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SOME FRIENDSHIPS COME AND GO. NOT THE ONE BETWEEN ERIC PERRIN AND MARTIN ST. LOUIS

This was a good place for a silly hockey dream to end. On the bus. How many hopes come crashing down on late-night team bus rides along darkened highways? The bus is hockey's version of purgatory, with the stale, fast-food-stenched air, the bump-bump of the endless road below, the deep ache from another minor league loss, and who knows how long before another hotel with another cold, stiff bed. Where was he? Oh yeah, on Interstate 81, bound for Hershey, Pa. No kid grows up dreaming of this.

Eric Perrin was 28. Married to a beautiful girl, Karen, who was sitting home alone on a Friday night. Surrounded by younger players, bigger players, more promising players. Perrin had good AHL numbers, but there was another number that always kept him on the bus: 5'8". Whether it was in Cleveland, or Kansas City, or Finland, or Hershey, Perrin was always too short. Now he was creeping closer to something else: too old.

Perrin got out his cell phone. He dialed Karen and his folks to tell them that a decision about his future had been made. Then one more call, to the buddy he had always played with and dreamed with. Perrin figured that after all they had been through together, Martin St. Louis should be one of the first to know.

WE ALL look back on our dreams of youth. We all called our own Game 7 triumphs-in the backyard, in the streets - drew up our championship - winning plays, picked our pro jersey numbers. And we always did it with our friends. Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin were no different. They imagined playing hockey together from the moment they met in a Montreal suburb in 1985. They imagined playing for the same NHL team. They imagined winning the Stanley Cup together. Would Marty hand the Cup off to Eric, or Eric to Marty?

For most of us, reality chips away at those dreams. At some point you no longer expect to pick your teammates. It becomes foolish to predict that the NHL will welcome a 5'8" forward and his 5'7.." pal. Being a 22-year-old minor leaguer on a bus is brave and exciting. Being a 28-year-old minor leaguer on a bus can seem delusional. And it's not long from that point until the dreamers are overweight parents watching hockey on TV, chuckling at the thought of handing off the Cup, to anyone.

When Martin St. Louis looked down at his ringing cell phone late on that Friday night in March, he knew exactly who was calling and why.

They'd met at a rink, of course. In Laval, just outside Montreal. Perrin, then 9, had a slight overbite that made him look ready to grin. St. Louis, 10, had a narrow, pursed mouth that made him look ready to swear. Perrin was slightly reserved; St. Louis, slightly rambunctious. So even before Perrin's first hockey practice with the Laval Senators, St. Louis walked right up to the new kid. Without a word, St. Louis took the hockey bag off Perrin's shoulder and grabbed his shoulders. He spun him around to measure himself against the new kid, back-to-back. Perrin was a hair taller. St. Louis beamed. He was still the shortest.

St. Louis picked up Perrin's bag and hauled it over to the locker next to his. The two gabbed in French. Then St. Louis got up, stormed over to Perrin's dad, squared to the grownup and said, "Can Eric sleep over at my house tonight?" Bob Perrin looked down at the kid and said, "Who are you?"

From that day on, Martin and Eric shared meals, games, rides and lives. Turned out their parents even shared the same wedding day, June 26, 1971. By age 16, they were the top two scorers in their league, with both dads behind the bench. (Nearly a decade after that first practice, the Perrins and the St. Louises still have dinner together every Thursday night.) Seemed like every goal went to one, with the lead assist going to the other. Quebec Juniors would be the next step for sure. Then, maybe

Maybe not. These guys are short. What if they never make the NHL? Both parents agreed: a university degree would be nice. There was an offer from a Quebec league team to keep them together, but that was no guarantee of ice time, let alone the chance to remain linemates. And if they did go to college, where? Maine made sense, but the Black Bears were a national power and had Paul Kariya. Vermont was just south of the border, and even though the Catamounts played a short schedule in a weak conference, NHL 50-goal scorer John LeClair had starred in Burlington.

The two families, together, finally decided: the kids would go to Vermont, in the hope that they'd play on the same line. And that six-month age gap? St. Louis closed it, volunteering to play Tier II with Eric until his friend graduated high school. Marty and Eric traded the exposure of a league once dominated by Bossy, Bourque and Roy for four years in a campus barn known as The Gut.

No problem. They were together. And they gave Vermont more thrills and chills than a maple syrup run. Former Cat goalie Tim Thomas still watches tapes of the "French Connection." "They were so little!" says Thomas, now with the Providence Bruins. "Some of the plays they pulled off were just amazing." Back then, St. Louis was the playmaker and Perrin the finisher. But the two were interchangeable. One would grab the puck in his own end on the penalty kill, and the other would take off down the ice. A split-second later, touchdown. St. Louis once scored two shorthanded goals in one game. In 1996, the pair combined for 170 points in fewer than 40 games and dragged Vermont to its first Frozen Four. "I was yelling their names out for the penalty kill," says former coach Mike Gilligan, "three years after they graduated."

Sweet story, but reality kept intruding. Scouts showed up all the time, but avoided eye contact. Perrin and St. Louis would crowd Gilligan after every game - "What'd they say, coach?!" - only to hear, "They like the way you play, but they're not planning on drafting you." St. Louis, the firebrand, would always snap back with, "We'll make it another way," but even Gilligan wondered if his guys would ever get a real look. "Scouts have been told they don't take 5'8" forwards unless they're from Russia," says the coach. "If the kids were Swedes, maybe then they'd be drafted."

