"When I was playing, I never thought about the possibility of coaching. I just wanted to keep playing."
Just to be clear, this is not a quote attributed to a long-time NHLer, looking back on a career devoted to the best hockey league on the planet.
Sudbury native and current St Benedict Secondary School hockey coach and teacher J.D. Eaton topped out at the Colonial Hockey League/United Hockey League/Central Hockey League/Western Pro Hockey League - we'll leave it to the hockey historians to determine which stop might have come closest to the National Hockey League.
Yet the career path that included visits to the likes of Utica, Fort Worth, Saginaw and Waco, all on the heels of a three year run in the OHL (the majority spent with the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors/Junior Red Wings) left such a positive impression that Eaton still makes it abundantly clear that he would return in a heartbeat - if he could.
Now 47 years old, Eaton rose to prominence locally in hockey in his youth. The reputation he had developed would allow him to sustain major reconstructive knee surgery (he blew out his MCL, ACL and LCL in his first ten games on his final year of midget hockey), miss the balance of that season, and still manage to find himself drafted in the third round of the 1990 OHL draft.
The Sudbury Wolves would select Eaton just six spots after they nabbed Brandon Convery, two rounds after leading their draft with Michael Peca, adding some very impressive pieces to an existing junior roster that had featured no less than see no less than seven players NHL drafted the following summer.
After just twenty games, Eaton was traded from the Wolves to Detroit.
"Sudbury was going to be a tough lineup to crack," said Eaton. "The odds were kind of stacked against a kid that was hurt in the first place. It worked out when I went to Detroit. I went from playing five minutes a game to 15, 18 minutes a game. It was great to be on a winning team in Sudbury, but not great for my development."
While in Detroit, Eaton would get exposed to the coaching ways of current Winnipeg Jets' coach Paul Maurice, as well as Pittsburgh Penguins' GM Jim Rutherford - but it was Tom Webster who impressed the future high-school coach, most of all. "He was the best coach I ever had, as far as Xs and Os," said Eaton.
"There were things that we would do with him that we wouldn't do with any of the others. We would study lines, there were matchups, there was a game within the game. We would match lines with other teams that I played for, but never quite as in depth as this. He knew each shift what was going to go on."
When his overage plans never materialized, and with 175 games of OHL experience in his pocket, Eaton would come home and play two years with the Laurentian Voyageurs. Still not entirely sure of the path he wished to pursue, the 5'11" tough as nails forward would make his way to the Utica Blizzards of the Colonial Hockey League to start the 1995-1996 campaign, beginning a stretch of five years in the minors.
In those days, in the leagues in which Eaton would toil, the basic premise of the movie Slap Shot was not all that far-fetched. "Ironically, a lot of the movie was filmed in the old Utica Arena (Utica Memorial Auditorium)," he stated. "In the minors, it's not like the OHL. In the OHL, you have a lot of skilled guys."
"Well, those skill guys were going up. We had a lot of guys that would be third or fourth line OHL guys, they could be going up, they could be going down, all kind of smashed in together. If you're not a one hundred point guy in these leagues, then you've got 10 to 15 guys on every team doing whatever they can to get noticed."
"If we had a five on five (brawl), nobody got thrown out of the game," Eaton continued. "Everyone just took a break for five minutes. The truth is that it's entertainment and it sold tickets - and it wasn't policed like it is now."
For what it's worth, Eaton would not have traded these memories for anything.
"I can't say that I played anywhere where I didn't like the guys I played with," he said. "That's what made it fun, that's what made it worthwhile." But with salary levels a long ways from their NHL brethren, Eaton and others of his ilk took to supplementing their incomes, in the summer, courtesy of Roller Hockey International, a league that operated from 1993 to 1999.
"They had a deal with ESPN, so they played in a lot of the NHL rinks, there were teams in most NHL cities, you flew everywhere, everything was paid for by the league - it was a fantastic set-up," suggested Eaton. "Everyone got paid the same, $200 a game. If you won, you got a bonus, and the better your team did in the league, the better the bonus."
"If you went all the way, you could make $18,000 to $20,000 U.S., in the summer, which wasn't a bad gig."
Having split the 1999-2000 season between the Saginaw/Ohio Gears of the UHL, and the San Angelo Outlaws and Waco Wizards of the WPHL, Eaton chose to return to Laurentian to complete his degree, still unsure of a permanent vocation of interest.
It was only while attending a stag for current Kitchener Rangers' scout Tark Bertrand, an event at which Jason Stos approached Eaton about coaching in the NOJHL, with Espanola, that the eldest of two children in the family with a mother in the teaching profession would see his voyage take one final turn.
"I coached for two years and really enjoyed it," said Eaton. "The kids were good, it was fun to teach, and I kind of came to the decision, while I was there, that maybe I should go to teachers college. I liked working with kids and I was pretty good in school - it really just kind of fell together like that."
Yet for as much as he recognizes the inherent benefits of his current gig, Eaton will still wax poetic of his journey in hockey. "It's a weird community of people, for sure, but real stand-up guys, all in the same boat," he said. "We all knew where we stood. Everyone wants to go up, and the odd guy got an opportunity."
"I would love to go back, maybe 15 years, just to play again."