April.

"He was a very, very quiet kid, but we all saw the pure talent," said former teammate Luc Robitaille, now the team's president of business operations. "Looking back, I realize he was sitting, watching, trying to learn what it takes to be professional."

A Brown hit is hard to miss. There's the sound of a body being pounded against the boards, followed by primal screams from Kings fans at Staples Center.

Brown skates away, often with the victim in tow, chirping at him.

That's how it played out with Pronger, then with the Edmonton Oilers. He may choose to have a lapse in memory, but the night it happened, Pronger went after Brown, verbally anyway, yakking at him for 10 seconds while play continued.

It was part of a whirlwind week where Brown battered three players who have won seven Norris Trophies, two Hart Trophies and one Conn Smythe Trophy.

Brown has always said, "That's what I do, hit people." But he can also play. Last season, Brown led the NHL with 311 hits, but he also scored 33 goals.

"A lot of your physical guys aren't good players and never get on the ice," Detroit Coach Mike Babcock said. "This is a guy who plays 22 minutes against your best guys. You've got to keep your head up because he's always on the hunt."

But that on-ice persona melted away off it. As a young man in a veteran room, Brown felt out of place, pointing out now that, "I was a lot closer in age to Luc Robitaille's son than I was to Luc."

Robitaille, Ian Laperriere and Mattias Norstrom reached out, but the characters who came and went in that room -- Ziggy Palffy, Jeremy Roenick, etc. -- made being invisible preferable to a shy kid from Ithaca, N.Y.

"I'm one of those people that once I'm comfortable and get to know a person, I open up," Brown said. "Hockey was the easy part, but fitting in socially with an older team was hard."

Add Sean Avery, who often selected Brown to ridicule. Brown has had a slight lisp since childhood. "I can talk without it," he said, "but I have to really think about it. When I try to think about it, I feel uncomfortable."

It was something that Brown said was unimportant, but Avery would mock his speech, among other things. The friction in the room resulted in fist fights, with other Kings players jumping in on Brown's side.

Avery, whom the Kings shipped to the New York Rangers in 2006, returns to Staples Center tonight, playing for the Dallas Stars now. Brown, sounding very much like a leader, shrugged it off, saying, "It's a non-issue. We faced him when we played the Rangers last year. Besides, I think there are only four or five guys left from when he was here."

That turnover left Brown in a dressing room that currently has nine players who are younger than he is. Brown noticed the change and asked to speak to the group of prospects last summer.

"I went through what they are going through just a couple years ago," Brown said. "If there was a guy like me, a key part of the team, who came in and talked to us back then, that would have been great for me."

Said Lombardi: "It's not just what he said, it's that he wanted to say it. You don't just put a 'C' on a guy's jersey. They have to earn it."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

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