The links between the LA Kings and Edmonton Oilers are strong - from the Miracle on Manchester in '82 to Wayne Gretzky being traded in '88 to the current trio of former Oilers now with the Kings.
In fact, the last time the Kings made the playoffs another former Oilers captain was wearing black and purple, Kelly Buchberger. And that 2002 team was coached by Andy Murray, a guy who had a reputation for working players hard in practice. Murray's Kings teams even set the NHL record for man games lost in a season.
Interestingly, Buchberger went on to become the strength and conditioning coach in Edmonton for awhile before moving on to become the team's assistant coach. By the time the Oilers made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 - with a team that featured Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene - their strength and conditioning coach was Dr. Chad Moreau. The older brother of Oilers captain Ethan Moreau, Chad is an LA based specialist who previously had worked with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the ECHL.
After the disastrous season the Oilers had this year - including losing a franchise record 530 games to injury - people are looking for answers...and one area being looked at closely is the fitness of the players.
This is actually an issue facing all teams, including the Kings. So, we sat down with Chad to talk about the science of hockey. In this exclusive MayorsManor interview he responds to criticism form Oilers coach Pat Quinn, tells some interesting stories about Chris Pronger, speculates on what the next generation of fitness will be like in the NHL and goes into quite a bit of detail about what it's like trying to balance the needs of the players and the demands of management.
Just to set some context, tell us a little about your background and how you got involved with NHL players...
I had been training with my brother Ethan in the summer time - even back around the time he was drafted by the Blackhawks and I was at the University of South Carolina on a track scholarship. The mindset at that time for most players in the NHL was just ride the bike and work on your aerobic fitness and the rest will sorta take care of itself. I talked him into doing some training with me, the explosive lifts and squats and all those types of things. I think he really enjoyed what it did to his body. That snowballed into training a few more hockey players along the way, as I matured from an athlete myself to more of a strength and conditioning guy...then I went through the chiropractic program.
Coming into the 2005-06 season the Oilers head coach at the time, Craig MacTavish, was really impressed with Ethan's test results in camp and his overall level of fitness. He called me and said 'We'd like you to come in and evaluate some of our players.' When I met with him and the GM at the time, Kevin Lowe, they liked what I had to say about where they should go with the strength and conditioning of their players, so they brought me in as a strength and conditioning coach / consultant. I was there from 2005 through the end of the 2008-09 season.
You were replacing a former player - with both the Kings and Oilers - in Kelly Buchberger. Is that right?
Yes, Kelly was there when I came in during 2005 and he was a great guy. I think they hired him mostly because he was always in good shape as a player. After putting him in that role, at some point, they must have decided they wanted to bring in somebody who had more of a background in kinesiology, like I have.
I came in and I organized all the strength and conditioning programs, the nutrition programs for the team and Kelly did the day to day operations my first year there. I was usually in Edmonton a week to two weeks a month. I always tried to come in to town when they didn't have a really busy home schedule, so that I could spend as much time as possible with the players and run some good workouts.
Kelly was known for being a great teammate. What was it like to work so closely with him in that role...a role where he isn't a player - but now part of management, so to speak?
Kelly was a great assistant for me. He kinda taught me the ins and outs of working with the players and working with the training staff there, the medical staff and so on. He was an awesome guy to have as a liaison between myself, the players, the management and the training staff.
When you took over did you keep any of his practices in place or did you blow the whole thing up and start from scratch? Walk us through the transition a little.
We kinda blew things up and started over. When I came in, the weight room they had was horrible. When I spoke with MacTavish he told me 'Hey, just to warn you, what we have here as far as equipment is really antiquated and I don't think you're going to be terribly impressed.' And believe me, I wasn't. The weight room was very small, I'd guess maybe a 500-750 square foot room. It had a very low ceiling with a bunch of pipes overhead.
For example, Chris Pronger couldn't even push a bar over his head without crashing the plates into a pipe overhead. We would even tease the guys and tell them the pipes are filled with oil, so they better be careful.
The team wanted to catch up to where some other teams were with strength and conditioning, so we started purchasing new equipment. They really wanted to turn over a new leaf, so the team was great. I know the Oilers were really excited at the time about getting a new program and getting their players on board with it...and getting some of their guys maybe a little stronger and improving their fitness level.
