Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. Source: Getty Images
He's under contract for two more years, but Drew Doughty is unlikely to re-sign with Los Angeles if the Kings can't get back on the championship track.
Drew Doughty isn’t ready yet. He wants to talk – oh, does he ever – and once he starts, he’ll gab until he’s blue in the face. But before we begin this lengthy phone conversation, he wants to get comfy. “Hang on,” he says. “There’s too much noise here. I want to hear you better.” He tries another spot. Nope. Too many voices in the background. Eventually he escapes the din of a crew working on his Under Armour photo shoot, heads outside and frees himself with some fresh air.
Now Doughty is ready to climb aboard his soapbox. Unlike most hockey players, who subscribe to a culture of saying as little as possible, he’s as wide open as the considerable gap between his front teeth. He shares whatever comes to mind, even if it isn’t a “safe” thing to tell a reporter. Bring up the Los Angeles Kings, his only NHL team since coming into the league in 2008-09, and you don’t get fluffy cliches about getting pucks deep and playing a full 60 minutes to return to the playoffs in 2017-18. Doughty knows his team needed changes and he welcomed them. He also knows he’s not guaranteed to be a King for life and isn’t afraid to say that. Words spring from his mouth with an air of improvisation, just like the style of play he’s honed on the ice. He does everything on feel. Opponents never know what he’ll do against them – come to think of it, neither does he – when he rushes the puck up the ice like he’s screwing around in a road hockey game. And you never know what answers you get when you put him in the virtual pressure cooker for an ask-me-anything session.
Doughty averages more than 26 minutes a game for his career, and you get the sense he’d stay on the ice for 60 if anyone would let him. He takes over a game with his rushing ability and polices his own end with underrated physicality. It’s helped him lead the Kings to two Stanley Cups, and it yielded his first Norris Trophy in 2015-16 after twice being a finalist. Why, though, does the game seem so natural and fluid to him? Is he just that gifted or did he manufacture that success via years of repetition?
The answer is far closer to the latter. Doughty arrived in the NHL as an 18-year-old with, um, 17 years experience when the Kings took him second overall in 2008. He picked up a hockey stick when he was a year old. He was skating by two, when most kids have barely mastered putting one foot in front of the other, let alone gliding on ice. By age three, he was playing in a league in his native London, Ont. So the game looks like second nature to him because it is. He started so young he can’t remember a life when he didn’t play hockey. “People ask me those sorts of questions, like, ‘How do you do what you do?’ and ‘What are you thinking in this situation?’ ” Doughty said. “And a lot of times my answer is, ‘I don’t even know what I’m thinking.’ Playing for so long and loving the game and trying to get better for so long, you just create that muscle memory. I’ve literally been playing this sport for 24 years. That’s a long, long time, and I’ll never get sick of it. Now that we’re talking about this, I get sad thinking about the day that I have to step away from the game.”
Doughty marvels at the fact he gravitated toward hockey at all. His father, Paul, is English, his mother, Connie, Portuguese, and that heritage blend obviously screams soccer. Doughty’s sister, Chelsea, named after the English Premier League squad, played NCAA Div. I soccer for Niagara University on a scholarship, and Drew loves the game obsessively, too. He insists he was just as good at soccer as he is at hockey – a hyperbolic statement given he’s building a Hall of Fame career – and he dreams of playing goalie in footie leagues back in London (Ontario, not England) after he retires.
Doughty simply adored hockey too much to give it up for soccer. And it shows. Dig through hockey highlight reels from the past decade and you’ll find countless clips of Doughty smiling during the heat of competition or flat-out laughing at his own mid-game mishaps. We’ve come to memorize his patented high-pitched cackle. His chirps are epic, too. He once lambasted then-Anaheim Duck Patrick Maroon with “Buddy, you suck at hockey! You’ve been in the minors for how long?!” It seems no one enjoys the game as much as this guy. That, naturally, has created some misconceptions about his personality.
