If you push a little, Mark Eaton quietly will admit he has a few smarts.
"I did pretty well in school -- honor student, National Honor Society, all that stuff," the Penguins' defenseman said recently of an academic background that includes a grade point average higher than 4.0 at Dickinson High School in Wilmington, Del., and a hockey scholarship from Notre Dame.
Calling on that kind of brain power, Eaton, 32, has made some well-considered decisions over the years. Considering he and his teammates today will make a trip to Detroit for the Stanley Cup final, which begins tomorrow night at Joe Louis Arena, his choices have not been too bad.
He chose hockey over baseball and soccer, chose junior hockey as a path to college hockey, chose to turn pro after one season at Notre Dame, chose to concentrate on the defensive aspect of his game and chose to sign with the Penguins -- twice.
His first two seasons with the Penguins, 2006-07 and '07-'08, were gutted by injuries. Wrist and knee surgeries limited him to 71 games, and he missed the team's run to the Stanley Cup final a year ago.
Early this season, Eaton was slow to round into form after the knee surgery and took a few turns as a healthy scratch from among a glut of defensemen. By the end of the regular season, he had 4 goals, 9 points, 148 blocked shots, a plus-minus rating of plus-3 and had reclaimed the notion that he is a steady defenseman.
Through three rounds of the playoffs, Eaton is plus-10 and, somewhat surprisingly, tied with Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom for the lead among defensemen with four goals.
It's justification for general manager Ray Shero, who was with Nashville when Eaton played there, lured him in 2006 and had no qualms about re-signing him last summer, a two-year deal worth $4 million.
"What we looked at and talked about was that when he was healthy, he was a good defenseman for us, and they were kind of freak injuries," Shero said. "Yeah, it was a bit of a chance, a bit of a risk, but, knock on wood, it's worked out well for us."
Just as a lot of Eaton's decisions have.
When he was growing up in Delaware, hockey was not thriving as an amateur sport but he still gave up baseball -- despite being an all-state center fielder and earning a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies -- and earlier, soccer.
His mother, Sandi, claims credit for Eaton's love of the ice sport.
"I took Mark ice skating when he was around 4, and he really latched onto it," she said. "I was born in upstate New York, and, when you learned to walk, you learned to skate."
Yes, but Sandi moved to Sewickley as a girl, and Eaton's father, Bill, also is from Sewickley and figures his penchant for hockey must have rubbed off some.
"I was a Penguins fan from the get-go," Bill said. "I remember seeing [the late] Michel Briere play. We had season tickets before they got good."
Bill's job in insurance took him to Delaware, but he retained his hometown allegiances and passed them on to Mark, who grew up following Pittsburgh teams from afar.
"Wilmington, Del., that's a hotbed for Philadelphia sports," Bill said. "We had to put up with a lot of Flyers, Phillies and Eagles fans."
Bill and Sandi are now retired and living in Deep Creek, Md., but Mark Eaton still has a good deal of extended family in Western Pennsylvania.
He wasn't thinking ahead to playing for the Penguins when he considered his future during high school. His goal was a college scholarship, so he commuted to New York to play Junior B hockey for an organization called Apple Core.
That led to a chance to play for Waterloo in the United States Hockey League in the two years he might have been a college underclassman.
"I just decided that I wanted to go after college hockey, and the best way to do that was to play juniors in the USHL," Eaton said. "Being 18, I was probably 6 foot, 160 pounds, but that's a heavily scouted league as far as college goes."
Dave Poulin, a former NHL player, was coaching at Notre Dame, his alma mater, and recruited Eaton.
"With Mark, it's the learning curve of coming out of a non-traditional hockey area," Poulin said. "He was just at such a development stage. When we locked him in, it was maybe December of his last year of junior. His second half [of that season], he was tremendous."
Eaton, like a lot of young defensemen, was strong on offense then. He had 38 points in 50 games his second year at Waterloo.
With the Fighting Irish in 1997-98, he had 12 goals, 29 points in 41 games and caught the eye of NHL scouts. After that freshman season, he began weighing an offer from Philadelphia.
"I would have loved to see him stay another year," Poulin said. "The final conversation was at his home in Delaware. I sat with him and his dad. We went over the pluses and minuses. The money had gotten to a point where I said, 'I totally get it. I understand it.' "
Not that it was easy to walk away from a Notre Dame education.
"It was probably the hardest decision I've had to make," Eaton said. "Probably the biggest factor for me is that I had turned 21 toward the end of my freshman year. If I had stayed four years or however long, I'm getting into my mid-20s, and that's cutting into my pro career."
Eaton was a math major, something that impresses his Penguins teammates.
"I was business, which if I could do it over again I wouldn't because it was way too much math," said defenseman Rob Scuderi, who played at Boston College. "A math major? That's pretty strong, especially at Notre Dame. It doesn't surprise me that he has the mind for it."
As he was transitioning between the American Hockey League and NHL with the Flyers and Nashville over the next few seasons, Eaton scaled back on offense.
"Even at Notre Dame, I was offense, played power play, all that fun stuff," Eaton said. "You kind of adjust when you get to the pro level and you see what a team needs, where you're going to be able to last the longest."
With the Penguins' aggressive style of play under coach Dan Bylsma, Eaton has been able to call on those offensive skills some in the playoffs. His 10 points trail only Sergei Gonchar's 12 among Penguins defensemen.
"He jumps in when he has a chance," said Eaton's defense partner, Kris Letang. "But, when you think about Mark, you think about a shut-down defenseman. I'm looking to jump in the offense all the time. Mark's got the good speed to join in.
"One thing I know about Mark, though -- every time I jump in, he's going to be there [as backup]."
The offensive skills never really go away, and neither does the intelligence.
"He's a very smart guy, but understated, very self-deprecating, humble," said Poulin, who is no longer in hockey and works in Chicago for an executive search firm.
Eaton took a few summer-school classes right after turning pro, but hasn't handled a textbook since.
"It's still out there," Eaton said of finishing college. "I always joke that I have two girls, so maybe I'll go back to college when they go so I can keep an eye on them."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721. First Published May 29, 2009 4:00 AM