Summer sucks. It’s hot, sweaty, stinky, and worst of all, there’s no good hockey news out. Oh, sure, if you’re big on legal shenanigans, you’re probably in heaven: we’ve got the never-ending Kovalchuk saga and the can of worms that could potentially open, Khabibulin’s DUI, the Blackhawks’ cap crunch, Tom Hicks’ financial woes, and if you’re really feeling nostalgic for 2009, some more Phoenix Coyotes ownership malarkey. For those of us who hate the business end of the game, though, it’s been another dreary summer. So, I decided to take some time out and write an article or two about the history of the game, and for my first topic, I naturally picked a subject near and dear to my heart: the Edmonton Oilers. Or at least, that’s what I had intended.

 

See, when I started writing this article many weeks ago, I thought it would be interesting to trace back the history of the dynasty Oilers, not so much through the NHL period – everyone knows that story – but in their origins with the World Hockey Association and more specifically, the profound influence of the Winnipeg Jets of the latter half of the 1970s. But as I was writing it up, I kept coming back to not just the specific details of the Jets and their dominance, but the way the WHA did business as a whole, and how it planted the seeds for the way the NHL does business today. Many of the changes wrought in the NHL through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s had their origins in things the WHA did to try to get an edge on the NHL (or later, blackmail them into a merger deal), with the 1980s Oilers being the most prominent symbol of those changes. So, I’ve refocused a bit on the larger story of the World Hockey Association, and how a small, crazy, but determined league, with more dollars than sense (and not that many dollars to begin with) managed to change professional hockey forever.

 

The Golden Jet

 

The WHA was borne out of the same era that gave us the American Football League and the American Basketball Association, two rebel leagues that changed the faces of their respective sports through the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, the WHA was founded by some of the same businessmen who had founded the ABA some years earlier, with a similar goal in mind. The problem was, they didn’t know a hell of a lot about hockey, and didn’t have many contacts in the hockey world. Enter “Wild Bill” Hunter, a junior hockey owner in Edmonton who’d made his reputation as an anti-authoritarian by founding the Western Canada Hockey League (now the WHL) in the late ‘60s against the express wishes of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, stealing the best teams from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba out of their respective provincial junior leagues in order to provide better overall competition for Western teams1. Hunter helped put league brass in touch with a number of other hockey men, many of them NHL expansion rejectees or old buddies from the WCHL, and the WHA was set to drop the puck with a slate of twelve teams in the fall of 1972.

 

In the beginning, it was pretty easy to sign players. NHLers and AHLers alike were woefully underpaid compared to their brethren in other sports, thanks to a couple of unfortunate circumstances of that period. One was their weak union, led by the conniving and thieving Alan Eagleson, who posed as the players’ best friend while acting as the NHL’s puppet ruler. The other was to the reserve clause, a restrictive and illegal bit of language that allowed NHL teams to keep their players in perpetuity, and intimidate anyone who got uppity with the threat of being traded to a league also-ran or simply shipped down to the minors. The WHA used this to their advantage, deciding early on that they would not use the reserve clause, and offering two to three times more money than whatever the player had previously been making. For minor leaguers in particular, this was a pretty sweet deal: $12,000 per year in the AHL, or $30,000 in the WHA? Not much of a choice.

 

But while the new league had money and ideals, they didn’t have a marquee player, a legitimate star who would lend them instant credibility. After considering and dismissing recently retired Detroit star Gordie Howe – who’d eventually spend six years in the WHA with Houston and New England – they settled on Chicago’s Bobby Hull, and decided that the Winnipeg Jets, one of the more well-heeled teams in the new league, should sign him. His contract was up in 1972, which was perfectly timed, and he’d recently come off a bitter public feud with Bill Wirtz and the Black Hawks organization over that same deal. The Jets made their first overtures in the fall of 1971, and were greeted with a polite thanks-but-no-thanks. Hull’s agent was intrigued, though, and kept pushing for a deal. Eventually, Hull said he’d agree to play in Winnipeg for a million dollars – “to get rid of them,” he’d later admit – but despite the absurdity of his demand, the Jets came through. In the summer of ‘72, Bobby Hull became the Golden Jet, the face of the WHA, signing for five years and $2.75M, which included that crazy $1M signing bonus.