Is Doughty the fun-loving guy also Doughty the guy who doesn’t care enough? Doughty who doesn’t lead by example? Doughty who needs to get madder if he wants his team back in the playoffs? None of those descriptions summarize him accurately. Nor does the notion he projects an image of nonchalance while channelling a dark rage beneath his exterior. The truth is Doughty is fun to his core – and serious about his fun. “I shouldn’t say Darryl (Sutter) didn’t like it, but he definitely would have liked me to be more serious in certain situations,” Doughty said. “But I just can’t play the game that way. I like that I have fun playing the game. Yeah, there are things that in the game and off the ice aren’t fun sometimes. At times, you get brought back to reality and realize this really is a business and a job. But at the same time, I just absolutely love playing the game. I play my best games when I’m out there enjoying myself, making plays, not afraid to make plays, not afraid to try anything.
“I don’t mind being pegged as the guy that likes to have fun out there. If people don’t think I take it serious, that’s their problem. No one takes the game more serious than me. The people that are closest to me, they know how hard I take losses or playing poorly or whatever it may be.”
“If I’m pissed off at the coach or pissed off at something, my game isn’t going to be where I want it to be. So that’s why I have fun. I even see it in other players. When they’re not having fun, they’re playing like crap, and when they are having fun they are playing awesome. I think that’s how most people should play the game, but obviously some people have to play it in different ways. You see guys like ‘Stevie Y’ when he was playing back in the day. He was known as the serious guy, and that’s just the way he had to carry himself to play his best. So everyone’s different.”
Drew Doughty greets Kings fans as he walks off the ice.
Note Doughty’s singling out of Sutter as the fun police. It happens more than once during this chat. The Kings were a dominant two-way team from the moment Sutter took over the bench midway through 2011-12, and his no-nonsense approach helped them hoist the Cup in 2012 and 2014. Under Sutter, L.A. finished second, first, first, first, first and first in 5-on-5 Corsi in six seasons. The Kings have been better than anyone at generating shot attempts on opposing nets, and it worked for most of the Sutter era. But the big, strong, smothering Kings began to fossilize in recent seasons as the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins birthed a new “best way” to play game.
The Kings missed the playoffs twice in three years. All those shots either missed or got swallowed in goalies’ pads. Los Angeles finished bottom-third in the NHL in shooting percentage in five of their past six seasons. Only two Kings, Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter, topped 16 goals last season. The team’s ownership decided that, despite two championships, Sutter’s tenure had to end. It ousted him along with GM Dean Lombardi, who had anchored many of his championship players with long, expensive contracts. “Dean and Darryl were great for the organization and great for me as a player,” Doughty said. “I love them so much. They’re awesome. At the same time, it was necessary to make a change, I’m not saying that Dean should have been gone, but we needed a coaching change, and we made great decisions there.”
Ouch. That’s a definitive statement by Doughty. He was fed up with Sutter as his coach. But the more we understand who Doughty is and how much he feels the fun factor controls his game, the more it makes sense he yearns for a new voice in the dressing room, one that gives him freedom to turn a sheet of ice into a sandbox. “Darryl’s an awesome coach, and I absolutely love him,” Doughty said. “He’s awesome for me. He taught me a lot of things as well. But if there is a problem with the team, or if you had a problem with Darryl, you’d be intimidated to go knock on his door and say, ‘Hey Darryl, I don’t like this or I don’t like that.’ ”
The Kings hope to start challenging for Cups again with John Stevens. He’s been with the team longer than Sutter was, first as an assistant and then as associate coach since 2014. Stevens isn’t quite the anti-Sutter, but he’s much more approachable and co-operative, according to Doughty. That doesn’t mean these two clicked from the start. Far from it. They constantly butted heads when Stevens first joined the Kings, and it took them an entire season to “get” each other. “Drew and I couldn’t come as players from more opposite directions,” said Stevens, who played 53 NHL games and 834 AHL games as a stay-at-home defenseman. “He’s a very creative thinker that sees the game at a really high level, and I was a really detailed guy who had to be just to play. He’s extremely gifted and talented, whereas I had to be detailed or I couldn’t play.”
But the two slowly learned to appreciate each other, especially after they sat down following that rocky first season to talk things out and learn how the other thinks. Stevens gained an admiration for Doughty’s offensive creativity and Doughty for Stevens’ sense of structure. They’ve built mutual trust. Doughty praises Stevens for caring about his players not just on the ice but off it, whether he’s constantly checking in on the players’ families or monitoring what the players eat. Most importantly, Stevens has learned how Doughty’s fun-loving approach to the game can help the Kings in some ways and hurt them in others. “The thing you’ve got to be careful with when you look at Drew is not everybody can be like Drew,” Stevens said. “Drew can come to the rink and be relaxed and joking around, but he’s ready. He has a routine of preparedness. That’s the way he gets ready. When he gets to the rink, he’s not rushing around trying to get ready. He’s totally relaxed. He goes about his business, he has fun, he’s got a routine that he does. He’s totally ready to go, whereas other players, they couldn’t do that.”
