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A dream finally shared

Published April 27, 2004

MONTREAL - It was nearly perfect. Every nuance, every detail. It was almost exactly the way he had imagined it.

How long had he chased this dream? A dozen years or more? At least half his life, though there were days when it felt like forever.

Now the moment was at hand, and Eric Perrin was at a loss. He knew, in a way, it was about to become real. Just not for him. He was certain now that it could be done. But maybe not in his life.

You see, Perrin was half a world away, and hearing about his best friend.

The one who was living Perrin's dream.

* * *

That first day, they left practice together. Eric Perrin and Martin St. Louis. They had just become teammates. Soon they would be linemates. Eventually, they would become inseparable.

Perrin was the quiet one. St. Louis was the talker. Both were pipsqueaks. Perrin had just moved from Saskatchewan to a suburb of Montreal where his father, a police officer, had recently been reassigned. The family had not yet found a home, and were living in a hotel.

It was 1985, and Bob Perrin was picking up 9-year-old Eric from his first hockey practice with his new team.

"Marty comes walking up to me, this kid about waist high, and he says, "Can Eric come sleep at my place?' " Bob Perrin said. "I looked down at him and said, "Who are you?'

"By the next night, I think, Eric was staying at Marty's place."

Eight years of youth hockey in Laval, Quebec. Four years of college at the University of Vermont. Their pro hockey debuts with a minor-league team in Cleveland.

Always a pair. Perrin and St. Louis. Or St. Louis and Perrin. Didn't really matter. One was just as good as the other. And together, they shared a dream.

Too small to attract the interest of pro teams when they became eligible for the draft, St. Louis and Perrin went off together to Vermont. Naturally, they played on the same line. St. Louis was the creator. Perrin was the finisher. St. Louis would go on to become the school's all-time leader in points. And Perrin was the all-time leader in goals.

Again, when they finished college, they went undrafted. When you're 5 feet 7, it's easy to slip under the NHL's radar.

So they went to Cleveland in the IHL. Both were certain their dream of the NHL was one break away.

For St. Louis, it happened quickly. Calgary called and, soon, he was gone. For Perrin, the call never came. And, for the first time, he was left behind.

* * *

Calgary, it turned out, was not to be. St. Louis spent two seasons alternating between the Flames and a minor-league affiliate.

But it was a starting point and, in 2000, he signed a free-agent deal with the Lightning. Soon, he worked his way onto one of the top lines. Then he made an All-Star team. His paychecks were becoming unreal. And today, St. Louis may be weeks away from being named the NHL's most valuable player.

This was it. The dream coming true, and then some. St. Louis had taken opportunity and turned it into magic.

And he could not share it with the one person who might appreciate it the most.

They still talked, Perrin and St. Louis. Their bond remained true. Their parents still met for dinner, without fail, every Thursday back in Laval. But it was getting harder for St. Louis to pick up the phone and call Perrin.

He didn't know what to say. He wasn't sure how to react. He was becoming a big-time NHL star and a piece of his heart ached.

"You talk about it, but it's a touchy subject," St. Louis said. "I don't want to put it in his face. I don't want to hurt his feelings, by any means. It's the same way with my family and his family. It's not a sore subject, but you try not to talk about it too much.

"You always want to ask, "Why me and not him? If I'm here, why can't he be here?' If you talk to people who saw us as young kids and in college, we were both good players. I don't think people spoke of me in a different way than they spoke of Eric at that time."

When St. Louis left for Calgary, Perrin remained in the IHL. He had good numbers, but they never quite added up. Early in 2000, Perrin blew out his knee and missed most of the season. The timing could not have been worse.

The IHL was undergoing changes and teams were being lopped off. The market was flooded with players and Perrin was coming off an injury.

His best option was practically his only option. His agent had ties in Finland and could get Perrin a roster spot. They purposely chose one of Finland's worst teams, with the idea Perrin could get more ice time. More time to rebuild his confidence and hone his game.

"That was it. Either Finland or who-knows-what, who-knows-where. There wasn't a lot of interest in me in North America," Perrin said. "Those were some hard times. Times when you wonder where your career is going. The locker room was terrible. It was light outside for about three hours a day. The team was low-budget and we'd get all second-hand stuff.

"I was happy for Marty, but of course I was envious. I was battling. I was in a hole and trying to dig myself out. I used him as motivation in my own way. I thought, God if he can do this, I know I can do it. I can get there."

He was playing with second-hand stuff.

Now, he had to live a second-hand dream.

* * *

It was an experiment that, at times, seemed to have no end. Three years, Perrin spent in Finland. His daughter Alyssa was born there.

While St. Louis was becoming a star, Perrin was working to be noticed. His confidence was returning and his reputation was being rebuilt. By his final season in Finland, Perrin was in the league's top 10 in scoring.

So, last summer, the Lightning offered Perrin an opportunity to come to training camp. Though he did not make the team, he was back in North America. The Lightning sent him to Hershey of the AHL, where he became one of the league's most productive players.

In mid March, Perrin got word of a potential injury in Tampa Bay. There was a doctor's evaluation to be done, but Perrin was to be on the alert. He might be called up at a moment's notice.

He went home, packed his bags and gave up on the idea of sleep. The call came the next morning. The injury was not serious.

Perrin was still in the minor leagues.

"He looked at me like, "Can you believe this?' " his wife Karen said. "He said he didn't know whether he should laugh or what."

A week later, while on a late-night bus trip back from a game in Wilkes-Barre, Perrin got another call. This time, there were no conditions. The Lightning was calling him up for the final four games of the regular season.

After 20 years on the ice, Perrin had four games to prove himself. Four games to convince the Lightning he was worth keeping around.

"I was probably more nervous than he was," St. Louis said. "He's a 28-year-old kid trying to break into the NHL. At that point, your clock is ticking. How many more opportunities are you going to get?"

Few people paid attention to the limited ice time Perrin got in Tampa Bay's final regular-season games, but coach John Tortorella took notice.

He was impressed enough with Perrin's speed and energy that he included him on the playoff roster and put him on the fourth line with bangers Andre Roy and Chris Dingman.

A month ago, at this time, Perrin was a career minor-leaguer. A player seemingly with more time behind him than potential in front of him.

Now, he is in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has been included on Lightning special teams. He nearly scored his first NHL goal in Game 2 on Sunday and, today, will play in his hometown for the first time since he was a teen.

"Life, I don't think, could get any better right now," Perrin said. "I'm telling you, what I've lived the past three weeks is really amazing.

"A guy growing up with a dream of playing in the NHL and then to have it happen, then make the playoffs against a team you grew up idolizing? That's beyond belief. At this point, it's going beyond dreams."

* * *

The future is far from certain. The Lightning has not guaranteed Perrin anything beyond today, let alone tomorrow. And, now that he has made his NHL debut, there is talk the league will shut down next season due to labor strife.

Still, it does not matter. He is here today. For now, that's enough.

"I'm so proud of him. Not proud because he's in the NHL, but proud of his perseverance," Karen said. "It was not an easy road, for sure. He had a lot to overcome, people telling him he wasn't very good. That's where I get the most satisfaction. Knowing he never gave up.

"He used to tell me, "If I could just get one game in the NHL, this would all be worth it.' He was willing to give anything for this."

[Last modified April 27, 2004, 01:05:33]

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