Saturday, September 1, 2012

Heart and soul of the league

On the other side of the globe, there is a professional hockey team that would give all the money in the world to have not missed their 2011-2012 season.

But all the money in the world cannot give back to the hockey world what it lost on that fateful September morning.

As we near the 1-year anniversary of that horrible crash that killed almost the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team and coaches, and the KHL prepares to start its new season, it seems difficult to look at the NHL, with the owners threatening to lock out the players if the players do not concede enough money in a new CBA, and wonder about the future of the sport.

For ultimately, hockey is a community sport, and it’s not about the owners. It’s about community and it’s about fans and it’s about the players.

It’s about players, from the guys who willingly take a beating night in and night out as the team’s enforcers for league minimum, all the way up to the well-paid superstars whose likenesses are the “faces of the NHL”. Without the players, there is no NHL.

The players understand that it “takes a village” to play hockey. Hockey may be full of superstars, but a single player cannot carry a whole team the way that star players might carry a basketball or baseball team. Hockey players know from the first day that they ever strap on their skates that there are so many people to thank and rely upon along the way: parents, teachers, coaches, equipment guys, the Zamboni drivers, the staff behind the scenes.

It’s the players, who play through broken bones and sprains and pains and who strap themselves together and still go out and play, because that’s what hockey is about, and they don’t want to let down their teammates.

It’s players, who re-sign with teams in good faith, even when the team’s ownership is in doubt, and they may call another city home next season.

It’s players coming back for “one more year”, because they love the game so much that they can’t imagine walking away from it.

It’s grown men crying with joy when they win it all, no words to express what they’re feeling.

And then there are the fans.

Without the fans, there is no league. There is nobody to pay the ticket prices and buy the merchandise that pays the bills and the salaries and yes, that lines the owners’ pockets.

Along with the fans, there are the other people impacted by a professional sports team’s presence in any given city: the people who work in the arena itself; the policemen who are needed to provide the extra security on game nights; the restaurants and hotels located near the arenas that rely on events to provide a revenue stream; the parking lot attendants, and public transportation and airline employees. Any sports team provides important revenue – and impact – to a city far beyond the doors of the arena.

When you look at the big picture, however, it is the impact that the fans have: it is their money pumping out to these local businesses; it is their money paying for the tickets so they can watch their sports idols do their thing.

It is the parents and grandparents taking their children to the arenas for games, because that’s how we were introduced to the sport as kids.

It’s friends introducing friends to the sport by taking them to their first game.

It’s diehard fans, painting their faces, carrying signs, proudly wearing favorite players’ names on their backs.

It’s the fans, packing the arena year after year, despite a team’s inability to consistently make the playoffs, because those fans love their team so much.

It’s the fans, still coming out to see the games, even when they know their team is hopeless and the crowds are thin, because the true fans don’t give up on their team when the going gets rough.

It’s packing the downtown area of a city with a million-plus of your closest friends to celebrate a championship parade.

It’s fans crying when dreams of a championship are crushed; and it’s the ecstasy and the crying for happiness and joy when you see your team win the Cup.

The owners get thanked when the GMs and coaches and scouts they’ve hired do a good job and the team wins its division or conference or the whole damn thing. The owners even get their names inscribed above the players who actually did the work and battled nightly to win the Stanley Cup on said Cup. Owners who consistently find themselves with a winning team are often beloved (everybody loves a winner, after all); owners who couldn’t seem to put together a winning team or leave the players/fans constantly worried about the stability of their team are generally reviled.

But at the end of the day, without the players, the league would have no product; and without the fans, the league would have no money.

The players are willing to operate under the existing CBA in order to make sure that play resumes on time. They’re eager as always to get the season underway.  But word out of this week’s meetings boiled down to the owners saying they wanted more money, period. This seems confusing, as they continue to throw money at players in large quantities, and by cutting back the salary cap, it would impact the majority of the teams in a negative way. Revenues continue to rise into new strata as well, as Gary Bettman was so pleased to inform us all about a few months ago.

What is currently so boggling is that the owners seem to believe that the fans will not care if there’s a lockout, that they will return as ready and willing and eager to snap up tickets and spend money.

