I remember very clearly some of the rumblings at the turn of the century, when it was announced that Dustin Brown would leave Ithaca to pursue his hockey fortunes, after only two seasons as a member of the Ithaca High Little Red.
I was asked by at least a dozen people what I thought about it, and several conveyed to me, “I just don’t get it.” Why, they wondered, would a 16-year-old kid leave his hometown and his friends and his school to chase some elusive dream of playing hockey for a living. What about his friends? What about his teammates? What about the prom?
I shared my belief that while I usually agree that becoming a professional athlete is a longshot, and a very unrealistic goal for the vast majority of kids, this scenario might play out differently. I knew that Dustin was indeed something special, that he was head and shoulders above the rest of the kids at virtually every level, and I knew that he had been seen by enough coaches and scouts and others with “hockey smarts” to be in a position to make a very educated decision. Yes, the idea of being a pro athlete stirs a lot of emotion in kids (and their parents, to be sure), but that emotion needs to be tempered with a dose of reality. In this case, the reality was that the kid had a shot.
After playing at Ithaca High for the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons, Dustin went north — first to the Syracuse Stars, then on to the Guelph Storm. The Storm is a Major Junior team in Canada, and Brown was named Scholastic Player of the Year while playing for the team.
I recall having a few phone conversations with Dustin while he was based in Guelph, and if memory serves, we once spoke via a satellite phone or some other non-conventional way of communicating, given he was on a road trip in some remote Canadian town. In many ways, he sounded like a typical 18 year-old, speaking enthusiastically about playing a game, but at other times he sounded like a grown-up with a very clear vision of where he was going and how he would get there.
It was pretty big news in 2003, when the NHL draft was broadcast and Dustin was taken in the 1st round (13th overall pick) by the Los Angeles Kings. Some local hockey fans were a little disappointed that he didn’t land in New York, or Philly, or Buffalo, or New Jersey, as they wanted to make frequent road trips to see him play, but the fact that the local boy made it to the NHL was a great story in any case.
Dustin was injured in his first season, then played briefly for the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL (during the strike season) before returning to the big club for good. As his skills and his leadership capabilities evolved, it was clear to the Kings’ management that they had found their next captain. In the words of General Manager Dean Lombardi, “You don’t just put a ‘C’ on a guy’s jersey. He has to earn it.”
Earn it he did, and earlier this month, Dustin Brown of Ithaca, became only the second U.S.-born captain to hoist the coveted Stanley Cup, capping off a brilliant playoff run that saw him put up 20 points on 8 goals and 12 assists. (Brown was just 14 years old when Derian Hatcher, of Sterling Heights, Mich., led the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup triumph over the Buffalo Sabres in 1999.) Dustin’s ability to hit like a freight train while still staying healthy is a rare combination at hockey’s highest level, and he has proven himself to be among the world’s elite players.
With the Stanley Cup firmly in hand, Dustin Brown was greeted with wild applause as he took a seat next to Jay Leno last week. Leno teased him a bit, showing a video clip of Dustin trying unsuccessfully to squirt water into his mouth while holding the water bottle backward, and they talked about Ithaca. That place where people didn’t get why a kid would leave home to chase his hockey dreams. They get it now.