 

The NHL had not taken the WHA very seriously to this point, and with good reason: the new league had already seen five franchise relocations before a game had even been played, and hadn’t really signed away anyone of consequence. In response, the NHL expanded to Long Island and Atlanta for ’72 and announced plans for more expansion in ’74, to cut off potential expansion sites for the WHA, and also declined the new league’s challenge for the Stanley Cup2. Moreover, there were two WHA teams – the New England Whalers in Boston and the Raiders in New York – challenging long-established NHL teams (and the most recent Stanley Cup finalists) in their own buildings! Little wonder, then, that NHL president Clarence Campbell wasn’t convinced that the newcomers posed a real long-term threat: the whole thing read like a flash in the pan, a bunch of crazy moves to drum up publicity based around an unsustainable financial model. By signing Hull, however, the WHA had crossed the line: they’d not only signed away one of the NHL’s best players, but in the weeks that followed, dozens more NHLers, this time of a somewhat higher calibre than before. Boston, Toronto, Chicago, California, and the expansion Islanders had been particularly hard-hit, and many other teams, most notably the Rangers, had to pay through the nose, relatively speaking, to keep their stars in the fold.

 

The NHL’s response this time was swift and predictable: they filed injunctions against Bobby Hull and every NHLer who had followed him. While all the other injunctions were thrown out immediately, the NHL won the one that mattered, against Hull in Chicago, setting up an appeal that would drag into the WHA’s inaugural season. Fortunately for the Jets and the WHA, however, the appeals judge was not terribly impressed by the NHL’s arguments citing the reserve clause: he slammed the NHL’s business practices as monopolistic, conspiratorial, and illegal, struck down the injunction, and made it clear that any future injunctions based on the reserve clause would be stillborn, essentially killing that, too. Of all the crazy moves they made in their early years, it was the WHA’s craziest move of all that changed everything. Not only were Hull and the others to play in the WHA, but the foundation had also been laid for the modern free-agency system, though thanks again to Eagleson and his intentionally toothless NHLPA, true unrestricted free agency didn’t come to the NHL until the 1990s.

 

European Invasion

 

Of course, the new league may have had Bobby Hull, and later Gordie Howe, but that was really about it. Even the NHLers who followed Hull, capable as they were, weren’t the sort of players that put bums in seats, and there were a lot of has-beens and never-weres in the mix, thanks to those rich contracts to minor-leaguers. Hull was getting frustrated with the lack of help, and was on the verge of retirement. To placate the league’s meal ticket, the Jets made one of the most forward-thinking and unusual moves in hockey to that date: since they weren’t exactly going to be plucking Stan Mikita out of Chicago for Hull to play with, they decided to try their luck overseas3. Through a friend of chief scout Billy Robinson, they got in touch with winger Anders Hedberg and centre Ulf Nilsson, who would join Hull in forming the greatest line in WHA history, the Hot Line. With them came smooth-skating defenceman and future captain Lars-Erik Sjöberg, whose skillset reads not unlike that of Scott Niedermayer.

 

When the three Swedes signed in the summer of ’74, they agreed that they would try to influence the Jets towards a more European style of play. This meant much more east-west movement and changing of positions as holes opened up, as opposed to the traditional north-south, stay-in-your-lanes game that the NHL and WHA had played to that point. It was a beautiful, flowing game that would require significant skill, great skating, and above-average hockey sense, but all three could bring it, and most importantly, Hull had been keen to play in that style since before leaving Chicago. After just one practice, the Hot Line was ready to take the league by storm, which is precisely what they did. That first year, Hull set the WHA record at 77 goals, while Nilsson finished second in assists with 94. Granted, the Jets still missed the playoffs in 1975, but it wasn’t due to any failings on the part of their Europeans, who now numbered seven or eight, and included a couple of Finns in addition to the many Swedes they’d recruited. In fact, the Jets found their Canadians to typically be the ones lacking, and turfed some of them in favour of more Swedes!