For fans who’ve been around for a few years, the prior lockout, less than 10 years ago, is still fresh in their minds. A lot of fan goodwill was lost that season, and despite the league’s booming growth, the long-term fans have not fully forgotten – nor forgiven – the previous lockout. The owners are deluding themselves if they think they will not lose fans in another lockout; many fans who still remember the last lockout have begun to express that they’d be “done with hockey” if there’s a lockout.

Maybe the owners just don’t care; they think that any long-term fans lost might be readily replaced by new fans. But you can’t buy goodwill; you cannot buy loyalty.

The owners seem to feel comfortable with the idea of giving up part – possibly half or more – of the season. It’s easier for owners to think that way, when so many season ticket holders have already put in their money for the year, and they can look at their sales and say, “Look! We have already sold out X% of our tickets! The fans will come back, whenever we open our doors.”

But that’s not the full truth. Some season ticket holders have had their STHs in their family for 3 or 4 generations; those fans aren’t going to delay paying for tickets, hockey is in their blood. And for others, the waiting lists for STHs on many teams are so long that existing STHs aren’t going to take the risk of losing their tickets. So whether or not fans feel comfortable or secure that there may actually be a season, they have already had to pony up their money or they’ll lose what they’ve waited so long to get. Fans are always over a barrel when it comes to tickets, and owners know it.

For the fans, it’s kind of tough to take sides when it’s millionaires (players) vs. billionaires (owners) arguing about money, although we all agree there’s nothing wrong with making money. But it’s hard to understand the owners claiming they aren’t getting enough of their share of the pie when, over the past few seasons, so much money has been thrown at players like Kovalchuk, Parise, Weber, and Suter, among others. Even as negotiations labor on this summer, more players are signing for big bucks and for longer contracts than the owners claim that they’re willing to support.

So the fans are generally taking the side of the players. The players want to play. The fans want to see them play. Everybody wants to see the season go on, but the owners rather lock players out until something gets decided rather than operate under the CBA that they claimed was perfectly good after the last lockout.

Ultimately, the fans are the losers in this equation if part (or all) of the season does not happen. Is it the fans who are truly punished in a lockout, denied the sport they love and support through thick and thin.

This is a tough economy; we still haven’t fully recovered from the recession. So for many STHs – be they partial plans or full plans – having to give up several hundred or thousands of dollars for a season that may or may not happen, is a tougher squeeze than usual on the end-of-summer wallet. Those who can only buy single tickets gamble on whether the season will be played or not.

Teams assure ticket holders that money will be refunded if games are not played, but in the meantime, every dollar out there invested in tickets, be they STHs or single game purchases, is a dollar spent in good faith by the fans that the season will in fact start on time.

The owners don’t seem to be in a rush about it, so now the fans have begun to organize their protests. It started quietly on Twitter weeks ago, when the first rumblings of a lockout broke out. This week, is gaining traction: it’s a website listing all the businesses that NHL owners invest in, and asking fans to boycott those businesses until the CBA issue is resolved. (The extensiveness of the list might surprise you.)

The fans have been watching the CBA discussions with acute interest; now with the owners so blatantly making it clear it's all about the money, the fans are looking to take their money elsewhere.

Fans are making their contingency plans, too. AHL and ECHL and college teams will find their games better-attended this season if there's a lockout. Fans will seek out European and KHL and CHL games on the internet. Those who like football and soccer and basketball will spend their money there. 

At the end of the day, the players are the heart of hockey, but fans are the soul. Without either one, there is no league.

Meanwhile, in Russia, there is a team and a city that is grateful to have a team in the KHL again this year, a team that knows all too well the value of a season lost.


