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The King of Ithaca

By Harry Thompson, 11/14/23, 9:00PM EST


Dustin Brown's success as a youth player in New York followed Dustin to the NHL and back home again.

Dustin Brown played in 1,296 games over 18 NHL seasons and won two Stanley Cups and an Olympic silver medal. And there he was, standing on a podium surrounded by family and friends during his retirement ceremony recalling the most memorable moment in his illustrious career. 

Despite his success at the professional and international levels, the Ithaca native said one hockey accomplishment still stands out — the Little Red Squirt team winning the New York state championship in 1996. 

“When I think about youth hockey I think about that team and group of kids that I grew up playing hockey with and going through all the things that we all go through when we’re playing this game. That’s really a fond memory for me,” recalled Brown, who had his uniform number 23 retired on Feb. 11 along with the unveiling of a statue of him hoisting the Stanley Cup outside the Arena in Los Angeles.

Never one to crave the limelight, Brown was uncomfortable having so much attention directed his way. He even apologized to his former Los Angeles Kings teammates and their opponents that evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for making them stand around before their game could get under way.

Still, as he often did, Brown rose to the occasion and gave a heartfelt speech that chronicled his journey from a little kid playing hockey with his brother Brandon to becoming one of only two Americans to captain a Stanley Cup team.

And now, Brown will join the Class of 2023 that will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a Dec. 6 ceremony in Boston.

“Being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame or getting a statue or your number retired, it’s not really what you dream of as a kid. It’s really about chasing those dreams day after day after day,” he said. “I’ve tried to sit back and appreciate it, but it’s a bit overwhelming when I think about the whole event.”

Having been through a ceremony that was solely about him, being a part of the Class of 2023 with Jamie Langenbrunner, Katie King Crowley, Brian Murphy and Brian Burke will help deflect the glare of the spotlight away from the humble superstar.

It also helps that Brown has a relationship with three of his fellow classmates. Langenbrunner was a teammate on the 2010 silver-medal winning U.S. Olympic Team, and Burke was the architect of that team that came within an overtime goal of shocking the hockey world in Vancouver. And of course, Brown crossed paths with Murphy during many games of the NHL linesman’s 30-year career. 

“The stuff with LA last February was essentially just about me, which was really, really uncomfortable,” he admitted. “I’ve watched some videos [of past Hall of Fame ceremonies]. It’s a much shorter time, so I’m not that worried about it to be honest. After I did everything last February, this will be easy to get through.”

The biggest challenge may be carving out time for his four kids to join him in Boston. Since moving back to the Buffalo area, Brown is heavily involved in shuttling them around from rink to rink. 

Two of his sons, Jake and Cooper, currently play with the Jr. Sabres, a team Brown helps coach when needed, and his daughter Mackenzie skates with the Amherst Knights. His other son, Mason, is playing with his school team.

“Life’s actually busier for me now than when I played,” he laughs.

In the world of youth sports, what comes around goes around. Brown recalled how his parents drove him all over the state during his younger days. In addition to being a standout hockey player, he also grew up playing lacrosse and baseball. 

It was during his sophomore year at Ithaca High School when he caught the attention of scouts when he scored 33 goals and 21 assists in 24 games as he led Ithaca to the Class A boys’ hockey state championship.

That’s when the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League came calling and the Brown family was faced with a tough decision. It proved to be a fruitful move as not only did Brown star on the ice, he also excelled in the classroom as well, capturing the league’s Scholastic Player of the Year award three straight years.

The Kings would draft him in 2003 and Brown would spend the next 18 years with the organization, recording 712 career regular-season points (325 goals, 387 assists) and another 49 points in 92 playoff games. 

His offensive contributions were only a small part of what he brought to the game. Brown was a physical presence on the ice and was the NHL’s all-time leader in hits at the time of his retirement. 

Off the ice, he was a quiet captain who let his play do the talking. He and his wife Nicole made a home in southern California as Brown became an integral part of the Kings’ community outreach efforts. 

Following his second Stanley Cup victory in 2014, Brown was named the recipient of the Mark Messier Leadership Award, given annually to the NHL player who “exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team, on and off the ice during the regular season.”

In addition to his family’s support, Brown credits several of his youth coaches, including Tom Van Nederynen for instilling in him a work ethic along with a love of the game.

Brown was 8 years old when he joined the Tier II Mite team coached by Van Nederynen. For the next five years he learned hockey and some life skills from Coach Tom.

“Dustin just loved to win and that was very contagious within the team,” Van Nederynen recalled in a 2012 USA Hockey Magazine article.

“Right away I said to myself, ‘This kid’s really got the fever’ – and he never lost it. His competitiveness, his razor edge, those things set him apart. He was the most competitive kid on the ice, in a pick-up game on the pond or in a ball hockey game in the hallways of a hotel.”

That drive was evident as Brown served as the captain on Ithaca’s Squirt team that won the New York State Tier II Championship. 

Just like winning the state tournament, Brown said hoisting the Stanley Cup brought back many of those same feelings. 

“I think about when we won the Stanley Cups in 2012 and 14,” Brown said. “In those moments we all were just little 10-year-old kids playing hockey for a trophy.”