Funny thing was, Gilligan would have bet on Perrin to make it. Eric was the sniper, the faceoff ace, the more responsible two-way player. Martin had only one true advantage over his buddy, an ability that didn't help all that much in college but would make a crucial difference later on. "Martin was better side-to-side," says Gilligan. "Changing direction, changing speed. The lateral stuff you need to get out of traffic and not take hits. He can steal pucks and not pay the price." Florida GM Rick Dudley, who signed St. Louis when he was with Tampa in 2000, explains the difference: "There was a little bit more of the toughness factor in St. Louis going to the net and taking a beating."

But no one saw the potential-or the difference-back in 1997. "I really thought someone would sign us," says St. Louis. "When it didn't happen, it was like there was no more air in the room. I started to think, 'What am I doing?'" The pair packed for Cleveland of the IHL, and the bus rides began.

Then came the inevitable breakup. Perrin and St. Louis wound up on different lines. Then in different cities. Calgary wanted St. Louis-scouts enamored of his spunk playfully nicknamed him Paper Boy-but shrugged off the prospect's pleas that it take a look at his friend. For the first time since the two stood back-to-back, Marty and Eric would wear different sweaters. "It was tough for me," says Perrin, who was dealt to Quebec days later. "You lose your buddy for the first time." Reality had won out.

And isn't this the part where most friendships unravel? One guy gets a job in one place and the other moves on. Time and distance separate even the inseparable. St. Louis got his shot in October 1998 with the Flames and scored a goal in his fifth game, while Perrin watched from a bar in Kansas City. Perrin met Karen, whom he would later marry. (St. Louis had met his future wife, Heather, in college.) The next season, St. Louis played most of his games in Calgary, making plenty of first impressions with his perpetually moving, powerful legs. "He looked pretty good," says former Detroit coach Scotty Bowman. "Scouts miss those guys every now and then." But Perrin blew out his knee. The Flames bought out St. Louis' contract because he had scored only four goals in 69 NHL games, but he landed safely in Tampa thanks to Dudley. The Bolts brass loved how St. Louis bursted for the puck every shift, even after he broke his right leg in 2002. St. Louis doubled his point total from 35 that season to 70 in '03. Meanwhile, the IHL folded, leaving Perrin twisting in the wind. While St. Louis bloomed in Florida, Perrin reluctantly packed for Finland.

It wasn't so long ago that Eric and Marty would switch back and forth between English and French. Now, with seven time zones in the way, they found it hard to speak in any language. "It was awkward sometimes when we talked," says Perrin. "He knew he was having a lot of success, and he knew I was trying to get back into the shuffle. But I was real happy for the way he was playing. We finally talked about it, and I said, 'I know you don't want to rub it in or say things.' " St. Louis admits it: "I didn't want to put my success in his face. We tried not to talk about it too much because I'd wonder, 'Why me, not him?' " As always, Marty and Eric wondered the same thing. But for the first time, they couldn't wonder together.

But St. Louis still had that one quality that had won him his best friend and his NHL roster spot: a willingness to act quickly, to tread in touchy places. After last season's conference semifinal loss to the Devils, St. Louis heard the Lightning had some interest in Perrin, who had become a star in the Finnish League after adding a little more deftness and aggression to his game. So St. Louis marched into general manager Jay Feaster's office for an exit interview, and started with the questions. "I was just trying to find out if they were going to really look at him and give him a chance," St. Louis says. "I told Jay, 'If you don't feel that way, don't sign him.' He's my best friend and I didn't want him to get screwed."

Weeks later, Perrin was property of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This season, both players made the All-Star Game: St. Louis in St. Paul in the NHL, Perrin in Grand Rapids in the AHL. Eric tied for third in the A with 75 points, Marty led the NHL with 94. Perrin drove to the net like his buddy, while St. Louis got better at covering his own end like his old friend. Somehow, they played more alike than ever. Feaster couldn't help but notice.

And late on that Friday night in March, St. Louis picked up his phone to hear his friend trying to make himself heard over the noise of a moving bus. "Hey!" Perrin said from Interstate 81, "I'm coming up!"

Suddenly it's Game 2 of the Eastern semis, and St. Louis is playing against Montreal, the team he and Perrin grew up watching. He looks down the bench and sees Perrin. He hears coach John Tortorella calling his pal's name. And it hits him: he and Eric are about to share a line once again. The two friends hopped the boards, made eye contact and said nothing. "This is really happening!" St. Louis thought. "We're going out there!" A year before, they'd struggled for words to close the distance. Now, they didn't need any. And in the first game of the Eastern finals against Philadelphia, Perrin got an assist for his first NHL point.

There are friends of time and friends of mind. No one knows if Perrin will remain on St. Louis' team after these playoffs, but everyone who knows the two believes they will end up together, somewhere, switching from French to English and back to French. "Sometimes you say, That kid, I was best friends with him when I was young," says St. Louis. "Or I was best friends with him in college. We've been best friends forever."

Now, if the puck rolls their way, Perrin and St. Louis may finally repeat that ritual of their youth: Marty will pass to Eric. And then, after all the years and bus rides, the best friends will find their names etched in a common place, a permanent place, a very good place for a silly hockey dream to end.