Saturday, August 30, 2008

Summer encore IV

Thursday, January 03, 2008
Table Top Hockey For Grown-Ups

(Note: Nothing has changed since I wrote this one. The crazies are still crazy and beer, which is legally available to everyone in our league at all times, still has a strangely disproportionate role in all of this).

For the past five years, I have played adult hockey two or three times a week, year round. As an adjective, "adult," in this context, does not have the same meaning as "adult" does when used to modify such words as "entertainment," "films," "situations," "content," or "swim." Except to change in and out of their hockey gear, no one takes their clothes off and keeps them off. Language, though, is another story. What adult hockey lacks in sex appeal, though, it makes up for in the creative, often genre-bending use of language to express enthusiasm, dispute a referee's decision, question another player's sexual orientation or gender, describe a goalie's skills, accuse an opposing player of felonious behavior or threaten an opponent with a gun duel or fight in the parking lot after a game. Grown men -- in the chronological sense, anyway -- use "adult" language to vent their frustrations in a way that puts any eight year-old's worst temper tantrums to shame, or an early teen just learning to use compound curse words. Here's a quick comparison across time, based on my coaching and playing experience, of eight to 46 year-old behavior:

Eight year-old: "Coach, I was only out for 42 seconds on my last shift! How come Josh's line played 1:19 minutes? I wanna quit!"

Fourteen year-old: "Jesus fuckin' Christ, pay fucking attention shit hole it's my fuckin' turn to go out damn fuck asswipe shithead. Piss damn pussy dickbrain are you paying fucking attention? "

Forty-six year-old: "How come I always have to play on Marty's line? He fucking sucks, doesn't fucking backcheck, just stands the fuck around doing fucking nothing. Fuck this shit . . . I can play on any team I want . . . I don't need this fucking shit!"

More so than any other sport I've played in my life -- and, from childhood through adulthood, I've played them all -- ice hockey, for some inexplicable reason, brings out the psychotic underside of even the most mild-mannered, reasonable, hey, don't-worry-about-wrecking-my-car, church-going, let-me-help-you-with-your groceries, law-abiding adult male. Guys you could never imagine stepping on an anthill, guys that stay home on Halloween to give out candy in excess quantities, guys who would stop to fix a flat tire for you in the rain or give -- not loan -- you $20 no questions asked, guys who willingly humiliate themselves at children's birthday parties to make the kids laugh, guys who agree to wear a theme sweater for a Christmas card picture . . . yes, guys like that . . . the good ones . . . can turn into raving psychopaths if they feel an opponent has slashed them behind the play, out of the referee's sight, or if they believe another team has imported a "ringer" in violation of league rules, or if they have a goal disallowed or have been called for an unjustified penalty. About a year ago, we were playing a team that included a prominent psychiatrist among its players. We were beating this team by five or six goals with about three minutes to play. The psychiatrist scored a goal, only to have it disallowed because of a teammate's crease violation. This guy went absolutely ballistic, throwing his stick over the glass, where it got caught in the protective netting that surrounds the rink, cursed the referee to the point where the veins were popping out of his throat, took off his helmet and threw it down the ice, then skated over to his team's bench, picked up all the water bottles he could find and threw them on the ice. He then skated over to our bench, stopped, leaned and said, "You'll fucking get yours you bunch of fucking assholes!" The referee then skated him off the ice. For his efforts, he received a 2 minute penalty for delay of game, a 2 minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a game misconduct, which meant he couldn't play in the next game. All because he had a goal disallowed. But . . .

"adult" hockey being "adult" hockey, he found a group of us in the parking lot after the game, walked over with a six pack of beer, gave it to me and apologized. Here's the thing: he was sincere in his apology, no one held his behavior against him and the free beer simply honored the adult hockey code -- when you think you've screwed up, pissed off your teammates or behaved badly towards another player, you acknowledge your transgression by bringing your teammates or offended opponents some beer. All is then forgotten.

* * * * * * * * * *
Beer is the all-purpose elixir of the adult hockey world, sort of like a box of Russell Stover was for mothers of my generation -- the perfect gift to say "thanks," or "I'm sorry," or "Despite his behavior, Gregg did really enjoy having you for an English teacher this year." Beer excites men who play hockey like nothing else. Sometimes, if a game is going badly, a guy might shout down the bench, "Come on, guys, there's beer afterwards. Let's just play it out and have a cold one." If tempers get heated on the ice, the calmer heads might say to each other in the face-off circle, "Jesus, man, you'd think there wasn't beer waiting for everyone after the game." Beer, beer and more beer. This is why no one who plays adult hockey calls it adult hockey. We call it beer league.