Your first year with the team the Oilers made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals...with a team that featured three guys now with the Kings - Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene. What do you remember about that team and their fitness level overall?
The Oilers are the big show in town, they're the main attraction. It's not like Los Angeles where the Kings are competing with so many other things for attention. Everybody in Edmonton is interested in how the team is doing. So, even as a strength and conditioning guy, I would get questions from the media. When they would ask 'What do you think is going to happen here as far as changing the strength and conditioning program? What's it going to do to help the team?' I would explain that if we trained the right way and we do it efficiently, I'm hoping we'd be a good team down the stretch. In the second half of the season I was hoping that all the work we put in throughout the season would give us, even if it was a 1% advantage...it would give us a slight edge when we needed it.
And that season it did. The team was awesome in the third period and awesome in overtime...they never really seemed to fatigue or breakdown against other teams. You could almost just count on a guy scoring a big goal to turn a game against teams like Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim in the playoffs...and even against Carolina in the Finals.
That first year with that team - you mentioned Stoll, Greene and Smyth - but the guy that helped me the most in doing my job was Chris Pronger. He obviously commanded a lot of respect from the coaches and the locker room. He was pretty confident in his on ice abilities. So, one of the things he liked to do is spend time off the ice training - just to maintain his level of strength and endurance.
He would always talk to the coaching staff and ask that we could get days off to spend time in the weight room and train. I really learned through that process that there is such an emphasis in the NHL on putting the guys on ice and spending time on positional play, power plays, penalty killing and everything else they work on...however, they end up spending so much time on the ice - including the actual games - that they end up having very little time for off ice training.
So, having Pronger almost demand that he gets time in the room to train and work on his fitness benefited the whole team because the coach would say 'Look, if we're going to give Pronger the day off the ice, why don't we do the same thing for some of our veteran players?' So, sometimes I'd have 9 or 10 guys in the weight room. The only thing they would do that day was train in the room. They wouldn't go on the ice, so we'd get some really good training days in. And this would happen frequently during each month. Organizing training programs was an easy thing to do at that point because the coaching staff gave me so much leeway to get the guys fresh - either on the bike or in the weight room doing strength lifts.
I thought my whole tenure in Edmonton would be really similar to that, but it wasn't. Little did I know what a huge ally Pronger was and what the impact of him leaving would be for somebody like me and my ability to do my job. As a result of our efforts that year I think we were a great finishing team, coming so close to winning the Stanley Cup. It was a real learning experience to see how things would evolve over the next three years.
I would assume that one question some people raised back then was 'How much hands on training did you actually do?' - with you based in LA and the team all the way in Edmonton. From a players perspective or even from management...was that ever an issue?
I told MacTavish from the very beginning that I wasn't going to move to Edmonton and they were fine with that. They always made sure they had an assistant strength and conditioning coach who would do all the day to day stuff. Basically, I was available to come in every month and if they had questions or an injury that needed to be addressed, I was always available by phone or email to discuss things. During the first year I would sometimes spend 14 days a month in Edmonton. I also saw them for days at a time on the road - in cities like LA, Phoenix and Dallas. So, they got their money's worth.
Looking back on things, beyond Pronger leaving, what other changes did you notice?
When they lost some of the veteran players starting in around 2007 they wanted to spend more time on the ice with their younger players. I would talk with MacTavish - who I always had a great working relationship with...we needed to spend time in the weight room like the first season I was there. One of the things people forget sometimes is the off season for a team that doesn't make the playoffs is four months. But, the season is eight months - that's 2/3 of the year. If you don't do proper training for that period of time, your players are going to decondition. I don't care how hard you're skating players in practice, there's no substitute for the work we do in the room, working on all the different areas with players.
So, I think one thing that happens when a team starts to panic, when they start losing some games - especially if they have a younger line-up...they start spending so much time on the ice the players start to lose some of that strength base that they built up in the off season. You really start to see this in the second half of the season and into the playoffs. In fact, I saw this with the Oilers. When I was with the team we would do mid-season testing and their testing scores would be significantly lower than when they first came into training camp on day one. I would express my concern to the training staff...that this could not only lead to decreased performance, but higher injury potential.