  1. Excellent post!!!

  2. Oh good. Yet another writer who refuses to acknowledge that the NHL is a business - a financially unsound business. I have to wonder whether there was even the slightest bit of research done before the writing of this piece. And by research, I don't mean looking up quotes from Fehr or reading the players' Tweets.
    We get it, you think the hockey players are saints. And the owners should be willing to overpay the players and lose millions of dollars each year, because the fans deserve to see their team on the ice on October 11th. If not for the players and the fans, there would be no NHL. That's absolutely right. But what about the owners? You know, those guys that have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their team, and continue to reach into their pockets in order to spend to the cap and give the fans a competitive team that they can be proud of.
    Saying that the owners just don't care about the fans, or that they want a lockout, is completely ridiculous. Nobody in this situation WANTS a lockout. But there are 18 teams in this league that are in the red (only 11 or 12 teams actually make an operating profit). Overall revenue has grown, but since players get 57% of HRR (NBA players get 50% and NFL players get even less), the salary cap has risen from $39 million to $64.3 million since the lockout. And the salary floor is now $48.3 million - almost $10 million higher than the original ceiling was. Those numbers are crushing for small market teams, and that's bad for the entire league. The players will have to be willing to give some of that up.
    And the statement that bothers me the most: "If owners don't want to lose money, they shouldn't spend so much. It's their fault for giving out such huge contracts." Really? Put a lot of thought into that, did you? Let's take the Wild, for example. Should they have just sat back and let Parise and Suter go to Detroit or Philly or one of the other "rich" teams that were interested? If you were a fan of the Wild, wouldn't you want the owners to be willing to dig into their pockets in order to put together a Cup contender for you?
    One more thing. A lockout became inevitable the minute Fehr stepped into the picture. The players knew that when they hired him. And even though they all claimed to be surprised and disappointed when the owners announced there would be a lockout if no CBA was agreed upon by Sept. 15, the NHLPA knew without a doubt that was coming. Shortly before that, Fehr had said that the players would be willing to start the season even without a new CBA - Classic PR move, which forced Bettman to come out and say the word lockout. Because the owners don't have a choice but to cancel games until a deal is reached. That's obvious. I'm not saying the owners are angels, but the owners and players are BOTH to blame if and when there's a lockout.
    Coming from a fellow female fan, if you're trying to "show the level of knowledge" that female hockey fans have, please do a better job of stocking up on knowledge.

    1. No, I don't think players are "saints". They're nice guys for the most part but they sure as heck aren't saints! (Never said players are saints and never will. They're human beings and therefore flawed.)

      Did I ever say that hockey wasn't a business? No. And what's the point of businesses? To make money! #ThingsThatGoWithoutSaying

      Did I ever say that hockey owners weren't allowed to make money? No. In fact I said "although we all agree there’s nothing wrong with making money" - on EITHER side.

      And I didn't say owners don't care at all; what I did say was "Maybe the owners just don’t care; they think that any long-term fans lost might be readily replaced by new fans." That's a businessman's viewpoint: they don't care WHO is in their seats, they just care that the seats are SOLD. (Thus why, for example, teams will never go through the trouble of clearing out ticket brokers out of their STHs in favor of getting people off the STH wait lists ... as long as those tickets *sell*, and money is in hand, it doesn't matter whether a warm body actually occupies the seat during a game.) And oh yes, make no mistake, the fans WILL return, because hockey is their crackpipe (to paraphrase this morning's Puck Daddy).

      You want to mention the Wild, fine, we'll start with them. The argument people always use about drawing in big names is "what, should X team be allowed to add *more* start power?" and as you state "wouldn't you want the owners to be willing to dig in their pockets to put together a Cup contender?" It's amazing how many people seem to think that singular stars are going to somehow magically transform a team into a Cup winner (or even contender). Look at the Sabres; did all the "name" players brought in under Pegula transform the team into a true Cup contender? Look at the Sharks - despite all their oingoing "star power", they still haven't been able to even make it to the Finals yet. Unlike the MLB where a superstar batter can be used to drive in the runs, or the NBA where a dominant scorer can bring in 35-40 pts/game and make a huge difference, a singular star can't do it all alone in hockey (otherwise the Caps would be knocking on the Finals door more frequently); a hockey team must be built and must be able to roll four contributing lines - and the best ones, the ones that currently consistently compete for the Cup, year after year (i.e. Detroit, Pittsburgh) are filled primarily with players who grew within the team's system and whose team chemistry is solid. It's also a known fact that players on these kind of teams often take less money than they'd get on the free market because they like those teams, they know they can win there, and would rather stay there than make more money elsewhere.

      Today's hockey game isn't the same game as it was 20-30 years ago, where a Gretzky type might've made THAT much a difference, because the game isn't played the same anymore and there's so much talent across the board. Parise and Suter are going to HELP the Wild, no doubt, and it's great to see the Wild finally have some "big" star power to draw more attention to the team and clearly, more butts into the seats. Hey, I have liked the Wild for years, it's a nice thing to finally see some big star names on their roster - stars who WANT to be in Minnesota and aren't simply following dollar signs. (Although the dollar signs certainly didn't hurt, right?) (continued...)