Beer is taken so seriously among adult players that people who don't drink beer after games are viewed with a level of suspicion that is matched only by learning that the really nice guy who just joined your team is a lawyer. Nice? An attorney? In Washington? Can't be, can it? A few years ago, I turned down an after-game beer from a guy on another team that we had just beat pretty badly. I thanked him but turned him down for the same reason I don't drink with my teammates after games -- athletic exertion and alcohol, for me, just don't mix. You would have thought, though, that I had just inquired whether his mother was available for an edition of MILF Hunter or whether she would provide sexual favors for my teammates. Every time I was on the ice against this guy the next time we played his team was this:

"It's the queer that don't drink beer! . . . it's the queer that don't drink beer!" . . . and on and on he went. A friend of mine who played for this team skated over to him after about the fourth or fifth round of this, put his glove on this guy's shoulder and said something to him. The "taunting" stopped. In the handshake line after the game, this guy pulled me aside and "apologized" for his oh-so-creative sloganeering. "I had no idea, man, that you were an alcoholic. I'm so sorry. I can relate, man, I've got family that's struggled. God bless you!"

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything at all. My friend was standing off to the side laughing hysterically. Okay, okay, I nodded. You got me.

So what happened later? I was putting my hockey bag in my car when I heard someone say, "Hey, man, I'm sorry and I just wanted to apologize again." I turned around and it was my nemesis, the guy who had just apologized to me on the ice. "Hey, don't worry about it," I said. "You couldn't have known."

"Let me make things right," he responded. He held out a six-pack of beer.

"I can't. You know . . . " I told him.

"Not even one?"

"No, not even one."

"Shit, man, that sucks."

About a month later, we played his team again. This time he didn't say a word to me when we were on the ice together. But the first chance he got, he checked the living hell out of me, gladly taking his two minute penalty without an argument, something most players don't do. Later on, as I was preparing for a face-off, I heard him shout from his defenseman's position, "DON'T YOU EVER TURN DOWN A FUCKING BEER FROM ME AGAIN, YOU FUCKING NON-ALCOHOLIC BASTARD!" I looked over at the opposing bench, and my friend was doubled over in laughter. What could I do?

So what happened after the game? Would you believe me if I told you that the same guy who had just yelled at me on the ice walked over to my car, gave me a beer, extended his hand, didn't say a word and walked back to his car? Hockey code.

True story.

* * * * * * * * * *

A goalie that sometimes comes out to play in a closed pick-up game I play in on Sunday nights pours scotch into the water bottle he keeps on top of the net. How do I know this? I was the last one getting on the ice one night, and the goalie was finishing up with his equipment. He reached into his hockey bag, took out a bottle of scotch, and poured it into the squirt bottle he took with him out on the ice.

Whatever works for you, I guess.

* * * * * * * * * *

I knew nothing about the world of adult hockey until December 2002. My son started an instructional hockey program, and I started skating again after a 26 year layoff so that I could take him to public skates and eventually get out on the ice with him. Until then, my ice hockey experience had consisted of one pick-up game organized by some guys in my neighborhood when I was about 14. Growing up in Atlanta, there was only one ice rink, and very few people knew where it was, much less how to skate. In 1972, when I was 11, the NHL awarded a franchise to Atlanta, the now Calgary Flames, and I fell completely in love with hockey. My friends and I started playing street hockey in Jeff Balser's cul-de-sac, spray painting lines on the street for offsides. We even built a penalty box, which resembled, now that I think about it, a dunking booth. One of the older kids in the neighborhood had moved down from Michigan, and he got the bright idea one day to rent some ice at our local rink. The only ice we could afford didn't start until midnight, but we went ahead and played anyway. Of course, we hadn't thought about equipment. No one had any, so we took catcher's gear and turned it into hockey protective gear. And, yes, the goalie even used phone books with duct tape, just like the guy in the Mighty Ducks movie. I remember using football shoulder pads, catcher's shin guards and some mittens. Helmets? The pros didn't even use them, so wearing one never crossed any of our minds. I remember having a great time for that hour or so. I never imagined that I would do the same thing -- with real equipment this time -- two or three times a week at 11.00 o'clock at night 26+ years later.