It's not to pick on the coaching staff in Edmonton. They were great to work with. And I think it's probably an issue that strength and conditioning coaches across the league have to deal with.
You mentioned test scores. For the average fan out there, obviously it's physical fitness, but what types of testing are we talking about?
Every team is slightly different. But, there are some standardized tests, like what they put guys through before the NHL Entry Draft. In Edmonton it was actually a little bit of a sore spot. The University of Alberta had been doing their testing before I got there. I looked over what they had been doing and liked some of it, but I thought we needed to be a little more hockey specific. So, I wanted to include a lot of different on ice tests, which I think is important. Off ice we looked at things like vertical power, horizontal power through the legs, balance, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance - which is probably the most popular test in the hockey world...and we looked at anaerobic tests, like the Wingate Test on a stationary bike.
There is another issue there with the stationary bike and the anaerobic tests that are done on a bike. For the most part, hockey players are conditioned to do a lot of work on a stationary bike.
In season they do a lot of work on the bike because it's a low impact method of getting a cardiovascular response. They don't have to beat up their joints as much as running would do. Off season I don't like to use the bike as much because I think it feeds into those tight hip flexors that hockey players get from the position they skate in. So, I like to get them off the bike in the summer time and do more back based stuff, where we open up their hips for the first month or so. Then, we do some track and speed work. It ends up being a very athletic environment on the track...and it also gives their hips a break, by not having them in that flex position like they are on the bike.
But, the disadvantage to this is that when you go back to camp and they test you on the bike...if you haven't been working out on the bike all summer, you're not going to test as well. Some guy that are actually not as fit as you overall will kick butt when tested on the bike, like in the 2Max or the Wingate Test. I've put a lot of time into studying this area. I'm actually working on a research paper right now, looking at the correlation between preseason testing and on ice performance. The testing itself is usually up to the team, but a lot of it is open to conjecture because there is very little literature available on the testing.
Now the Oilers had a terrible season, a league low 62 points for the year. They also lost over 500 man games to injury. This has caused the organization to say they'll be reviewing all of their conditioning practices and changes will be coming. Head Coach Pat Quinn was quoted in the Edmonton Sun as saying "Four years ago they made a change in the person that leads training and since that time, the spike started to come in the injury levels." That statement points to your time with the team, so how do you respond to that?
First off, let me say that I've never met Pat Quinn or had a chance to speak with him about this. However, to criticize the strength and conditioning coaches I think is unfair. The coach needs to share some of the blame in that because a team that isn't fit by the end of the year...the coaching staff has the ultimate control over how much time a player spends in the weight room. So, I somewhat look at that with a grain of salt.
After a couple of other people pointed that comment out to me though I went back and did some research. It's pretty interesting. I looked at the stats for man games lost to injury, which I think could be a slightly over stated statistic. For instance, this season (2009-10), the least injured teams - based on man games lost to injury - were Tampa Bay and the Rangers. Neither team made the playoffs. Edmonton led the league in man games lost and obviously they didn't make the playoffs either. Yet, the team with the second most games lost to injury was Detroit. And they're in the playoffs. So, this might be a little bit of a misleading statistic.
But, let's go back to 2005-2006, when I felt like I did a great job of convincing the coaching staff that it was important to have the training in the weight room, not just during the off season - but, in-season as well. Obviously we had success that year, almost winning a Stanley Cup. We only had 134 man games lost to injury according to my statistics. I also looked at goal differential in the third period and overtime. We were a +20 in the regular season. That's pretty significant to me because it means we were a good team at the end of games, which was always my goal. From a strength and conditioning standpoint, I wanted the team to still be strong at the end.
To be fair, that was one of your four years with the Oilers. What about other years you were with the team?
Good point. There were lots of personnel changes over the next few years, with a mass exodus of players. The team dynamics changed quite a bit, with the focus of training being more on the on-ice drills. For 2007-08 we had over 300 man games lost to injury. We were also a -20 in goal differential for the third period and overtime portion. So, I think there was actually a correlation between how many injuries we had and how poorly we were playing at the end of games.
