Book excerpt – The Mighty Ducks are hatched

As some of you may know, I’ve been researching the history of California hockey for several years now. I’ve written several chapters for one book on it, and a few more for another.

One of the former Mighty Ducks and Sharks players I enjoyed speaking with a great deal during this process was Todd Ewen, who passed away over the weekend. I had shared parts of some chapters with him, and he offered honest and constructive feedback.

Rather than continue to guard my writing as if it were a state secret, I’ve decided to share a chapter I’ve written (and rewritten) about the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. I felt prompted to do this after reading about Todd’s passing and looking at the notes from my first interview with him, which began with a discussion about our shared love of playing music and his willingness and ability to play “pickup” in bands, basically playing whatever instrument they needed.

I hope you enjoy this not-so-brief glimpse into California hockey history, however rough around the edges it might be. There will be more where this came from.

The NHL Expands to Anaheim

When people talk about “The Gretzky Effect” on hockey in California, they don’t have to look far – in fact, roughly a 40-mile drive from Los Angeles to the southeast – to discover one of the more prominent pieces of evidence.

The National Hockey League granted The Walt Disney Company a conditional franchise in December 1992. By the end of the following March, less than six months before the team would open its first training camp, the club had a name – The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, a sparkling new arena (The Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, later Honda Center) and a general manager – Jack Ferreira, the same man who had been charged with building San Jose’s NHL expansion franchise approximately 370 miles to the north.

The timing was impeccable because the Los Angeles Kings became the first team from California to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 1993, and the attention the sport was receiving was matched only by the acquisition of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton nearly five years earlier.

Anaheim shared some similarities with fellow California expansion market San Jose. Both were growing and affluent – key components for a league that to this day still derives a lion’s share of its revenue from gate receipts and merchandise sales. And both were eager to fashion a name for themselves the shadow of cities to their immediate north, in the Sharks’ case San Francisco and in the Ducks’ case Los Angeles. More than 20 years later, the two franchises are – at worst – well on their way to that.

These emerging markets reflected a renewed emphasis by the NHL to expand into large U.S. television markets. The blueprint to establish big-market footholds wasn’t new to the league; it had been a driving force behind the NHL doubling in size from six to 12 teams in 1967, when, not so coincidentally, it also happened to place teams in Northern (the Seals) and Southern California (Kings).

The Oakland/California Seals followed a successful pro team in the old Western Hockey League in the 1960s. Likewise, the Kings followed the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades. As the WHL’s Seals and Blades faded, the Gulls began setting WHL attendance records in San Diego during their eight-season run from 1966 to 1974. So California was not uncharted territory for the NHL.

In February 1993, Gary Bettman was selected the league’s first commissioner and his mandate from the owners who hired him was to sell the game in the United States and complete expansion plans while ending the game’s labor unrest. His efforts in the latter yielded uneven results (labor woes cost the league half of the 1994-95 season, all of the 2004-05 campaign and half of the 2012-13 season), but the league has grown from 21 to 30 teams under his watch. And its annual revenues are approaching $4 billion, according to Canadian news outlet The Globe and Mail.

In September 1993 the Mighty Ducks opened their first training camp. The general manager who would guide them to their highest height 14 years in the future, Brian Burke, had begun working as the NHL’s Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations. In addition to his role as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, the veteran of the Vancouver Canucks’ and Hartford Whalers’ front offices worked closely with the commissioner on matters concerning the direction of the league.

“Everyone talked in the ’90s about the electronic footprint. That’s all you heard, the electronic footprint. You’d hear it in your sleep,” Burke recalled. “If you want that elusive big television contract. If you want Fox to buy the rights to the NHL.

“You look at a map of the continental United States. What markets need to have teams? You want to get as many teams in as many top 20 DMAs (designated market areas) as you can. The Fox guys were saying you need a team in Atlanta, you need a team back in the Twin Cities because we weren’t there at the time. We were trying to cover as many top 20 markets as we can. Columbus was the 20th biggest TV market and they didn’t have a team.

