EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - If Dustin Brown stands up in the Los Angeles locker room before the Stanley Cup finals opener Wednesday night and delivers a stirring, emotional speech that would make Mark Messier proud, his teammates won't know how to react.
"Well, he's not a rah-rah guy," veteran Kings defenceman Matt Greene said. "We don't have too many of those guys in the room. But he knows how to lead, and he does it by example."
Brown prefers showing to telling, whether it's with a timely goal or a bruising hit. The Los Angeles captain's playoff performance has demonstrated something quite clearly to the Kings: Behind his leadership they're capable of winning the franchise's first title.
Brown's hard-hitting, high-scoring play has been the biggest revelation of the post-season for the eighth-seeded Kings, but his quantum leap forward began during the regular season. Brown's run of stellar play started right after he was prominently featured in trade-deadline rumours linking him to Toronto and beyond, forcing the forward to wonder whether he would have to move his young family away from his only NHL team.
"Of course it's concerning to you, but I tried to just concentrate on what I could control," said Brown, the NHL's third-leading post-season scorer. "I just focused on hockey and getting this team to the playoffs, because I felt like we had a team that could do a lot if we got there and started playing together. We felt like we owed it to the fans here to take a shot instead of worrying."
The Kings' long-suffering fans are always near the forefront of Brown's mind when he discusses this playoff run. He realizes Los Angeles has enjoyed only one previous run to the final in 45 years of existence, and he learned all about the Kings' paltry playoff success when he logged 431 regular-season games with the franchise before reaching his first post-season two years ago.
"This is the most successful we've been, but it's not where we want to end up," Brown said.
With 16 points in just 14 games, Brown's scoring has sparked the Kings, but his physical play has been even more decisive. Critics call him a dirty player, decrying his emphatic checks and occasional open-ice hits, but his teammates say he's brilliant at toeing the line of legality.
He exemplified that play in the Kings' clinching victory of the Western Conference finals when he levelled Phoenix's Michal Rozsival at the blue line a moment after the play was whistled dead. Rozsival needed help getting to the locker room, and the Coyotes protested loudly—but Brown didn't get a penalty, and Dustin Penner scored the series-winning goal on the ensuing shift.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan chirped at Brown in the handshake line, and Doan's teammates berated Brown after the game. NHL discipline chief Brendan Shanahan didn't even feel the hit warranted a hearing, much less supplemental discipline.
Even those who insist Brown goes too far must acknowledge he's great at playing on the edge.
"You've got to try to go after guys, get guys off their game," Brown said. "You've got to find a way. If they're trying to go after me, that's good for us. I try to be hard on their top guys, and they try the same with us, but you've got to be better at it."
Brown is willing to take punishment as well: Phoenix's Martin Hanzal boarded Brown in Game 2 of the conference finals, keeping the big forward out of Los Angeles' victory in Game 3 under suspension. Opponents routinely attempt to respond to Brown's fury with extracurricular hits, but the captain nearly always curbs his temper and avoids retaliation.
In a game with as much pushing, shoving and after-the-whistle goonery as the NHL playoffs, that's a remarkable achievement.
"Probably the most frustrating thing he does out of everything is when somebody will try to get him to fight and he just skates away," linemate Justin Williams said. "I know from firsthand experience that that can drive some guys crazy. He's all about playing to the whistle and playing right on the edge, but none of that other stuff, which I admire."
Brown began the playoffs splendidly, with four goals in the first three games of a five-game ouster of Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver. Although Brown has never scored more than 60 points in an NHL regular season, he has remained a steady point contributor in the playoffs despite increased attention from defences.
Brown's leadership role isn't confined to the ice, either. On the road, he rooms with Drew Doughty, calling himself the rambunctious 22-year-old defenceman's chaperone.
It seems to be a comfortable role for Brown, who's just 27 himself. He and his wife, Nicole, already have three sons and a comfortable life in Los Angeles, where he lives nearly year-round. He also spends time around Ithaca, N.Y., where he grew up and learned the game before a three-year stint with the OHL's Guelph Storm.
Los Angeles drafted Brown in the first round in 2003 and promoted him to the NHL immediately, but he didn't stick with the Kings until 2005. He got a lengthy contract extension in 2007 and the captaincy in October 2008, a month before his 24th birthday.
A Stanley Cup ring would set him apart among captains in Kings history—a list that includes Dave Taylor, Rob Blake and Wayne Gretzky.
"I think he's been the same guy since I got here," said defenceman Rob Scuderi, who joined the Kings in 2009. "Certainly with some playoff experience, I think that over the past few years he's really taken a more active role in his responsibility of trying to set the tone and trying to set the pace for our team. I think he's done an excellent job."