In 2008-09, my last year with the team, we had fewer man games lost to injury than the season before and we were a +3 in that late-game goal differential. This year was just a disaster with a -36 and over 500 man games lost. So, when I see Pat Quinn say 'We must be doing something wrong with our off season training,' I don't totally agree with him. I think for a lot of these players in-season training might be even more important than what guys are doing in the off season. Remember, the season is eight months long, so coaches need to help find the time for guys to get into the weight room and do their training.
What about the off season workouts though, when the coaches aren't around...
It's a battle. Even if you have the greatest strength and conditioning coach in the world...these players go back to Toronto, to Prague...to all their different places around the world. You might give them a packet or a plan, but when they get home they throw it in the trash or set it on their desk. A lot of players go back to working with the guy that helped them get where they are. They work with 'their guy' for a few months. So to say as a group that the Oilers have a problem with their off ice training program is a bit short sided.
I think a lot of these players go home and train on their own anyhow. It's different than in other sports, like the NFL. Football players will go and train on their own for a short period of time, but then the team brings them back in and they have a very controlled strength and conditioning program that they're integrated into. Hockey has a very different set up. When I was in Edmonton the guys were brought back into camp around September 12th and they'd start playing preseason games like a week later. So, there's really no such thing as a training camp where you work on getting these players back into shape. You hope they're already in shape when they get to camp and then it's your job to maintain that fitness level throughout the season as the strength and conditioning coach.
So you were a strength and conditioning coach in the NHL and let's flip it around...now you do off season strength and conditioning with various NHL players. Does that make you the 'other guy' you were just making reference to?
Well, I do run programs in the summertime and I get guys from a variety of different teams. I know they all have strength and conditioning programs with their team and if they want, I'll look at what their coach wants them to do in the summertime. But, for the most part, I run my program the way I want to run it. And for the players that like it, they train with me. If they want something else, that's fine too. That was always my approach in Edmonton as well. I would design programs for guys in the off season and if they wanted to consult with me all summer and even come out to LA and train with me, awesome - let's do it. If they wanted to train with some guy in their hometown instead, that was fine. As long as they came back to camp in what we considered elite shape for a hockey player.
One specific area the Oilers are supposedly going to address is how their workouts are coordinated around travel schedules. Teams like the Kings, Sharks and Ducks - playing in the Western Conference - they're no strangers to the rigors of travel in the NHL. Some coaches like to practice before boarding a plane and traveling. Other guys, like Pat Quinn, like to skate after flying. What role does travel play on a professional athlete's body?
Well, travel is certainly a bigger factor for teams on the West Coast. And it's an even bigger factor this season, where the schedule is so condensed because of the Olympics. It's hard to find enough days to get training in when you factor in the travel schedule and changing time zones. When a team goes on a losing streak it's even harder to get that time in the weight room. Coaches tend to want to put their players on the ice and rightfully so.
In terms of which strategy works better, I haven't seen any studies one way or the other. It may depend on the age of your team as well. Travel takes a lot out of you either way you do the practices, before or after you fly.
How about nutrition...we hear a lot about the foods that athletes eat nowadays, compared to the beer and cigar diets of prior generations...
Nutrition is a big part of recovery. When I first came to the team I was shocked at what they were eating on the planes. I couldn't believe what guys were eating, so I went to work right away with some changes. It didn't make me the most popular guy though...especially with the staff guys, believe it or not. We did away with the processed meats and garbage...we were doing more fruits and salads. We still had a few snacks here and there, because some of the players started complaining about not having chocolate bars on the plane. At some point you have to concede a little bit. If you try to change too much too fast, you're going to be met with a ton of resistance. We tried to get the guys to eat healthier overall though because nutrition is one of the underutilized and overlooked areas of human performance and recovery.
Talk about that point a little more...making small changes can make such a huge difference sometimes to an athlete's performance - both positive and negative. Yet, getting some to make the change can be a daunting task. Without naming names and just looking at it broadly, do athletes complain a lot or are they as mentally tough off the ice as they are on the ice?
The way I see it, these guys in the NHL are like Formula 1 race cars. Now, I'm no mechanic - but I bet you those cars are pretty finicky. I have a funny feeling that if you have four or five mechanics working on those cars...and one guy tightens one screw a little too tight, one way of the other, you're going to have some problems when it comes to performing at a high level on the track. So, the elite athletes I've trained are like these cars. They have all these little things that they want to have situated just right to make sure they perform at the highest level. I just accept that as the truth. I expect them to be picky and question everything I have to say. Guys that have been in the league for awhile didn't get there and stay there by accident. So, yes they complain. And they should. They should get what they need to perform at a high level. If they're not getting it, they should be squeaky wheels. A lot of them know what they need.