“A lot of the expansion process was how do we flesh out that electronic footprint. We need a team in Florida, we need teams in Atlanta and Phoenix, so that was a big part of allocation of teams. How do we flesh that out?”

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The Mighty Ducks enjoyed some immediate competitive advantages that the Sharks had not enjoyed when they began play in 1991.

The expansion Sharks spent two seasons playing in a substandard building more than 40 miles away from the arena they eventually would call home, and they were a family-owned operation. The Mighty Ducks, meanwhile, had a sparkling new facility the moment the season’s first National Anthem was sung, and Disney’s ownership provided valuable marketing muscle.

“The thing that really helped us develop that following (so quickly) was that the team was owned by Disney, because they could use a lot of their marketing tools to help get us out in the community,” Ferreira said.

Some in the hockey community scoffed at the notion of the company that introduced Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and friends to the world having a spot in the lineup of such a tradition-steeped game, but the Mighty Ducks’ first coach, Ron Wilson, and the club’s front office recognized the inroads Disney could help the team make in a competitive, entertainment driven market like Southern California.

“We realized we had a great opportunity to sell in a new market,” Wilson said. “We had a great company backing us in Disney, who gave us a lot of support and instant, at least for us with some fans, credibility. Maybe no credibility as far as Canada was concerned, we were being run by Disney. But they had access to making sure the building was filled and the right way to treat people. All of the things Disney’s known for made it a lot easier from an organizational marketing point of view.”

Disney’s involvement wasn’t an issue for the players, said Todd Ewen, one of the expansion era club’s leaders.

“I didn’t have a problem that Disney was involved, and I don’t think a lot of players did,” Ewen says. “It’s nice to have a corporation like that backing a sport like ours. We’re always considered lower that baseball, football and basketball.

“(Anaheim Sports President) Tony Tavares was instrumental in picking my brain and a lot of other guys’ about how successful organizations did things. He was interested in Montreal (one of Ewen’s former teams) and their history and what they did for their players. He went out of his way to treat the players well, above and beyond the call of duty. He really put us out there with the fans.”

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Ferreira’s experiences with the Sharks helped shape the way he would approach his next general manager’s role with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Another factor was the relatively short amount of time he had in which to assemble the team. Expansion franchises for the 1992-93 season in Ottawa, Ontario, and Tampa, Florida, had at least a year of preparation time, not the six months afforded Anaheim and its expansion mate in Miami, the Florida Panthers.

Ducks television analyst Brian Hayward had a front-row seat for both of Ferreira’s expansion projects, as a goaltender and sometime TV commentator with the Sharks and when he double-shifted his broadcast duties with serving as the Mighty Ducks’ goaltending coach during their first two seasons.

“He built the teams differently,” Hayward said. “That experience in San Jose served him very well in building the Ducks. They took a different approach in that expansion draft. Who are your veteran players you bring in? To me, that was the big difference.

“And the Ducks, frankly, had a better coach. Ron Wilson was an excellent coach for an expansion franchise. He’s a defense-first coach.”

History has proven Ferreira knew exactly what he was doing when he picked Wilson, who came from a strong hockey lineage. His father, Larry, and his uncle, Johnny, won Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s.

The Mighty Ducks job was the first head-coaching position for Wilson, who was a high-scoring defenseman at Providence College (where Burke was one of his teammates) and seasoned in international competition with the U.S. National Team and through playing in Europe, as well as a veteran of 177 NHL games. Wilson surpassed the 500-victory milestone while coaching the Sharks during the 2007-08 season. He also coached the United States to the 1996 World Cup title and led the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup Final in 1998.

“He was actually an assistant in Vancouver. And the thing that in the interview that I had with Ron that kind of separated him from everybody else was his knowledge of the league,” Ferreira said. “When I went in and talked to all the candidates, he had a real knowledge of which players were going to be available, which players he thought would be good for us. That kind of separated him.

“Then I knew he was an intelligent guy, and he was a hard worker, which some of the other people I had talked to that had been associated with him said. That really confirmed that he was going to be the guy for us.