 

As you might expect, the Jets’ European contingent proved to be popular targets, especially the two on the Hull line. Euros were “soft,” and easy to intimidate, so the theory went: scare off the Swedes, lock down Hull, and call it a night. Problem was the Swedes didn’t scare that easily. They took their lumps, played through the abuse, and frustrated their opponents by dominating them, anyway, particularly on the many power plays they earned. From 1975-79, the Jets played in all four Avco Cup Finals, winning three of them; they beat the Soviet Red Army 5-3, two years after the Habs tied them, with the Hot Line outscoring the Kharlamov line 5-04; they even challenged the Canadiens to an exhibition series, which was sadly never played. They were the dynasty of the WHA, and there didn’t seem to be much anyone could do to stop them. WHA veteran Dennis Sobchuk summarizes the experience of “defending” against Hull, Nilsson, and Hedberg:

 

“They’d do all these criss-crosses and drop passes, and the puck would just be sitting there between the dots while you took your man to the net. Then you’d look up and see Bobby going a hundred miles an hour with his stick over his head. You’d just close your eyes and you wouldn’t open them until you heard the puck hit the glass or the crowd react to the goal. It was one of the scariest sights you could imagine.”

 

Slats and Gretz

 

The nigh-unstoppability of the Jets was a source of frustration for most, but for journeyman winger Glen Sather, in the twilight of his career as captain of the Edmonton Oilers in 1976-77, they were a source of inspiration. Sather saw the magic up close and personal, playing twelve games against the Jets and seeing his team go 4-8 (0-6 in Winnipeg) and get outscored 72-33, including 61-15 in the eight losses. No, that’s not a typo. He witnessed firsthand how they frustrated defences, and realized that understanding and emulating them would be the key to beating them (or at least staunching the bleeding). So, when head coach Bep Guidolin stepped down late in the season and handed the reins of the team to his captain, Slats immediately changed the game plan. Amazingly, the Oilers, who had gone 11 games under .500 to that point, finished the year 9-7-2 and snuck into a playoff berth on the final weekend of the year. They followed that up with a one-game-below-.500 performance the next season and another low playoff seed. Granted, they got pasted 4-1 in the playoffs both years by league powers Houston and New England, respectively, but it was a step in the right direction, which the fans appreciated, if nothing else. Still, Sather wanted to challenge the Jets, and in order to do that, the Oilers would need a major infusion of talent, which serendipity would provide in 1978.

 

To give a bit of background, during the ‘70s, the NHL draft age was 20, meaning that no matter how talented you were, you weren’t making the NHL until at least then. The WHA felt this, too, was an unfair and illegal practice, and eventually got the courts to see their way on this topic, as well.5 After merger talks fell through in 1977 thanks to three of the old-guard owners the WHA had wronged five years earlier – in Toronto, Boston, and Chicago – the rebel league decided to step up the pace on signing kids, reasoning that eventually, the NHL would have to accept a merger, just to gain the rights to those players. Among the players who got their start in the WHA as teenagers were longtime NHLers Ken Linseman, Rick Vaive, Craig Hartsburg, Rob Ramage, and Michel Goulet, as well as future Hall of Famers Mark Messier and Mike Gartner. The biggest prize of all, though, was the 17-year-old kid from Brantford who’d just lit junior hockey on fire, scoring three points per game and setting an OHA record with 70 goals as a 16-year-old in 1977-78, leaving little to prove at that level despite not being draft-eligible until 1981. Wayne Gretzky was ready to turn pro; the only question was, with whom.

 

It turns out that it wasn’t originally supposed to be with Edmonton: while he’d later be the perfect cornerstone for Glen Sather’s European-by-way-of-Winnipeg system, he was first courted by the Birmingham Bulls at the 1978 World Juniors, declining then because his father insisted that he finish his junior season. By the time Gretzky came available, the Bulls had no room for him, opening the door for Nelson Skalbania, former Oilers owner and future Flames owner, to sign him as the star attraction of his revitalized Indianapolis Racers, much as Sidney Crosby would be in Pittsburgh more than 25 years later. Unfortunately, Indy didn’t have the hockey history or appetite that the Steel City did, and moreover, the pressure seemed to be getting to the young prodigy, who had failed to impress in his early games. He finally broke out of his slump and showed his phenomenal gifts during a home game against the Oilers, scoring his first two professional goals against Sather’s club that night in a mere eight seconds, no doubt leaving an impression on the young bench boss. When Skalbania decided the experiment was over and started shopping Gretzky to make ends meet, it became a match made in heaven. While the Jets themselves made a competitive offer, they couldn’t afford to match Peter Pocklington’s pure-cash deal6. Gretzky, Peter Driscoll, and Eddie Mio became Oilers for $850,000, giving the Oilers the foundation for a dynasty; Indy, despite the cash infusion, bled out before Christmas.