Doughty is one of the Kings’ leaders and thus a role model. Stevens has opened Doughty’s eyes to how much his behavior impacts everyone else’s. “As a young guy, you don’t really realize, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do this bench press because I don’t feel like it,’ but meanwhile there’s a young kid seeing Drew Doughty not do that bench press, so why would he want to do it, too?” Doughty said. ”That’s where John has really, really helped me in my game. He’s helped me mature faster. He’s helped me grow up and realize that I knew I was a big part of the team, but I didn’t realize how big a part of the team I was, how everyone was looking up to me, and if I wasn’t doing those things, they wouldn’t do them, either.”
So the Kings soldier on, hoping the Doughty-Stevens relationship forms the foundation of a resurgence. Will that be enough, though? New GM Rob Blake hasn’t exactly stacked the armory with shiny new weapons. The team’s big off-season addition was Mike Cammalleri, who may still have 20 goals in his stick but is 35 and injury-prone. This Kings team looked like one of the slowest, if not the slowest, in the NHL last season, and shares a division with swift clubs such as the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. They were ‘gimme’ opponents for several years but are now rising Cup contenders snatching Pacific Division points directly away from the Kings. L.A. needs to get much faster. Maybe a prospect like Adrian Kempe can help in that regard, as can a young, mobile blueliner such as Paul LaDue, neither of whom was a mainstay last season. Or maybe Stevens and new assistant coach Pierre Turgeon find a way to jumpstart the existing group.
Doughty, for what it’s worth, is convinced the Kings are faster than they get credit for or that they can at least play faster than they really are. Plus he knows that, as ugly as the team’s offensive stats have been in recent seasons, it’s hard to argue with the goals-against numbers. This squad still plays lockdown defense, which is half the battle. “I don’t necessarily think we entirely need to change our system, because we have a great defensive system, and I enjoy playing on a team that likes to crush guys into the boards,” he said. “I don’t want to be playing for a team where guys aren’t going to finish their checks. That’s not what I’m about.”
Maybe this is the rare time Doughty does take the safe route and say what he’s supposed to say. It’s one thing to criticize a former coach. It’s another to slam your existing teammates. But does he really have faith in the Kings anymore? We’ll find out in a couple years. Doughty’s eight-year, $56-million contract expires in 2019. He can walk as a UFA. But enough with the Toronto Maple Leafs rumors, first of all. Doughty laughs those off and quickly reminds us he, unlike the stereotypical Ontario kid, did not grow up a Leafs fan. He idolized Wayne Gretzky and the Kings. Doughty is thus already fulfilling his childhood dream. If the Leafs were to woo him in two years, it would have nothing to do with wanting to “come home.” It would be about joining a winning team. It’s been a long time since Toronto belonged in that category, but it does now. And any team with a shot at a Cup has the best chance to land Doughty as a UFA. “My first love will always be L.A.,” he said. “It’s one of the best organizations in all of sports, not just hockey. It’s unbelievable. They treat us first-class, and it’s a good place to play. Living in Los Angeles, you can’t beat it. I’d love to re-sign in L.A. But if our team isn’t going in the right direction…I want to win Cups. I don’t give a s--- where I play. I just want to win Cups, and that’s the bottom line.”
Doughty finds himself approaching a career and life crossroads. He’s entering his 10th season and, given his success and durability, is a safe bet for 10 more, so he’s almost at the halfway mark of his NHL life. A tough decision about his hockey future looms in the next couple seasons. He’s also been with girlfriend Nicole Arruda for five years and, at 27, “will be going down that road soon, if you know what I mean,” as he put it. He has no idea where he and Arruda will live even two years from now. Most players wouldn’t admit to such uncertainty. But most players aren’t Drew Doughty.
Whatever path he chooses, he’ll surely have no problem unlocking his emotional vault to tell us all the reasons why. Doughty doesn’t do stoic. For now, it’s back to the grind of the NHL or, as he’d call it, the fun.