“And I wanted somebody who would grow with the team. There were a lot of guys who were a little more experienced and whatever, but I wanted the whole organization to grow together. That’s why we took a lot of younger players and first-year pros when we built the expansion team. I just wanted to get everybody to grow together. We knew there were going to be growing pains, but that was my thought process.”

Said Wilson: “More than anything, the challenge was that it (Anaheim) was my first head coaching job, and you’re kind of overwhelmed by ‘Are you ready for the job?’ (There were) all the organizational things that have to go in when there is no history. There’s no anything yet.

“You spend a lot of time with a lot of people educating them about what your program is going to be, making sure how you travel, how you practice. We tried as best we could to avoid saying we were an expansion team with all these built-in excuses. We just wanted to be as competitive as we could.”

Ewen had run into Wilson – literally – during the overlap in their playing careers in the late 1980s when Ewen was breaking in with St. Louis and Wilson was finishing his career with Norris Division rival Minnesota.

“I didn’t know what to expect because the last time I played against him, he came around the net and I just flattened him. So when he walked in, I was like, ‘Last time we played I kicked your butt’,” Ewen said, chuckling.

“He had a definite plan, and he’s very driven. He’s one of the few exceptions of coaches in that he allowed us a lot of days off because he understood the travel part of it. He was very good with the players. Some are demeaning with players. Some are total textbook.

“Ron has a great attribute in that he knew how to take players and push their buttons to get the most out of them. A coach who can do that will always be successful.”

The button pushing took on different forms, defenseman Jason Marshall recalled. And Marshall would know, having played for Wilson in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose.

“When I was in Anaheim, he yelled a little bit,” Marshall said. “Some responded to that. I didn’t. I’d worry. But he was really good at knowing when to give a guy a smack on the hands and knowing when to back off.

“We always seemed to get on a roll after Christmas, and I think it’s because he kept the practices to a good skate instead of a total beatdown, which some coaches do (when they’re upset).”

Guy Hebert, the Mighty Ducks’ first expansion draft pick, and the player whose goaltending was the backbone of the Ducks teams during an Anaheim career that spanned 1993-2001, minced no words about the job Ferreira and Wilson and the rest of the front office did.

“I think Jack and Ron probably never received enough recognition in putting together a team in no time flat. Especially the short time between getting the franchise, having to draft players and maybe sign a few free agents,” Hebert said.

David McNab, whose ties to California’s hockey history extend to his youth in San Diego in the 1960s, is one of the few remaining members of the original front office team.

“Jack put a terrific team together,” said McNab, then the director of player personnel, now the Ducks’ assistant general manager. “Jack was a smart guy. We were big, we got good goaltending, and we were tough. It was fun.”

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Ferreira and Wilson wanted immediately to establish a team identity – toughness. That would be easier said than done for a team named after a series of children’s movies.

“The marketing aspect, just being called a Duck was hard,” Ewen said. “I had fought a lot before, and I knew I was going to fight a whole lot more just being a Duck.”

Said Ferreira: “The one thing I learned from being in San Jose and now coming down and starting another expansion team was you have to try to establish some kind of identity because nobody gives you any respect when you’re an expansion team. You go in and beat a team, and it’s ‘That team didn’t play well.’ You never get the respect and the credit that you deserve from a hard effort or playing well. It’s always the other team didn’t play well, that’s why they lost because no one expects you to win.

“So what I did with that team was we just wanted a big, tough team. We were not going to be intimidated in any building. That’s what I tried to establish.”

Enter Ewen and Stu Grimson, a pair of hulking wingers who did their part to put the Mighty into the expansion Ducks. The tag team had a combined weight of 460 pounds and a total of 471 penalty minutes in the 1993-94 season, most coming in 5-minute increments.

“Stuey and Ewey – there weren’t many teams willing to take us on,” Ferreira remembered, fondly. “Those two guys really gave us that credibility as far as if we were coming into your building, you had to keep your head up. That’s what we really tried to establish was to have that type of respect or at least we’d get that respect from other teams.”

Their presence was comforting to Hebert on a couple of levels. First, it would establish a physical presence and perhaps keep scores lower, and second, it went a long way toward quieting critics of the team’s nickname.

