If Dustin Brown has similar plans to celebrate his 30th birthday on November 4, look out Dallas Stars.
The Kings’ captain may be coming off a disappointing season statistically, though the club’s intangibles that mesh so well with an up-tempo, high-paced possession game are embedded in the play and psyche of the soon-to-be tricenarian.
If he’s aging, he doesn’t look it. On a first glance, the winger and 11-year veteran reported to camp svelte and with hair considerably longer than the close-cropped do many would recognize.
On the other hand, there were the 1996-born players at training camp who provided an indirect reminder of one’s own hockey mortality.
“It’s a little weird, just being one of the more veteran guys,” Brown said. “I’ve always been one of the more veteran guys here just because of how our team has developed over the last four or five years. But seeing some of the younger guys come in, the guys that I don’t necessarily know very well, it’s definitely weird seeing some of their birthdates.”
Brown had little time to gain a comfort level in a professional setting when he was new to the organization. After three seasons with the OHL’s Guelph Storm, he was immediately thrust into the dressing room of a team that had not yet identified any plans to rebuild but was beginning to gravitate more towards the depths of the Western Conference standings than rising to the top.
As Dean Lombardi was hired in the spring of 2006, a concerted rebuild was in its infancy. It meant a 29th-place finish in 2007-08, but it also meant handing the captaincy of the team to a soon-to-be 24-year-old who was coming off a 33-goal season but hadn’t yet refined his command and presence within the room.
“Six, seven years ago when we first got here, the biggest thing I’ve seen is his growth in that area. And, the beauty about him, is he clearly knows he’s got to improve,” General Manager Dean Lombardi said. “And I think it’s more that he realizes he’s got to get better that rubs off on everybody in terms of keeping that focus, that you don’t think you’ve got it all figured out. But, I think collectively, there are so many leaders in different ways in there. Like, how do you define Justin Williams rising to the occasion? Is that a form of leadership? You talk about an older guy like Robyn Regehr fighting [Brent] Burns at a critical moment of the series. That’s a form of leadership. Jarret Stoll – I mean, you see this guy, the way he comes in. So you go right down the line.”
Brown has grown on the job, and in addition to the other major presences within the room, has forged a collective governance of the team in which he by example and by diction has helped orchestrate an interweaving of personalities that has only the common goal in mind.
“The thing that’s interesting, though, is you’re starting to see some allies in Kopitar and Doughty,” Lombardi said. “Kopitar’s growth has been huge, and now you’re starting to see Drew, which most people had thought, ‘Nuh uh.’ That’s just the way Drew was. But when you see that Chicago series, and how wired he was after falling off the bench, that’s pure emotion. That ain’t fake. That’s a guy committed to the team. I think collectively, the leaders in there – and that’s the thing, too, when I talk about Gaborik getting into the fabric, and Carter and Richards take that upon themselves. Or Toffoli and Pearson coming, and Brownie embraces Toffoli. ‘Here’s what you’re going to do.’ I think that’s always been the mark of really good teams. It’s hard to single out one guy a lot of times. Even Bobby Clarke will tell you that about those great Flyer teams. Clearly he was the focal point, but he’d be the first to admit the impact of [Ed] Van Impe, [Joe] Watson and those guys.”
“It’s not a cliché to say that you’ve got a lot of leaders in there in their own way. But I also think, like I say, what I love about Brownie is he sees his growth, but I don’t think he’s finished.”
Leadership is one of many intangibles that is difficult to define and impossible to quantify.
But it is clear in the evolution of Brown’s captaincy that he is one of many players who holds the room to the highest standards, and while the encouragement of the team may not always manifest itself in verbalization, it can easily be said that a rising tide has certainly raised all ships – as well as expectations.
“I wouldn’t necessarily measure our team by being vocal,” Brown said. “It’s more of just taking ownership of the team. We’ve kind of created a culture here as an organization and now it has kind of trickled down to the players, which is ultimately what you want. We have a certain way we do things. Probably the best way to put it is the evolution of the team is four or five years ago the coach, GM, management were trying to push us in the right direction and now the players are pushing each other and holding more of the ownership of what we want to do as a team.”
The coaching staff has also helped to polish the finer points of this group’s direction. While Brown recalls former coach Andy Murray’s penchant for preparation – “he used to shove two page scouting reports under the doors at hotels,” Brown recalled – Darryl Sutter’s preparation relies more on strengthening the team’s bonds and raising the emotional levels than incessantly pounding home X’s and O’s.
“He has these sayings that he gets into,” Brown said. “They switch for him every couple of weeks, but he’ll just say the same thing over and over a lot. ‘Fast,’ ‘pace,’ ‘hard,’ and then there are times when he doesn’t say anything and whether he’s unhappy with how we’re playing, he’s not going to bring out the drawing board on the bench. That’s not his style. I know if he doesn’t bring out the drawing board when we’re doing drills. He just points.”
When asked about the evolution of the team’s culture under his tenure as captain, Brown referenced the summer workouts that he organized with Matt Greene, “and pretty much everyone showed up,” he said.
“It takes time,” Brown said. “I can’t sit here and say we understood as players when [Lombardi] first got here. We didn’t and what we’ve gone through and what we’ve been able to accomplish helps, I guess, in solidifying that belief system and that culture. Again, when you have won, certain rookies coming up or new guys coming into the organization, it’s ‘fall in line or be passed over.’
While the coaches and management have helped to facilitate that direction, the success – and there has been a good deal of success during his captaincy after early growing pains – comes from within the room.
“I think it probably started a year or so after we made the Greener, Stolly trade. I always say those two guys are a huge part of our room and what we’re about. You’ve got to have the weight in the room to kind of tip the scales until you have the right guys that are willing to make a change. You can make all the changes in the front office or with the coaches, but if you don’t have the right players in the room, [you won’t find success].”
“That’s why some teams succeed and some teams don’t. The difference is in the players, ultimately.”
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