Once a shy rookie, Brown now looks to lead Kings back to spotlight
One of his teammates was Luc Robitaille, and Brown almost felt as if he should walk up to Robitaille in tandem with Robitaille's son, Steven, and ask for his allowance.
"I was closer to Luc's son's age than to Luc's age," Brown said with a smile after the Kings' morning skate in Denver on Tuesday.
Only five years later, his maturation and transformation are stunning.
Brown's relentlessly energetic, pedal-to-the-metal game and his tendency to play far "bigger" than his listed 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds remain attention-getting, but he also has progressed so far as a leader, the "C" on his sweater this season seems to fit.
With eight goals and nine assists so far in 2008-09, Brown is leading by high-RPM example, with a quiet self-assurance and thoughtfulness that might not lead you to picture him driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the radio blasting, but nonetheless comfortably serving as a spokesman and one of the public faces of a franchise attempting to reassert itself in the crowded Southern California sports marketplace.
"The main thing here in L.A. is changing the culture of our team and making it a winning team," said Brown, who turned 24 on Nov. 4. "Once that happens, you'll see all the other stuff happening, especially in L.A. Playing in L.A. is great, but there's a lot of work to be done before we reap those benefits."
Brown, raised in Ithaca, N.Y., is the Kings' first U.S.-born captain, and also their youngest. As hard as this might be to believe, he is the only Kings player who lives year-round in the Los Angeles area, with his wife, Nicole, and their infant son, Jake. That and the six-year, $19.05 million contract extension he signed in October 2007 underscore his commitment to being part of the rebuilding. The Kings have him locked up through 2013-14, and followed that with the signing eight weeks ago of prized center Anze Kopitar to an extension that kicks in next season and takes him through 2015-16.
Veteran coach Terry Murray, in his first season with the Kings, said Brown "understands how this whole thing works, with the organization and the people that come through this hockey club.
"When management talked to him about becoming captain of this team, it was something he was very excited to take on. That's a big change in his persona, from what I understand, from when he first came into this league. His contribution in the locker room is really good. He's got great awareness, has his finger on the pulse of the team as to how things are going off the ice, and on the ice, he's one of those guys who comes to play hard every day, every practice. That's what I love about him."
Robitaille, now the Kings' President of Business Operations, was with the team in Denver, in part because team owner Phil Anschutz lives there, and attended Los Angeles' 6-1 loss to Colorado on Tuesday night.
"He came on board, and he was such a quiet kid, just playing the game and so forth," Robitaille said of Brown. "Now, he's taken on that leadership role. Last summer, he was out in the community everywhere and really has taken it upon himself to become this leader and take this team to another level. He's been part of this organization for a while and we haven't won much, and we wanted some changes, and he's been great.
"No matter what the score is, he just plays hard. I don't think I've ever seen a player hit that hard, that often. He seems to never miss a guy. He's a force and he's becoming more and more a better power forward, like some of the great ones. He's the image we want our team to have."
Brown got to the NHL after leaving Ithaca at 15 to take the major-junior route, rather than pursue collegiate options. He spent three seasons with the Guelph Storm of the OHL before joining the Kings, who had made him the 13th overall choice of the 2003 draft. In retrospect, the Kings rushed him.
"The first year here was a tough year for me," he said. "I was 18 and I got hurt and things didn't go well for me personally."
Hampered by ankle injuries, he played in only 31 games for the Kings in 2003-04, getting one goal and four assists. Some of his teammates were angered when Sean Avery, being Sean Avery, teased Brown about his lisp, which now is rarely present or noticeable. It was a big-brother syndrome, and even as Avery is serving his six-game suspension for ridiculous comments, Brown semi-defends Avery, saying he never considered the teasing to be malevolent.
"That's just Aves," Brown said. "When Aves was here, he was hard on me, but at least in the stuff that deals with me, people have made it out to be a lot worse than it was. He'd hassle me, but at the same time, he'd joke with me, too. I think some other people looked at it in a different manner than I did. He didn't really bug me.
"I played with him for three years. Sometimes he made it not fun, but at the same time, the more I got to know him on the personal level, the more I could know what he was all about and you kind of just deal with it. Obviously, lately he's been in the media and he's made out to be a lot worse than it was with me. In L.A., he did some things that were annoying, but it wasn't really hard to deal with. He thrives on reaction and I'm one of those guys who kind of didn't give him any reaction. He didn't like it, but he liked it at the same time."
He and Kopitar, in his third year, are on the same wavelength, and seem destined to be linemates for years.
"He's a special player," Brown said of his center. "I've learned to just always be ready for the puck. Sometimes he'll pass it when you least expect him to."
With Kopitar's help, Brown's breakthrough season was 2007-08, when he had 33 goals. The Kings now seem prescient for getting him signed to the extension when they did.
"I did it because I liked L.A., my wife liked L.A., and it was more of a security blanket for me," Brown said. "Whether I could have made more or less a year from now, there was a chance I was going to have to give up a chance to be in L.A. and be a part of this team.
"Had I felt differently about the team and where it was going to go, maybe I wouldn't have signed there. We're heading in the right direction and that's something that was a big part of my decision-making when we were talking extension and whether I wanted to be part of this team and where they were going."
After their loss in Denver on Tuesday, the Kings were 11-12-4, in 13th place in the Western Conference and four points out of what would be the final playoff spot. With Murray behind the bench, the Kings are competitive, and their youth -- including Kopitar, 21; center Oscar Moller, 19; defenseman Drew Doughty, who turned 19 Monday; and winger Wayne Simmonds, 20 -- helps makes optimism reasonable.
In fact, Brown is one of nine Kings on the active roster who are 25 or under, and their top five scorers -- Kopitar, winger Alexander Frolov, Brown, defenseman Kyle Quincey and center Patrick O'Sullivan -- all are 26 or younger. Plus, prized defenseman Jack Johnson, 21, out since suffering a shoulder injury on Oct. 12, could return as soon as late January. Yet, in the nation's No. 2 market, the Kings are $12 million under the salary cap and are 22nd in NHL attendance, and it might take some financial aggressiveness on the trading front and significant improvement to fill the Staples Center seats again -- at least this season.
"On the motivational side, we're still at the bottom of the league, and my motivation is to make the playoffs first and foremost and become a contender for the Cup," said Brown. "This year, we've come together pretty well. Now it's just adding pieces of the puzzle We keep on learning and growing together as a team -- you can look at it like what Philly did. They were a shambles and now they have that young core and now they're doing pretty well for themselves. I would say in the next couple of years we could be fighting for top spots."
If Brown's relentlessness is contagious, that will help.
"His hard work is something to look up to," said Moller, the Swedish rookie who passed through two seasons of major junior with the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League before joining the Kings. "He leads the way for us with big hits and energy, too. He's a guy that I certainly look up to."
Brown said, "We're playing a game most people would like to play for fun, so if you're not putting your best effort forward, you're kind of cheating yourself and the fans, as well. I pride myself on trying to bring that kind of effort each and every game. Obviously, you're not going to be at your best every game, but the effort can be there."
In a rebuilding project, that's a good start.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."
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