“Our first team for ’93 with Stu Grimson and Todd Ewen and Jim Thomson and Robin Bawa, you go through the media program and look at the penalty minutes. We were going to be tough,” the goalie recalled. “That might allow us to have a physical presence and win low-scoring games and not be pushed around. And if we had skill guys, they would be protected.

“I don’t think it’s a secret – here’s a team being named after a Disney film. Hockey is a man’s sport. You fight, you spit, you bleed, you lose teeth. That’s how I grew up. Goalies didn’t wear masks.

“A small part of having a tough team early on was the fact that any preconceived notion of what the team was going to be like was instantly shattered when Stuey Grimson and Todd Ewen went on the ice and dropped the gloves for the first time.”

Hayward also recalls the duo’s impact vividly.

“Stuey and Ewey – those two guys loved to fight. Loved it. Especially Todd Ewen, he loved to fight,” Hayward said. “And that was a lot of the identity of the franchise in those early years. Maybe the team’s not very good, but the game’s not going to be easy to play.”

The Mighty Ducks’ toughness stood out more than any other attribute to defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, who was the club’s first All-Star that season at age 34. And no wonder. Kasatonov had been a premier player for the Soviet teams of the ‘80s, winning two Olympic gold medals and a silver and five World Championships for some of the most skilled and precise teams in the sport’s history.

“When we were first starting out I remember we had a lot of fighters, more than the Kings, which seemed important,” Kasatonov said. “The first year was more show, but everyone stayed together, tried to help each other out because it was new for everybody.

“The New Jersey organization (which was Kasatonov’s NHL entry point during the 1989-90 season) was more conservative, more like Russia. Here you had palm trees, the Disney stuff, the shows. Hollywood actors were around.”

Ferreira was familiar with Ewen from his role as a scout with the Canadiens after he had left San Jose. Ewen arrived in the Mighty Ducks’ first trade with more 300 NHL games played and membership on the Montreal Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup champions on his resume.

“There was no better guy to be a tandem with than Stu. We were just on the same page,” Ewen said. “Before that I was usually the only fighter on my team so every game I’d have three fights with three different guys on the other team. My hands got ground up like hamburger.”

Former Ducks radio analyst and ex-NHL forward Brent Severyn remembered his “visits” with the duo as an opposing player.

“It was not fun to come here and play,” Severyn said. “Those were big boys, and I’d always wonder, ‘OK, which one am I going to have to go with tonight?’ ”

The Stuey and Ewey tag team might have been the most unique combination of enforcers in NHL history.

On the one hand there was Ewen, a gifted illustrator who wrote a children’s book, and who is so musically inclined that he plays piano, drums, bass and guitar. On the other, there was Grimson, a devout Christian who eventually earned a law degree from the University of Memphis and at one time worked for the NHL Players Association.

All business on the ice, the duo also brought plenty of levity to their teammates.

“My best memory there was my birthday,” Kasatonov said. “It was the first time I got hit in the face with a pie, by Ewen after practice. For me, it was strange, but everyone thought it was so funny.”

Stuey and Ewey typified a Mighty Ducks cast had plenty of characters – and character.

“They had some real good, strong character players on that team,” Hayward said. “I always put Stu in that category. Especially with (Randy) Ladouceur and Troy Loney (the club’s first captain).”

Added Ewen: “Troy Loney is a quintessential captain as far as I’m concerned. Guy Carboneau, Troy, Brian Sutter. They don’t say a lot, and they always bring their game. When they do say something, it means a lot. That’s how Troy was, when he said something, we all took it to heart.

“Randy Ladouceur was phenomenal in that he had so much experience.

“I don’t know what you’d call us, the tandem nuclear powers? Stuey and myself are at two ends of the spectrum. He’s more a joking, fun-loving, out there charismatic person. I didn’t say much but was determined. That support for all four of us to bring everyone together was part of the chemistry they always question. What does chemistry mean? Having different personalities pointing in the same direction. That was the difference.”

Wilson also valued the leadership of Loney, Ladouceur, Grimson and Ewen.

