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A look at what might have been

FORT MONTGOMERY, N.Y. - For all but one of the Penguins players training at the United States Military Academy, this week at West Point is a glimpse into a life much different from their own.

For defenseman Mark Eaton, it is a glimpse into what life almost was.

Eaton applied to West Point when he was a senior in high school. After going through what he called the "long and arduous" admissions process, he was denied because he has asthma.

"I wouldn't trade where I am right now for anything in the world, but it's just funny how certain things shape your life and how a simple thing like asthma can have such a big change in your life," Eaton said Wednesday. "Instead of going to West Point, I'm in my ninth year of pro hockey. But it seems like a win-win situation."

Eaton, a native of Wilmington, Del., has no family military tradition, but a trip to West Point with his junior hockey team to play the Army's junior varsity squad sparked his interest.

"Anybody who's been here can see the beauty and the history of this place and the way it makes you feel when you're here," he said. "It gave me the bug a little bit."

In high school, Eaton said he didn't think a career as a professional hockey player was realistic. He'd had an interest in the FBI growing up and knew West Point would give him a chance to pursue that career path.

"This place is second to none when it comes to preparing you for the real world and setting yourself up for the rest of your life," he said. "That was my whole thought process."

Eaton was disappointed to be rejected, especially for something like asthma. But he also is the first to admit life has worked out well nonetheless.

Eaton, 29, went on to play two years in the U.S. Hockey League, was accepted to Notre Dame and, after a year there, was signed as a free agent by the Philadelphia Flyers. He was traded to the Nashville Predators in 2001. Penguins general manager Ray Shero, previously the assistant GM in Nashville, signed Eaton as a free agent in July.

"I wouldn't say I'm grateful for (asthma), but it's just the way it worked out," Eaton said.

Going through activities with first sergeant J.B. Spisso for the past few days has made Eaton think about what could have been.

It's made some of his teammates think, as well.

After Tuesday's off-ice workouts, Spisso gathered the players around to remind them that hockey isn't life or death and for that they should be grateful.

"He said if you have a bad game or a bad day, you can go to bed that night knowing you're going to see your family and friends and come to the rink tomorrow and do things all over again," center Sidney Crosby said. "If you're in battle, if you're in a war, it's not like that. You're not always around friends and family, and you might not live to see the next day. He made us realize that when things are tough, they are tough for us, but it's a lot tougher for other people. He made us realize how lucky we are."

The Penguins players were also told about 1st Lt. Derek S. Hines, who played hockey for West Point and was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 1, 2005. His photograph adorns several walls of the locker rooms at the Holleder Center.

"It makes us realize there are guys giving their lives for us, so we can play this game and entertain people," Eaton said. "It makes us put things in perspective and makes us realize what we do really is a game and what these guys do in the real battles and real wars is so that we can do what we do."

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