Injuries are certainly part of the game. However, in a recent Edmonton Journal article looking at all the injuries with the Oilers this season, it was reported that defenseman Sheldon Souray claims he was rushed back into the line-up before his shoulder was fully healed from surgery. The idea of guys being forced back on the ice in hockey...or the field, it's controversial topic in many different sports. How often does it really happen and how do you handle it when a coach or GM doesn't agree with your assessment of a player's health?
Just speaking from what I observed, I was theoretically never part of the medical staff. I was under contract as the strength and conditioning coach...and I've had conversations, even recently, with other strength and conditioning coaches around the league...and the line is pretty blurry between conditioning and medical health care assessments of players. I blur it everyday. My training for athletes is blurred by the fact that I'm a health care professional, being a chiropractor too.
I always look at injury prevention first, 'What are we going to do to keep this guy in one piece?' And once we have him in one piece, 'What are we going to do to have him perform better?' While a player may have the ultimate decision about when he returns to the line-up, I think I know where Sheldon was coming from. I've had a relationship with him for the last several years and he is one supreme athlete, he's at a whole different level when it comes to overall athletic fitness.
You have to remember that when he signed with the Oilers he was coming off of major shoulder surgery. It's a tough situation for players. You know you're not quite healed all the way, not quite 100%. In the perfect situation, you'd probably spend another two months rehabbing the shoulder and getting yourself stronger...so when you do go back and start taking impact on the ice, you're ready for it.
But, the off season isn't quite long enough for these guys to heal up all the way sometimes. Again, for a team that misses the playoffs, they only have four months to get ready for the next season. Theoretically, anybody that gets a major shoulder reconstruction should probably rehab that shoulder for at least five or six months. So, there's no way when the season starts that a lot of these guys are actually fully ready for battle again - but, they're kinda thrown back out there.
Part of it also is the players need and want to go out there for their teammates and play. And the other part is the team is paying them a lot of money and they want to see them play. Even though the guys should be treated like humans, sometimes they're treated like commodities. Part of it is unfair because the players are asked to do things that I wouldn't ask an average Joe in my office to do. If I had a guy that wanted to go back and work on the docks after spending just a couple of months rehabbing his shoulder, I'd say 'No way. You can't go back and handle heavy equipment. You need to do more rehab. We need to get you stronger before we send you back out to the docks.' Unfortunately, I don't think we do always the same things for athletes.
If I look closely at what you just said though, when a guy points the finger back at the organization - that can be a little bit of a cop out. Are you saying that in a lot of situations the athlete is just as much to blame because he's in a hurry to get back out there with his teammates too?
Well, that's part of it. I always think the athlete is in a hurry. They're trying to get back out there before they're ready. That's where the decision of the trainer is so important. He's the guy that assimilates all the information from the strength and conditioning guy, the orthopedic surgeon, the chiropractors and whoever else they have working for the team. He's the keeper. He has to be the guy that determines if a player is ready. If he clears you to play and the player goes back to competition too soon and he ends up getting hurt again, it just hurts the whole team because now you have to go through the whole process again.
You have to take the decision away from the player. I haven't talked to Sheldon about this specific situation, but I know him well enough to know his mindset - that is, he wants to be out there contributing to his team. The medical staff has to be the one making these decisions though, not the player. If you have that, it will keep everybody in a relatively safe situation.
Some of the guys you trained in Edmonton are now here in Los Angeles with the Kings (click here for a video link with some comments from Jarret Stoll about working out with Chad). Has that allowed you to develop any relationships with the Kings training staff and maybe augment some of the stuff they do with their players?
I'd say I have a great relationship working with some of the training staff in LA. They want to do what's best for their players and they do a lot of their own work. But, if they see an injury that they think I may be able to help them with, they'll use me for the services I provide. So, it's a pretty easy relationship. We have an open line of communication. I think some of the players like coming to my office because it has sort of a hockey feel when they come in the door. So, we can talk hockey and we can get them fixed up and back on the ice.