Finding an adult team is sort of like joining the Mob. My invitation into the adult hockey world came in January 2003, when I was skating with my son at what's called a "stick and puck" session. Local rinks reserve ice time for informal practice sessions. You can skate, shoot on goalies, provided one comes, organize scrimmages, play small games and so on. I was standing around fiddling with the puck waiting for a turn to shoot on the goalie when a guy I had never seen skated up to me and asked, "Who do you play for?"

I had just learned about adult hockey leagues a week or so before when the Washington Post ran a great story in its Sunday magazine on their growing popularity. By coincidence, I had met one of the guys whose team was featured in the story the week before. He told me about how to get on a team, but told me that most rosters were "frozen" because the season had already started. Luckily, for me, my free agent status turned out to work in my favor.

I told this guy I didn't play for anyone but wanted to. He told me, looking around carefully to make sure no one could hear him, to show up the next night at the Wheaton Ice Rink and I could play for his team. My biggest fear went right to the heart of male sports insecurity . . .

"Just tell me I won't be the worst one out there," I said.

"Not even close," he said.

"'Not even close?'" Intriguing. Was I that good? Maybe I was. Maybe I would become the first over-40 suburban dad who had never played a game of organized ice hockey to make it to the NHL. Maybe . . .

. . . I had just gotten carried away with myself. I didn't know what to expect when I showed up the next night in the locker room, but it never occurred to me that I had just joined a team that made the Johnstown Chiefs look like the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. Bob, the man who had recruited me the day before, was right. I wasn't the worst player . . . more like one of the least incompetent.

The opening face-off did not bode well for my new amateur career. My opponent must have weighed a good 375 lbs. We got tangled up on the draw, and, as fate would have it, he fell on me right at center ice. I managed to get up, thankful that I had decided to buy the more expensive shoulder pads when I was getting myself outfitted. Turns out this guy had moved to the U.S. from Canada to attend college, but had never played hockey before. Just my luck. I get crushed by the only Canadian never to play his country's national sport.

I survived though, and went on to score a couple of goals. My new teammates accepted me right away, even though I was the second oldest guy on the team. The "Force," as we were known, consisted of a husband and wife team -- he, a self-styled unappreciated hockey genius who consistently shouted unintelligible instructions at us; she, an absolutely delightful woman who was always the first to give up her shift if she felt we had a chance to protect a lead or tie a game -- three guys straight out of college who all played lacrosse and were slow to learn the rules on stick control in hockey; a professional firefighter who was our star player and with whom I developed an instant and lasting friendship; a couple of random head cases, including one guy who used to speak French to everyone even though he was an American who merely learned the language in college; and, of course, Bob, who was a year or two older than me, and was picking up the game again for the first time since high school. Bob and I sort of became the internal police on our team, holding off the young guys who were determined to take their lacrosse backgrounds on the ice, and acting as diplomatic envoys to other teams who had their share of former lacrosse players sprinkled in their midst. Strangely enough, the Force began to take on a significance in my life disproportionate to its actual importance. Bob would call me once or twice a day to talk about line adjustments and power play units. Steve the Firefighter would email me with questions about whether so-and-so should play left or right wing, and should we go after the Berlin Brothers on the Cobras or just let them take their penalties. Here's the scary part: I thought about these questions, and actually found myself scribbling out line combinations, power play units, guys who I thought should kill penalties and whether anyone should encourage our goalie to attend some clinics to improve his glove hand. Really, I did. In high school, I used to spend most of my time calculating my batting average, or whether I'd rather play with Chris Squire or Paul McCartney if I were granted my dying wish of choosing a bassist to start my band. But I was 15 or 16 then. Now, I was adult with a mortgage, "tax strategies" to think about, two kids and a leaky basement. Why was I thinking about this stuff?

A lot?

* * * * * * * * * *

The Force, by mutual consent, disbanded after our initial season together, and I ended up playing for a new team to which I was also recruited. This fortunate turn of events meant I got to meet the one person who is by far the best reason to have ever played adult hockey. In every league, there is one player who everyone knows, whether they play on the same team with him or not. Everyone knows him not because he is the best player, the fastest skater or the quickest shot. No, it's that distinctive personality, combined with certain physical traits, bizarre political views and the world's largest collection of hockey-related clothing, broken sticks, used gloves, game worn jock straps, Mario Lemeiux's childhood underpants, and other such stuff.