 

Wayne flourished in his new environment, surrounded by veterans who could show him the ropes and support him through his early growing pains, and placed into a system that gave him free reign to take offensive chances when he saw the opportunity. Even at 17, he was making those signature two-moves-ahead plays that left opponents wondering just how he knew a guy would be there, or how he found the back of the net. He finished third in league scoring, won rookie of the year in what one would assume to be a landslide, and then paced the Oilers with 15 points en route to a seven-game victory over the Whalers in the semi-finals. Waiting for them in the Avco Cup Finals was their old nemesis, the Winnipeg Jets, setting up a showdown between master and apprentice. On paper, the Oilers were the superior team, having finished in first place by a double-digit point total while Winnipeg barely managed .5007, but when the teams hit the ice, the result rather resembled that of the initial meeting between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader: disaster for the upstarts. The Jets had now lost the Hot Line to the NHL and retirement, but found scoring from all over the roster, and were able to hold Gretzky off the scoresheet in the opening set in Edmonton, stealing a 2-0 series lead and all but ending things right there. While the Oilers would win a couple of blowouts, and outscore Winnipeg in the series altogether, it was the Jets who emerged victorious in game six, the last game in WHA history, by a 7-3 tally, with a late and meaningless Dave Semenko goal serving as the league’s last.

 

The Legacy of the WHA

 

It can be fairly said that the WHA is to some degree responsible for hockey being the high-stakes business it is today. Gretzky and company were a big hit even playing out of remote Edmonton in the ‘80s; having Gretzky in L.A. and Messier et al. in New York in the early ‘90s, though, was a massive coup for the NHL. The former grew the game in non-traditional markets, paving the way for the Pacific and Southeast Divisions to, well, exist, while the latter brought the Cup to the NHL’s biggest media market for the first time since World War II, ending the longest drought in League history. While the lockout and the trap era sapped a lot of the NHL’s momentum from that period, the impact of those moves is unquestionably felt to this day: the WHA itself may have brought hockey to Arizona and Texas 20-plus years before the NHL did, but it was WHA alumnus Wayne Gretzky and his profile in the Sun Belt that made it possible for it to survive. It’s all very ironic, really, coming from a league that lived paycheque to paycheque for much of its existence: WHA history is littered with league cash calls, franchises moving in the middle of the night and folding mid-season, of missed paydays and envelopes of cash being divvied into stipends by coaches on airplanes. Even before all of that, though, the pressure the WHA put on the NHL forced salaries upward, firmly into the six-figure range for high-end players, and the death of the reserve clause made life at least a little easier on players, in terms of free agency, especially during the WHA period, when they had the leverage of another league to play in. Even after that, contract holdouts – which could almost never happen before – were now enough of a weapon that players could finally be well-compensated. The money Bruce McNall gave Gretzky in 1988 probably didn’t hurt that upward trend at all, either.

 

The WHA also brought a stylistic change to the game of hockey: the bubble-hockey game of yesteryear was on its way out, thanks in large part to the dominance of the Oilers, and the tendency of others to mimic their successful formula just as surely as the Oilers had imitated the Jets years earlier. Today, the North American and European games have hybridized each other to a degree: while there are still some clear stylistic differences, owing to different rules and rink dimensions, European hockey is much more North American in style than it was 30 years ago, and vice versa. The WHA also pioneered making European players integral to the roster of a North American team: Lars-Erik Sjöberg was the first European captain of a WHA and NHL team with the Jets, and was the first European captain to hoist a North American pro hockey trophy, in the 1976 and 1978 Avco Cups. The 1970s Jets were, at their peak, about half-European and half-North American, well before the Red Wings enjoyed success with the Russian Five in the ‘90s, or their ample complement of Swedes in the 2000s.

