Nicole Brown knows hockey. It’s been a big part of her life since she was a kid—before she married Dustin Brown, one of the most celebrated players of the National Hockey League (NHL), and long before she took on the role of hockey mom supporting her own children’s interest in the sport.
“I grew up playing hockey in upstate New York,” she says. “And in high school I played Midget Girls [under age 18] hockey for the Syracuse Stars. I won two national championships with them.”
That’s actually how Nicole and Dustin met—they were both playing for the Syracuse Stars. Nicole was 16, Dustin was 15, and the two have been together ever since. Life moved fast for the young couple; Dustin was only 18 when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings. In 2007 Nicole and Dustin were married, and four little ones followed closely behind—now 14, 13, 11 and 9 years old.
Things were busy, but it was important for Nicole to keep a sense of self while supporting her loved ones. “Over the years, I think what kept me sane was having my own life away from hockey,” she notes. “I used to say that Dustin’s world was hockey, and Dustin was my world. But I also had my own world that was separate.”
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Nicole found a group of girls and started playing hockey again. “I was playing adult league,” she shares. “Some of the ladies I played with are still my best friends to this day.”
Of course, being married to a professional hockey player didn’t make Nicole any less of a hockey fan. “I grew up a Rangers fan. I mean, I only got to go to a handful of NHL games in my entire life, and now I get to watch all these guys. It’s awesome for me,” she says.
After the games, Nicole and Dustin were able to go over plays as only two hockey players could. “Oh, it expands beyond just me,” Dustin notes. “Some of my teammates are like, ‘What did Mrs. Brown think of the game?’ Her feedback was appreciated.’ A lot of the guys carpool, so after the game other guys would jump in the car and they’d be like, ‘OK, Coach Brown, what did you think? What did you see in the game? How did I play?’ It became kind of a running joke with a handful of guys, but for me it was amazing because I grew up playing hockey.”
Nicole and Dustin didn’t waste any time getting their firstborn on the ice. “We got him on skates when he was 3, and then he started playing when he was maybe 5 or 6,” Nicole says. But being the mom of a hockey player was a lot different than being married to one.
“I’d get way more nervous watching my son play than watching Dustin. With Dustin, I know what to expect. I know what his game is. I’ve seen him play a million times. But with our son, every year is a new level, and I want him to do well,” she explains.
“There’s pressure on youth hockey kids to begin with,” Dustin adds. He notes that his own kids, “by no fault of their own, have extra pressure just because of who their father is.”
The last thing Dustin wants to do is add stress. “He’s actually really good at trying not to coach the kids,” Nicole points out. “If they ask him, he’ll talk to them, but he doesn’t want to be that parent who gets in the car and either starts yelling at them or starts critiquing them. It’s a lot harder for me because I want to coach them. But I’m getting a little bit better at keeping my thoughts to myself.”
The Browns have had three of their four kids participating in the Junior Kings program since the kids were 6 years old. “There’s just something about playing for an NHL team program,” Dustin says. “For us, it was the Buffalo Sabres. I remember going to SabreLand. It just feels different because you have NHL influences around. Also, the exposure that they get playing here—it’s a pretty big coaching staff.”
Nicole’s familiarity with the L.A. Jr. Kings program as a parent, as well as her in-depth knowledge of hockey, made her a valued sounding board for the organization. “They were kind of picking my brain: ‘What can we do to make things better? What things can we work on? What have you seen from the parent side?’”
It wasn’t long before her consulting role evolved into something more. Today Nicole serves as executive director of the L.A. Jr. Kings and L.A. Lions. “Dustin and I talked about it at length before I decided [to take the position]. I felt like I could be one of those people who complains but doesn’t want to step in and actually do anything about it, or I could step in and try to help make it better. So that’s what I did,” she says.
Dustin remembers telling his wife: “If you want to do this, I’m literally all for it. I think you would be great.”
One of Nicole’s biggest goals in her new role is to find opportunities to fundraise in the hopes of making hockey more affordable to play in California. The expenses associated with hockey steer a lot of parents away from the sport—it’s a big hurdle to overcome.
Nicole is trying to manage her professional expectations. “I think what I’m learning the most is, no matter what I do, try to change, try to implement, I’m never going to be able to make everybody happy,” she says.
That keeps the Browns focused on the fundamentals that initially got them interested in playing hockey—the same fundamentals that inspired them to introduce the sport to their children. “The biggest thing is just building friendships,” Dustin says. “Some of my best friends to this day were kids I grew up playing hockey with.”
A two-time Stanley Cup captain, Dustin retired from the Los Angeles Kings in May after 18 seasons. On February 11, 2023, the L.A. Kings will retire Dustin’s #23. He will be the seventh Kings player to receive this honor.
Additionally, a statue of Dustin will be unveiled at the Crypto.com Arena. It’s an honor that he is immensely grateful for and humbled by.
“You just want to play and be the best player,” he says. “I’m extremely proud of it, but I’m grappling with it because the only other two players who have statues are the best player of all time, and then the best King of all time, goal-scoring-wise. It’s just a bit overwhelming. But I’m getting there.”
Dustin’s biggest fans—Nicole and the kids—couldn’t be prouder.
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