    2. Yes, the rising salary cap hurts the smaller-market teams, because they're not going to spend to that limit, and a rising salary cap floor that is too high doesn't help them either, because it causes overspending to make up the difference. There's plenty of teams out there who have thrown big money after players who really aren't worth the money, simply to get to the salary cap floor (or in hopes of chasing the ability to contend); this isn't good from a business standpoint either, but it'll continue to happen -- and, as I mentioned in my OP, some owners can't put together a winning team to save their souls (NYI, for example). Just because you throw a lot of money at ANY player(s) doesn't mean that player will come into the team and immediately have chemistry with the rest of the team.

      Small market teams have it rough, and it's not simply from the "we don't have as much money" standpoint. It's harder to draw big-name stars there because the players know they probably won't get as much money there. If the team consistently loses, it's hard to draw big talent into failure, unless the ownership and GM actually have a solid vision and plan to (re)build, draft well, and improve - and actually execute it. In smaller markets, the fanbase is smaller and passionate, but from a player's standpoint, it's less fun to play in front of 7,000 faithful vs. 17,000 faithful/full house every night. Yet Nashville has consistently not only been a low-spending team, but a team that has constantly grown its audience, put a solid product on the ice, and made the playoffs - and yes, attracted its share of moderate "name" players. It's biggest stars (Rinne, Webber) were grown within the system. You ever see "Moneyball", based off the real story of the turnaround of the Oakland A's? It made me think of the Preds when I saw it. Perhaps in baseball it's easier to use mathematics to statistically put a winning team together than hockey is, however. (The book is an excellent read into the psychology of sports teams, btw - pick it up.)

      The owners can't continue to claim they want to put more money in their own pockets and that they can't afford the costs of running the team, WHILE at the same time they're continuing to hand out huge contracts left and right. It's like their mouth and their paycheck hand are completely disconnected and don't know what the other is doing. "I can't afford my team AS IT IS, but let me hand out another $7M/year." Or perhaps they're simply banking on a new CBA allowing them to somehow chop off or disallow some of the money they are handing out under these contracts? I'm very curious as to how the system would work if they set a salary cap well below the level where many teams have already spent to - will teams over it have to trade away salary, which would impact the entire scope of how the NHL looks right now; or will they pay a 'luxury tax'? That's all still TBD.

    3. Did I say the players had to be concession-free? No. The players and the owners have to find a middle ground. It might be 70-30 or 60-40 or 50-50 (in either direction); but neither side is 100% going to get what they want, and last time, the players gave up a lot. I did say the fans are tending to side with the players in this go-round. (Although I think fans would side with the players in general most of the time.)

      Is a lockout with Fehr "inevitable"? No, despite your opinion, it's not; nothing's a "guarantee" in life except death and taxes. (Perhaps it was in his contract? "Thou shall cause a lockout.") You say the players being willing to start the season under the existing CBA is a "classic PR move" like it's some horrible thing to do such a thing. Is it a bad thing that fans can get to see the games they already paid to see? Is it a bad thing for the players to want to play? Lockouts are just a bargaining tool. However, NHLers can always play elsewhere. It might not be as awesome to play in the EIHL or SM-Liiga or AHL or KHL, but there's teams out there willing to sign players, even if it's temporary while the NHL decides what it's going to do. The players still find a way to earn money.

      The main points of the post were that:
      1) fans get screwed no matter what happens (and oh yes, the fans will come back... even those who claim they'll turn their backs, they'll return);
      and 2) owners get paid no matter what happens, too. (The TV deal still pays the league; and the owners have many other financial resources to rely upon.)

      The other question was why not play under the existing CBA until a new one gets hammered out? I've seen people opine that allowing the league to play under the existing CBA weakens the owners standing, but I haven't seen the reasoning on how it does so.

      Thanks for sharing your opinions, and thanks for reading.

