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photo by Bill DiLillo

Dream Season
by Martin Fennelly

For starters, it’s a remarkable year in the National Hockey League when four players with roots at the same university match-up in the conference finals, a feat achieved this May by former Catamounts John LeClair and Patrick Sharp of Philadelphia and Martin St. Louis ’97 and Eric Perrin of Tampa Bay. For St. Louis and Perrin, it was one more memorable moment in a Stanley Cup-winning dream season that included an MVP trophy for one, a much-deserved shot at the big leagues for the other, and the reaffirmation for both of a strong friendship that started years ago on the ice.

MONTREAL — It happens a lot these days. It hits them. Take Wednesday. Marty St. Louis and Eric Perrin were headed for breakfast with their parents. St. Louis suddenly turned to his good friend.

“Can you believe we’re together in Montreal, playing the Canadiens in the playoffs?''

Perrin shook his head. Again.

Later Wednesday, they beat most Lightning players to the ice for a skate, a casual affair for the team with a 3-0 series lead.

St. Louis grabbed a goaltender’s stick and flipped a puck down the ice, into the net at the far end. Perrin smiled. They circled slowly, joking in the empty Montreal arena, beneath the Stanley Cup banners of the team they pulled for as children.

“The laughter is back,” St. Louis said. “We’ve been friends for so long, but we’d been out of each other’s life. You miss the giggles. When we were laughing the most was when we were playing together. We were kids having fun. And that’s what we are again.”

They never stopped being friends. Even when worlds apart, they made this journey together, at least in their hearts.

This season, St. Louis was the best player in the NHL. He won the scoring title. He collected the MVP trophy. His triumph speaks to perseverance. So does his best friend’s story.

Despite all he has done, St. Louis’ happiest moment this season might have come in late March, when Eric Perrin was called up to the NHL for the first time. Reunited at last.

They met 20 years ago in Laval, a Montreal suburb. Perrin’s family had moved from Saskatchewan. He went to try out for a youth hockey team. When he walked into the dressing room, another kid, a runt like Eric, told him to turn around so they could stand back- to-back.

“I’m still the smallest!” the kid happily yelled.

It was Marty.

Eric says he still leads, 5-8 to 5-7I.

Growing up, if they weren’t at a rink, Marty was at Eric’s house or Eric was at Marty’s house. They were in a perpetual state of sleepover.

They always played on the same line. Always. Eight years in Laval, four years years at the University of Vermont and their first year in minor-league hockey.

They knew what they wanted even when the NHL didn’t want them. They went undrafted out of high school, so they starred at Vermont. They went undrafted out of college, but found a way.

Marty found one sooner.

The Calgary Flames called. Not that Calgary ever saw his true gifts. He was discarded. It was a blessing. He got another chance — a real chance — in Tampa Bay. What St. Louis has done with that chance is the stuff of legend.

There was no such tale for Perrin. He kicked around the minors. He tore up a knee. All of North America was a dead end. He worked in Finland for three long years, playing for a last-place team in a seemingly endless winter. “You saw the sun just a few hours a day,” Perrin said. You couldn’t see the NHL at all.

His wife and daughter, Karen and Alyssa, kept him strong.

“And Marty had made it,” Perrin said. “He was an inspiration.”

Marty always called. He was starting to shine for the Lightning, but worried for his friend.

“It was awkward talking,” Perrin said. “Maybe not awkward, but restrained. He knew I was happy for him, that I was battling. He tried to hold back talking about himself.”

“My heart was hurting,” St. Louis said. “I kept thinking, ‘Why me and not him? Why me? Why can’t he come, too?’ ”

Perrin kept plugging. Last summer, the Lightning invited him to training camp. Lightning coach John Tortorella liked Perrin’s speed, hustle and heart. Sound familiar?

The Lightning sent Perrin to their farm club in Hershey, Pa. After a slow start, he became one of the league’s better players. And kept hoping. So did his family. And the St. Louis family. They’re that close. Eric could be a St. Louis, Marty could be a Perrin.

Eric Perrin was riding a bus after a game when his cell phone rang. It was the Lightning. Perrin called his wife. And his father. His son’s voice cracked. Soon they were both crying.

“Dad, I got my dream,” Eric said.

He phoned St. Louis.

“I knew you could,” Marty said.

St. Louis was more nervous than Perrin. There were only four games left in the season when Perrin was called up. St. Louis pulled for his friend whenever he touched the puck.

“Here’s a 28-year-old kid,” said St. Louis, also 28. “This could be his only chance to play in the NHL. I know he has the skills. But his first chance could be his last. And he has four games.”

Perrin stuck. He’s a fourth-line center. He has played solid defense and nearly scored his first NHL goal in this series. He’s in Montreal, playing the Canadiens. In the playoffs. With Marty.

“I use the word ‘surreal’ a lot,” Perrin said.

There’s are no guarantees for next season. But he’s here. And it’s real.

Eric Perrin and Marty St. Louis sat in the dressing room Wednesday, giggling about college days at Vermont, when they took Introduction to French, which they spoke fluently.

“The first day, everybody reads a paragraph,” St. Louis said. “I’m stopping at every word. Then it’s his turn.

He starts going and going. I’m whispering, ‘Slow down.’”

“I wasn’t going that fast,” Perrin said.

“You were going good,” St. Louis said.

The laughter filled the room.

As if it had never left.

Reprinted by permission of the Tampa Tribune.