“Early on, Troy Loney and Randy Ladouceur were foundational guys,” the coach said. “Other people like Stu Grimson and Todd Ewen did a lot of things in the community and made a big difference. We wanted an identity as a hard-working, kind of tough team that people can identify with.”

Ewen recalled one of his first functions as a Mighty Duck, an organization he had told his agent during the summer of 1993, fresh off Montreal’s Stanley Cup victory over the Los Angeles Kings, that he had no interest in joining. Ewen and Grimson went on a radio show in an effort to reach out to potential fans.

“Stu and I did an interview on the radio the first day I came into town, and it was quite funny because we were getting some unbelievable questions, like ‘What’s the name of that thing that cleans the ice?’ Just bizarre questions,” Ewen said.

“A year later, and this goes toward everybody in Anaheim, we did the same show a year later at the same time, and they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you on the diamond formation on the penalty kill?’

“Did everybody go to school? It just took off. They just brought us in as a family and really gave us the support.”

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The task of building a competitive team was made slightly easier for Ferreira, McNab, assistant GM Pierre Gauthier, and Director of Hockey Operations Kevin Gilmore because of two key changes the NHL had made for this round of expansion. The first was the rules of the expansion draft, and the second was the Mighty Ducks’ and Panthers’ first two Entry Draft positions.

“The biggest difference was the expansion draft,” Ferreira said. “When I started the San Jose team, each team could protect two goaltenders. When we came down here to Southern California, the expansion rules were that each team could protect one goalie. That was significant because it’s your most important position, especially when you’re an expansion team.

“When we came down to Southern California, there was Guy Hebert and Ron Tugnutt, there was more to pick from. We had also drafted Mikhail Shtalenkov, but our plan was that we were going to let Tugnutt and Guy fight for the No. 1 job, have Mikhail be down in San Diego for half a year and then come the middle of the year we would try to trade one of the two goalies, whichever one didn’t win the job. Try to get a player, which we did. We ended up getting Stephan LeBeau (from Montreal for Tugnutt).

“When Mikhail came in, with Mikhail and Guy, the goaltending was pretty much solidified for the five years that I was the general manager there. We never had a question who was going to play goal. The players didn’t care if it was Guy or Mikhail, so that was pretty special thing to have. It all started because each team could only protect one goalie so there was a bigger pool to choose from.”

Unlike the previous Entry Draft, in 1992, when expansion teams Tampa Bay and Ottawa picked No. 1 and No. 2, the NHL added a twist for the Mighty Ducks and the Panthers in 1993.

“The NHL did it perfectly in my opinion the one year we came in to play,” McNab said. “Our franchise wasn’t granted until March of 1993. Usually it’s an entire season. When we came in, we picked 4 and 5, whatever the reason was. There were teams having miserable years anyway, they didn’t want to throw us ahead of them. Usually they pick first.

“For our first two years, with us and Florida, they had a coin flip and the winner got to pick either fourth in the 1993 and second in 1994 or fifth and first. But you were guaranteed to pick 1 or 2 after your first season.

“What happens with a lot of expansion teams is you need a bad year or two to get an influx of pretty good players.

“We picked fourth in 1993, and that’s when we got Paul Kariya. Going into the 1994 season we knew we were picking second. And we knew both Florida was going to pick first. Both teams could try to win and we still were going to pick first and second. It gave a certain sort of feeling.

“It wasn’t like you said at the trade deadline, ‘We’ve got to lose here. We have to help our draft pick. Winning some games and finishing with the seventh-best record doesn’t help us.’ We could just try to win every game. We had 33 wins, Florida and us. Two very good seasons. It was a great way to go. It helped the teams.”

Kariya joined the Mighty Ducks for the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season and immediately made an impact on the club.

Two of the other top-5 picks from that 1993 draft would make their presence felt later in the Ducks’ history.

Hartford, under the direction of Burke, selected defenseman Chris Pronger with the second pick, and Florida took forward Rob Niedermayer one pick after Kariya. Niedermayer later would be acquired at the 2003 trade deadline and would team with Kariya to help the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup Finals berth. Burke then put the finishing touches on assembling the Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup Champion team with his acquisition of Pronger during the summer of 2006.