At this point are you looking to hook up with another team or are you looking to stay in private practice?
For the last year I've been focused on private practice. If the right opportunity comes along, I'd do it. But, I learned a lot from the Edmonton job. I think most teams have a lot of work to do when it comes to performance training. I think they need to have somebody that oversees - almost like a Director of Sports Performance...somebody that brings in the people these teams need to start working with.
Many teams are still understaffed. I'm not sure most teams are willing to go that extra mile and put money into this area. One of the things I'd like to do with a team is bring in a whole performance training team. Bring in a crew of specialists - like a soft tissue guy, a sports psychologist, the right strength and conditioning people and so on. Working with a team again would be a real blast. If you do it right, you can really influence the performance of the team. It would have to be the right circumstance though. If my hands were tied and I just got to run two weight room workouts a week and nothing else, that wouldn't be for me.
Last summer the Kings made several upgrades to their training facility in El Segundo. They upgraded the weight room and a lot of the off ice training tools, like adding a puck shooting machine - things that gave players a reason to be at the training center, besides just being on the ice. Have you ever had the chance to talk with Dean Lombardi about some of your ideas?
No, I haven't. The little bit I know about what his intentions are and by listening to quite a few of the players talk about the experience they're having playing with the LA Kings, it seems like that team is heading in the right direction when it comes to making sure the players have what they need to perform at a high level. I guess the performance speaks for itself. They've had a pretty good year and I hope it continues for them here in the playoffs against Vancouver.
From what I've read, one of the other things you're involved with is a training website called HOCKEYOT.com. It looks like you started this to cater to players of all ages, right - even kids as young as like 12 years old. Is that right?
We even have some players younger than that. Ethan and I put the idea in motion with a guy in Edmonton. It helps to automate some of the training programs I was putting together for each individual athlete I was working with. One of the things I love to do is customize each workout for each person. If I'm giving the same workout to everybody, it's pointless to hire me. It needs to make sense for the individual, regardless of if they're 15 or 52 years old.
Ethan suggested I talk to this guy Chris, who became my business partner. He helped me take everything that was in my brain about what should be done for an individual athlete and automate it with this routine generator. It's unbelievable what this application can do. It's taken four years to perfect it, but we have a nice base of subscribers. We have a number of pro guys that use the site and we also have a ton of adult rec guys too. The pros are mainly ECHL type of players or guys in Europe that don't have a strength and conditioning foundation for their team. So, they're using our program to make sure they stay in shape.
What about the adult rec guys... If I'm a 30-something guy reading this and I play in my local rec league, how would I use the site?
First, you would sign up to use the site. It's a pretty low commitment, it's month to month so you can cancel anytime. Then, you would go through a testing sequence, a fitness testing battery. With that information we'll have a pretty good insight into what type of athlete you are. And we'll make recommendations on the things we think you should work on. You can pick different fitness goals. We want to know the type of equipment you'll be using too, say you have a membership to the local fitness club. The program will basically generate a workout for you for four weeks. After that cycle, the program will ask you to retest and evaluate you based on what the expected achievement would be. The cool thing about it is, the program is always giving you feedback on what it thinks you should work on to get up to a high level of performance for somebody your age, whether that's a 30 year old guy or a 12 year old girl that just started training with us.
We've actually had a ton of emails from guys that play on their local adult rec team saying 'Hey listen, I've used your site for two months and guys are saying my game has totally changed. People are asking me if I'm taking private lessons, why I'm so fast, etc.' So, it's pretty cool. It motivates me to keep training and to keep updating the site.
Last question - the link between the Oilers and the Kings continues in June. The Kings will be hosting the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, where the Oilers are scheduled to pick first. The debate throughout Alberta right now is Taylor vs Tyler. Do you have an opinion on who the Oilers should take first overall - Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin?
I don't know. I don't see how they can go wrong though. It sounds like both those guys are a possible franchise player. Who knows, maybe they'll try to get the second overall pick too. I've heard some rumors about that, getting both of the top two picks. I don't know what they'd have to trade for that - hopefully, not the whole team!
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Well, rumors like that should keep things interesting after the playoffs are over and as we head towards the draft in late June.
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