 

The other underrated impact of the WHA was the reintroduction of the 18-year-old draft. Steve Stamkos scored 51 goals in his 19-year-old season this past year: in the old system, he’d still be in Sarnia. Steve Yzerman scored 176 points his first two seasons, years he would’ve spent in Peterborough otherwise. I could go on down the list of high selections and see guys who’ve made immediate impacts in the NHL who wouldn’t have even been considered prior to 1979. Of lesser note, but still worth mentioning, is that the new Entry Draft – replacing the Amateur Draft of years past – allowed teams to select draft-aged pros. While it was targeted at allowing the NHL to snag 18- and 19-year-olds who had played in the WHA, it also allowed, for example, Boston to choose Sergei Samsonov out of the IHL in 1997.

 

Most immediately, though, there are the teams. Unfortunately, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford all wound up finding new homes, as the fall of the dollar and the rise of the large market – as noted above, another indirect WHA legacy – took their toll through the ‘90s, and Edmonton was only saved by some last-minute intervention on the part of a massive number of local businessmen. Then again, former WHA teams account for eight Stanley Cups and eleven Finals appearances since the merger in 1979. Gretzky’s Oilers, of course, went on that legendary run in the ‘80s, while Colorado (Quebec) was a League power through the late ‘90s and early 2000s, winning two Cups, and Carolina (Hartford) won the first post-lockout Cup, and the first all-WHA Final, against Edmonton in 2006. Former WHA teams have made a tremendous impact on the League, but the funny thing is, none of them might have been there at all if not for Canada’s love of beer.

 

Epilogue: The Beer Boycott

 

The WHA always was a little…different. Aside from the perpetual off-ice eye-poking of the NHL, there were a lot of things that happened in the WHA that you’d never have seen in the senior loop: the short-lived blue puck, rat-killing competitions in musty old dressing rooms, players smuggled out of road cities in equipment bags, guys jumping into hotel pools in full gear, drunken fans challenging entire dressing rooms to a brawl (and subsequently being chased down by a dozen half- or fully-naked hockey players, fresh from the showers), and so on. So it’s only appropriate that things ended the way they did.

 

Back in 1977, the proposed merger would’ve seen six WHA teams – the four ultimate survivors, plus Cincinnati and Houston – join the NHL intact and play in their own division, slowly integrating with the rest of the League over the course of five years. With the defeat of that merger, and the subsequent collapse of several more teams, the NHL mostly had the WHA over a barrel. Despite their bravado, the WHA was forced to sign the terms of their surrender in 1979: the four surviving clubs would be allowed to protect just two skaters and two goalies, with the rest either reclaimed by their NHL clubs or sent to the draft pool8; the other two teams, Cincinnati and Birmingham, would be paid by the survivors to go away; and the WHA teams selected from the bottom of the draft, instead of the top, as most expansion teams would. Oh, and they each had to pay a $6M expansion fee for the privilege. Great deal.

 

Despite the overwhelmingly pro-NHL terms, the hardliners held strong, and defeated the measure by only voting 12-5 in favour, with LA, Boston, and the three Canadian teams in dissent. (One presumes that they didn’t want to lose half of their Hockey Night in Canada royalties to the three new Canadian teams.) That might have been it, but for Canadian beer drinkers. The Montreal Canadiens, then as now, were owned by the Molson family, of Molson Breweries. The people of Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Quebec City started a boycott of Molson products and, in short order, made their message heard: the Habs and Canucks changed their votes, allowing the WHA merger to go through, much to the fury of Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard (pissing him off was a side benefit of the whole affair). The course of hockey history was changed, and the WHA’s legacy was preserved, all because of beer, which really goes to show that the stereotypes are, to some degree, true: we may love our brews up here, but nothing, not even beer, will come between us and our hockey teams.

 

Special thanks to Ed Willes, whose marvelous book The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association furnished many of the facts, quotes, and stories in this essay, and Oilers blogger Bruce McCurdy, who held season tickets from 1977-93, and shared his first-hand observations of those late-‘70s and early-‘80s teams with me.

 

*          *          *

 

1 Hunter would take one more opportunity to piss off the Establishment in 1983, when he attempted to buy the St. Louis Blues and move them to Saskatoon. Not surprisingly, the NHL kicked up a fuss and blocked the bid at the end of the season. For more on that situation, including how the Blues missed the 1983 draft because of it, check out this great post on St. Louis Game Time: it’s a story worth reading. Given Hunter’s life and contributions to the sport – the creation of the WHL, the creation of the WHA and the Oilers, and the long-reaching effects of those manoeuvres – it boggles my mind that he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.

