does not often light up the goal light. But, more importantly, he lights up a locker room. Humble, yet confident, he is a leader by example and fills an important role for the Islanders. There was a time when Eaton was a shoot-first defenseman, highlighting the power play and racking up points. Now, Eaton’s focus is on defense, and he has become one of the most reliable blue liners in the league.
Eaton grew up in Wilmington, DE, and thanks to his parents, latched on to hockey at a young age.
“My dad was a big hockey fan, and my mom was a figure skater,” said Eaton. “Combine her skating with my dad’s love of hockey and it seemed like a good fit. I think I was about three when I started skating, and five when I started playing.”
|Islanders defenseman Mark Eaton has experienced a lot of success in his 10-year NHL career. |
(Photo by Mike Stobe, Getty Images)
With Delaware not offering much for an aspiring young hockey player, Eaton played most of his youth hockey in Philadelphia for the Little Flyers. In his junior year of high school, Eaton joined the New York Apple Core in Long Beach. He spent two seasons playing for the well-respected Eastern Junior Hockey League club.
After graduating high school, Eaton was left to decide his next step. In addition to being a talented hockey player, he had developed into a baseball prospect as well. He was an all-state outfielder, and had garnered interest from the Philadelphia Phillies. However, his heart remained in hockey, and chose to follow his dream of playing at the Division I college level.
“It was one of the toughest decisions of my life when I graduated, (choosing) which sport to pursue,” said Eaton. “Hindsight being 20-20, I’m pretty happy with my choice.”
But college hockey recruiters were hardly knocking down the Eaton family’s front door with offers.
“When I was 18, I don’t think I was physically developed enough to step in and play Division I college hockey,” said Eaton. “There were really no offers or interest at the time.”
Instead of compromising his college eligibility by playing Major Junior hockey in Canada, Eaton joined the Waterloo Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League.
“I had heard about the USHL and figured it was a logical choice for me to go there and develop,” said Eaton. “It’s a highly scouted league by Division I colleges. I spent two years there, and then went to Notre Dame.”
Now 20, Eaton was a college freshman, playing for a top program and studying mathematics. Eaton’s head coach, Dave Poulin, was a 13-year NHL veteran, who Eaton points to as being a positive influence on his career.
“He obviously had a long pro career, and he knew the pro game,” said Eaton. “He ran pretty much a pro program there, so it was a great stepping stone for me on the ice and off the ice as well.”
In reality, Eaton used Notre Dame as more of a launching pad than a stepping stone. In his only season playing for the Fighting Irish, Eaton was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Rookie of the Year, and was awarded the team’s William Donald Nyrop Award as the team’s top defenseman. He scored 12 goals and assisted on 17 more. His performance was enough for the Philadelphia Flyers to offer him a free agent contract.
Finally a professional hockey player, Eaton was again confronted with a daunting decision. It appeared his offensive prowess would not translate to success in the NHL, and he struggled to fit in the blue line rotation. He was traded just before the 2000-01 NHL season to the Nashville Predators for a third-round pick.
It was in Nashville that Eaton found his role.
“Not that you analyze the team and what they’re lacking, but you just kind of mold and evolve into a player that the team needs at that time,” said Eaton. “I molded into more of a defensive role; killing penalties, blocking shots. That seemed to be my niche, and that’s what got me to stick. And here it is, 10 years later.”
In those 10 years, Eaton has seen it all. Between 2006 and 2008, he lost significant time due to injuries. In 2009, he raised the Stanley Cup as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For years, he has filled the role of the selfless defenseman. But he has also filled the role of winner. Despite their recent struggles, Islanders fans can take solace knowing that on and off the ice, the veteran Eaton is teaching this young team how to win.