  3. Wow. That was quite a response, thank you. First of all, I’d like to apologize if my post was a little harsh, and I know I didn’t provide a very thorough argument, because I ran out of steam… But now you know what my 2:00 AM rage posts look like. I have now read countless articles and opinion pieces that crucify Bettman, call the owners greedy bastards, include numerous quotes from Fehr, and make the players out to be heroes, make the fans out to be victims, and make the owners out to be villains. It’s been incredibly difficult to find writers that offer up a different perspective, let alone actual facts and figures that tell the whole story. And you have to admit, this “Heart and Soul of the League” piece is so, so very biased. I’m the type that wants a writer to give me both sides of the story before trying to argue in favor of one side or the other.
    Now, to address some points in your response. Heads up, this might be a little disorganized.
    - I know you didn’t actually call the players saints. I didn’t mean that literally. But you did sort of paint the players as victims of the owners’ greed. It’s not just the owners that are “all about the money,” or else the players would be willing to give up a small percentage of their millions in order to get back to hockey. (I’ve noticed you like to pick apart my words a little bit, so I should clarify that: By small percentage, I mean taking 5-7% less of HRR and accepting some salary rollbacks. And I know that not every player in the league makes millions each season.) Is it fair that the players are faced with wage cuts and rollbacks again, less than a decade after the last lockout? Of course not. The owners made some mistakes in writing up the current CBA – mistakes which worked out in the players’ favor – and now they have to correct them. Which will cost the players, and that’s a bummer, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for them, considering they’re currently getting 57% of the revenue.
    - You pointed out, several times, that the players were “willing” to play under the existing CBA, while the owners were the ones calling for a lockout. And this goes back to my “classic PR move” comment, which I think you might have misunderstood. I wasn’t saying that the players’ willingness to play was a PR move. It was Fehr’s announcement of that willingness that was the PR move. Because until a new CBA is agreed upon, the owners have no choice but to force a work stoppage. The players are perfectly happy with the current CBA. Of course they’re willing to start the season under it. However, if the league lets them play before a new CBA is on the books, there’s no incentive for the players to come to the table and work this thing out. The threat of a lockout is the only thing that’s going to drive these negotiations and get a deal done anytime soon. And Fehr knows this – everybody working in any pro sports league knows this. So by making that announcement and forcing Bettman to come out and say the owners would be locking out, Fehr set public opinion firmly against Bettman from the very start. That was the PR move I was referring to, and it’s the sort of thing that Fehr is known for. (I guess I’ll mention that my dad’s been working in various sports leagues all my life, and has experience with CBA negotiations and knows a lot about Fehr’s history and tactics… So some of my information comes from him. I’m not just making it up as I go. That also has a lot to do with my feelings/opinions regarding team owners and executives.)
    - Teams are very focused on fan loyalty. Sure, this is because it’s good for business. But owners aren’t heartless – They want the fans to be happy, and I can just about guarantee they don’t want to rob us of any hockey games. However, at the end of the day, they have to do what’s best for the business. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but this is just my response to “they don’t care WHO is in their seats.”

    1. Don't worry about my judging your tone, I know sports are very emotional and we all occasionally come across a little hot under the collar when we didn't mean to. :)

      - To let you know, this piece wasn't meant to be impartial. There's 3 sides to the discussions: the owners, the players, and the fans. Fans have zero control and they're the ones who suffer accordingly. It also stinks, in these economic times, to have teams (and the NHL itself) constantly reminding people "Get your tickets! Buy into STH packages! Don't forget to shop at!" while all the arguing and uncertainty goes on. Prices keep going up. Honestly, I can't think of any point where fans "truly win", short of being handed tickets for free, but obviously this piece was mainly written from the fans' perspective and boils down to, "if nobody wants a lockout why is one so obviously likely to happen?" (and was even clear months ago.)

      - Thanks for at least having a reasonable explination about why owners would not want to at least start the season under the CBA and that it would weaken their stance; it's better than people saying "It's just does." Different perspective leads to education.

      - Not going to go into my business background/history, but yes, what's right for the business may not always be best for the customers, but as discussed, fans have to take whatever ends up because... well, what else do we have? I dig the AHL and ECHL and Euro games but they're not the NHL. As for the "WHO" is in their seats, one of my earliest blog posts was about "What can be done to make ticket sales better for fans?" Which ultimately comes down to the answer as I noted earlier: if the seats are sold, the teams/league has no incentive to change vetting to ensure that the people buying them are the ones using them. Over the past couple years, in fact, sports leagues have moved to work with companies like StubHub and Ticketmaster to try to prevent fraud, which is a positive step. But when you see the same blocks of seats for sale game after game after game... clearly somebody is using their STHs for profit only and not for their own enjoyment. That's an ongoing debate, of course - sucks to be a fan who's deep in a STH waiting list, for example, but teams can say "our waiting list is 10K deep!" which is good publicity. And while no, there's nothing wrong with making a profit, it's once again the fans who get the short end of the stick. "The house always wins."

