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April 30, 2012
The scars worn by rugged Kings captain Dustin Brown, who led L.A. to a stunning first-round upset of the Canucks, tell the tale of a postseason marked—and marred—by mayhem
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April 30, 2012

The Face Of The Playoffs

The scars worn by rugged Kings captain Dustin Brown, who led L.A. to a stunning first-round upset of the Canucks, tell the tale of a postseason marked—and marred—by mayhem

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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 Laperrière, 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."

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