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In Guy Hebert and Mikhail Shtalenkov the Ducks had a goaltending tandem that was not only good for an expansion team, but any team in the NHL. After Tugnutt’s trade to Montreal, either Hebert or Shtalenkov was in net for every Ducks game but eight from 1994 through the 1997-98 season. The team’s goals-against average was below 3.00 in three of those five seasons and very close to it in a fourth.

“It was Guy and Mikhail. I can’t forget Mikhail because Mikhail was the perfect backup guy,” Ferreira said. “He worked his butt off. He was one of the hardest workers on the team, and he had a great ability to come in cold.”

The good-natured Shtalenkov could not believe his good fortune of making the NHL in California.

“I was a guy from Russia, and I’d only heard about California. When I came here in ’93 I didn’t expect to find things how they were,” he said. “I wondered how is it possible to play hockey when there is sunshine all the time?

“It was very important to me that they drafted me. They gave the chance to play in the NHL, the best league in the world. I have real good memories about everything – the team, California, the people around town and at the games.”

A chance set of circumstances led to Hebert landing in Anaheim. Fired by San Jose at the start of the 1992-93 season, Ferreira was scouting for the Canadiens when he saw Hebert, who played in only 37 NHL games over two seasons before coming to the Mighty Ducks.

“What Guy brought was really stability,” Ferreira said. “When you talk about a player that was now going to be given a chance. He was the backup to Curtis Joseph in St. Louis, and that previous season I was working with Montreal, and we were going to make a trade with the Blues. I went and I followed St. Louis for about five games. Cujo was hurt and Guy played three games. So I got to see him, and he played well. So when it came time for expansion, we were looking for a goalie, we jumped on Guy.

“It’s crazy how things work in this game because Cujo got injured and I was there at the right time. He gave us stability from Day 1. The goaltending was always stable between those two guys.”

Hayward’s broadcasting job allowed him to watch every Mighty Ducks game in person. His job as goaltending coach and 11 years of NHL experience between the pipes lent added insight to the netminders.

“Guy was a revelation,” Hayward said. “Ron had been a guy who had played a lot of games with Quebec. Guy was kind of an unknown quantity. He was Curtis Joseph’s understudy and barely played. He came in and did a real nice job.

“There was one year where start to finish – might have been the third year of the franchise – I thought Guy Hebert was among the top 10 goaltenders in the NHL, and that’s saying something for a guy who is breaking into the league with an expansion franchise.

“A lot of teams had passed on him at that point. That’s really saying something. It’s a credit to Guy. He turned himself into a real good goaltender.”

That would come as no surprise to Ewen, who briefly played with Hebert in Peoria, the St. Louis’ International Hockey League affiliate, and practiced with him during off seasons in St. Louis.

“The consistency of Guy Hebert is what made him who he was,” Ewen said. “I knew he was a consistent goalie. I never had to question whether he was going to make the stops he had to. And he’s just a great person. I was very optimistic with him in net.”

Hebert’s impact on his understudy cannot be underestimated either.

“Guy was a great goalie and just a great partner to be with in the net,” Shtalenkov said. “Inside the room and as a person, I respect him a lot. He was playing more than me, but he took time to help me. When something bad happened, I was there to help him.”

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Both the Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers won 33 games during their expansion season. To put that into some perspective, it took the San Jose Sharks (a ’91 expansion team) three seasons to win as many games and seven seasons to do it twice. Among the ’92 expansion clubs, it took the Ottawa Senators six seasons to win as many games and the Tampa Bay Lightning four seasons.

“We won 19 road games that year. We had 33 wins. If we had one more win, we would have made the playoffs because they changed the playoff rules that year, and previously it was the first four in each division made the playoffs,” Ferreira said. “We finished fourth (in the Smythe Division), the Kings finished fifth, but then they changed the format to the winner of each division got in and the next six were by points. Well, Winnipeg had two more points than we did and they made the playoffs instead of us. Still, it was kind of satisfying for us to win 33 games.”

As rewarding as that first season was, more good things were in store for the franchise in the coming seasons.

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