  4. - I did use the Wild as an example, but I wasn’t meaning to say that bringing in a couple of stars would magically transform a team into a Cup winner. I said “put together a Cup contender,” and obviously getting Parise and Suter is only one part of that process. Signing those two was a fan-pleasing move… One is a hometown hero, and both will certainly help the team win and get the fans excited. And isn’t that what we want the owners to be doing – making moves that serve the fans? It’s incredibly difficult to build a playoff team without spending well above the floor. Like you said, it takes more than just a couple of great players – It takes a roster stocked with solid, contributing players, and those guys require suitable paychecks too. Even if a team grows its own players, it will eventually have to start paying those players according to their market value (Look at what the Oilers just did.) And yes, I have read Moneyball.
    - Regarding the piece about throwing money at players but still not being able to win games, I agree. That’s where team management comes in, and that’s what the NYI are lacking. But to have great management, the owners have to be able to offer more big paychecks. GMs aren’t cheap.
    - The owners don’t necessarily want to put money into their own pockets – They just don’t want to be losing millions of dollars every year. The owners are driven by their competitive nature and their egos, which means they’re going to hand out huge contracts that they can’t afford, as long as they think it’s going to give them a chance to win. Here’s what Leipold said about it: “We’ve been losing money and the way we we’re going, we were going to have another year of ‘keep losing more money and more money and more money.’ So if I’m going to make the kind of financial commitment to keep this team and move this forward, I’d rather do it by growing it. Ultimately that was the decision. As a result of this move, it’s not going to cause us to be financially stable. I believe it will be within a year or two. This is a move to get us out of the hole that we’ve been digging. And as I spoke with some other owners in the league as to why I did it, they totally get it. They understand it. At some point you have to make that kind of commitment in order to turn your franchise around. If we didn’t, then we would just keep losing more going forward without any plan of changing it.”
    I’ll wrap it up by saying that I agree with your two main points. And I think I already addressed the question regarding playing under the current CBA, but the simplest answer is: That just can’t happen. There’s a reason for why lockouts have occurred in the NBA, NFL, and MLB… It’s the only way to make sure that both sides will take the negotiations seriously and be willing to make concessions.
    I appreciate you taking the time to give a thoughtful response to my post. And I especially appreciate that you never once placed the blame on Bettman. Here are some links to articles that I’ve found interesting, and might offer a better explanation than I’m able to:

    1. - It's good to see the Wild have some "big name" stars finally. It's about time! Hey, I like Setoguchi. Havlat and Burns and Heatley... all "names", but not BIG names. With some of the talent starting to come up out of the minor leagues, I'm thinking the Wild are going to be a lot of fun to watch grow & improve the next few years. Sometimes unfortunately the home-grown talent ends up priced right off the roster due to the salary cap - don't have to look back any further than the 2010 Blackhawks to see a painful reminder about that. The Oilers should be interesting to watch for the same reason -- soooo much talent, only so much money to pass around - even assuming rising salary cap, etc., as those players mature.

      - The owners are constantly contradicting themselves, although after so many years (much of modern league history), it IS good to see they're making more effort to get into the black. Sometimes you have to wonder if they forget what comes out of their own mouths, though. For example, Terry Pegula said, upon buying the Sabres, "I wanna run the team to win the Stanley Cup, so whatever that involves, I guess we gotta figure that out. If I want to make some money, I'll go drill a gas well. I don't need to make it in the hockey business." (source That's why I didn't necessarily endorse the "" effort, but that I find it a really interesting look at what team owners are involved with beyond the arenas.

      I can't/don't place the blame on Bettman. He's the mouthpiece the owners operate through, and his position is not unlike a goalie: if all is going well, the goalie doesn't get as much credit as the scorers do; and if the team is doing poorly, all the blame tends to fall on the goaltending.

      Thanks for the further responses!


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