 

2 While the challenge format was effectively terminated in 1915, in favour of various pre-arranged interleague (and later, NHL-only) series and tournaments, the Stanley Cup is still technically a challenge trophy. The initial rules set forward by the Trustees of the Cup in 1893 specify that the Cup defaults to the champion of the previous winner’s League, and that any challenges from there would have to come from the champion of another “senior hockey association,” which in the modern understanding, could conceivably have included the WHA. However, the NHL was granted the authority to determine the conditions of Stanley Cup competition and qualification of future challengers in a 1947 agreement with the Trustees of the Cup: because of this, the Trustees have rejected all challenges since its inception, even in 2005, when the NHL wasn’t actually playing for it. In 2006, an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that, should the same thing happen again, the Cup could be awarded to a non-NHL team.

 

3 Of course, this wasn’t an entirely unusual move for the WHA. The Calgary Broncos, before closing up shop and moving to Cleveland, had drafted a large number of Eastern Europeans, including future Summit Series stars Valeri Kharlamov and Alexander Maltsev. The Toronto Toros signed Vaclav Nedomansky out of Czechoslovakia around the same time the Jets went shopping in Scandinavia. Hell, even the NHL was getting in on the act, with the Leafs signing Börje Salming and Inge Hammarström out of Sweden in 1973. Still, the Jets were far and away the most aggressive and successful participants in the first wave of European recruitment.

 

4 Strangely enough, the games between WHA teams and international all-star teams counted in the standings during the league’s last couple of years. This was done primarily to make teams and fans alike take the game seriously, rather than treat it as an exhibition, though I suspect it may have been done in part to paper over holes created in the schedule by the numerous franchise collapses in that later period. If nothing else, it gave the hybrid-style teams, Winnipeg and Edmonton, loads of practice against European squads.

 

5 I don’t know if this was their intent, but they certainly got this by barring Ken Linseman from playing as an underager in Birmingham in 1977, despite signing away other underagers in prior years; Linseman filed an injunction and won the right to play. If that really was their gambit, it worked out brilliantly.

 

6 No truth to the rumour that a game of backgammon actually decided the thing: the Jets offered less money and a stake in the franchise, and with no guarantee of an NHL merger and the Racers losing money at an alarming rate, the Oilers’ up-front cash was the obvious choice. A game was, in fact, offered but ultimately rejected.

 

7 A point worth making regarding the matchup is that Sjöberg missed most of the regular season with injury. Certainly, one would think that with their Niedermayer healthy for the whole year, the Jets would’ve finished much better than they did.

 

8 The reclamation draft was a disaster for the WHA clubs, with most of the good players from that league being spread throughout the NHL, forcing the WHA teams to pay through the nose in a trade or burn expansion-draft picks in order to keep more than a couple of them. Even when the WHA teams played by the rules, they got screwed: the Oilers initially claimed Wayne Gretzky and Bengt-Åke Gustafsson as their two protected skaters, but lost Gustafsson to the Capitals anyway, and likely only kept Gretzky because he’d signed a 21-year personal services contract with Peter Pocklington directly.

 

10 Responses to Robertson’s Rants: How The WHA Invented Modern Hockey

  1. Paul from SF says:

    Mr . Robertson sir, you should be a hockey historian or something. You should get a Ph’D with this being your Doctorate Thesis. Heck, publish it and I’ll buy!

    -Paul from SF

  2. Matt H. says:

    Excellent stuff! Really informative, well-written. I definitely want to read “The Rebel League” now. Thanks!

  3. Matt H. says:

    ps- You need a by-line on your stories!

  4. I sort of see the “Robertson’s Rants” bit as a byline for now. Funny enough, I just had that same conversation with the guy I consulted with on this, who expressed the same sentiment. It works for now.

    And thanks for the feedback. I definitely recommend The Rebel League, personally, having now read it two or three times. I also recommend checking out some of Copper & Blue’s History posts, as they include a number of first-hand, season-ticket-holder’s eye views of the WHA and the odd history it made.

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