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sean gordon

They were barely out of their teens, rugged young men who patrolled the blueline for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the old Central Hockey League, one wore No. 2, the other No. 6.

It was 1981, and the older of the two - a 21-year-old from Navan, Ont., named Claude Julien - scored 22 points in 70 games, second among defencemen on that year's team.

The younger man - a 20-year-old out of Hull, Que., named Alain Vigneault - chalked up a modest 12 points in 64 games but accumulated a team-leading 266 minutes in penalties.

Presumably most of those were earned five minutes at a time given he was known as Bam-Bam, courtesy of his penchant for throwing punches with both hands.

Three decades later, Vigneault and Julien, who both grew up near Ottawa but whose fast friendship was cemented in faraway Utah, find themselves meeting as head coaches in the Stanley Cup final. It's the first time two French-Canadian bench bosses have faced off for hockey's ultimate prize.

"We talk all the time during the season and we see each other often in the summer, we're good friends," Julien said a few minutes after his Boston Bruins booked their ticket for the final. "I guess all I can say is, may the best man win."

Asked about the historical first, Julien grimaced and said: "It's nice, but I think we'll both be focused on other things."

During a news conference in Vancouver over the weekend Vigneault, the Vancouver Canucks' head coach, was similarly dismissive.

"It's probably just coincidence," he said. "The reason Claude and I are here in the final is because we're coaching good teams … good players make good coaches."

At least one former teammate from the Salt Lake days thinks that's an understatement.

"I'm not surprised those two guys stuck with the game," said Neil LaBatte, who went into the real-estate and hotel business after his playing days. "They were very committed even then."

LaBatte was paired with both Julien and Vigneault when they broke in with the Golden Eagles, a St. Louis Blues affiliate whose lineup boasted future Hall of Famer Joe Mullen and high-scoring forward Alain Lemieux, whose little brother Mario would become an NHL player of some repute.

"Julien was more of a playmaker, but Alain was really tough," LaBatte said.

In those days the Central League counted the main farm teams from several NHL clubs, so the Salt Lake players got to fly most of the time and regularly played to a full rink.

Vigneault frequently quips that his NHL career was 42 of the best games the league has ever seen - he says it while rolling his eyes - but is more complimentary about his former teammate's game.

"[Julien]was a tough defenceman, a good player, really good team guy," Vigneault said. "It was natural, I think, for him after playing to move on to coaching."

After all, the 1981-82 Golden Eagles produced nine professional, college and junior-league coaches, including Mark Reeds of the Owen Sound Attack.

That Vigneault and Julien remain friends is also no accident.

Though they have different personalities, the similarities between their origins and career paths are striking: Both had undistinguished playing careers, both coached the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Hull Olympiques, both coached the Montreal Canadiens before being fired, both have been named NHL coach of the year, both were sought out to lead teams with a history of playoff heartbreak.

But there is a time for friendship, and it isn't the Stanley Cup final.

"We kind of were cheering for each other because we felt that throughout our careers and what we're going through actually, here in Boston and him in Vancouver, expectations are high," Julien said Sunday. "And to be able to get through all of that and meet in the final is great. But right now that's where it ends … I guess the next time we talk will be after it's all said and done."