In our league, that person is Lowell.

My first encounter with Lowell came when my first team, the Force, was playing his team, whose name I've now forgotten. Before the game, I noticed a guy on the other team who resembled Shrek had Shrek decided to join Hell's Angels. He was 6'9" on skates, and, as I would later discover, about 390 lbs. During our first game against Lowell's team, I was along the boards fighting for the puck when all of a sudden I felt a stick go up between my legs into a rather sensitive area. Then a second guy, only a little smaller, joined in the fun. Then I heard this scruffy voice go, "Feel like you're in prison? How's the shower room treating you? Does this feel good?"

No, it didn't feel good, and for the rest of the game I was terrorized by Lowell and his fellow henchman. After the game, Lowell stood waiting for me in the lobby with a big grin on his face. "Jesus," I thought. "Why him?" Before I could say a word, this EXTREMELY LARGE man, standing there in spandex hockey shorts, shower shoes, huge tattoos on each leg, another one of the Pittsburgh Penguins logo on his bicep (now matched on the other bicep by a HUGE tatoo of the Pittsburgh sky line), walks over to me, gives me his business card and says, "I'm starting a new team out in Reston. You're on it."

Lowell didn't ask me if I wanted to play on his team. He didn't ask me my schedule. He didn't ask me anything except what number I wanted on the jersey he had already ordered for me.
Apparently, his stick work was just Lowell's little way of introducing himself.

Lowell is the type of guy who is on a first name basis with everyone, whether he knows that person or not. His run-ins with people famous and not-so-famous always include a near-act of violence or, at minimum, a heated argument that involved him nearly reaching for the Glock he (legally) carries in the glove box of his Explorer truck, which has a vanity plate reading, "2-4-RFFING." I don't know if he carries a gun on his motorcycle, which has a vanity plate reading, "JGRSUX." Those disputes usually involve a threat to run someone over with his bike, or just simply strangle them with his bare hands.

Like this:

"Hey, man, I told Osama Bin Laden not to bring that shit around here, and he's, like, look, Lowell, you're not the one I have a problem with, and I'm like I don't give a shit . . . "

"Anyway, man, I ran into this waitress from Hooters who was like, 'Hey Lowell, where you been, and I'm like talk to my wife she won't let me out." Of course, Lowell has a VIP card for Hooters, which he has used to treat me to that establishment's fine cuisine.

I've now played with Lowell on four teams over five years, one of which we co-captained. He helped me coach my son's teams for two years, and the initial apprehension of an 11 year-old seeing Lowell skate toward him in a checking drill quickly went away after he realized that Lowell's bark doesn't have a bite to match. Remember that guy I mentioned at the beginning, the nice guy who would do anything for you but turns into a psycho when he puts on a jersey and steps onto the ice? That person is Lowell, except he just thinks he's a psycho. A friend of mine said you go through three stages before you figure out Lowell. The first is fear; the second is a nervous laughter; the third is just laughter. Although to the untrained eye he comes across as a hybrid of Ogie Oglethorpe from "Slap Shot" and John Goodman's character, Walter, from "The Big Lebowski, in reality, he's one of the nicest, most generous people you could ever hope to meet -- in hockey world or outside of it.

* * * * * * * * * *

That is really the best part of all this -- meeting people that you would never meet in your ordinary personal and professional circles. Your first adult hockey team is sort of like that first experience in your freshman dorm . . . where else would I meet a firefighter, a plumbing salesman, the journalist who wrote the Washington Post story on adult hockey (who now plays on my team), the team dentist of the Washington Capitals, our local Bronx-born bagel tycoon whose harassment and abuse of everyone and everything, including his customers ("You suck, Ivers!") fails to mask an open and always giving heart, guys running businesses out of their houses so they can take care of their kids, civic activists like Paul McKenzie, a teammate and friend who passed away last March from pneumonia, Charles Duelfer, the lead investigator for the C.I.A. who wrote the report concluding that Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD and many, many others from different walks of life. Academia is a bubble in which I have never been comfortable. Hockey not only is a great game and a great workout. It is a great leveling force that reminds you that what we do professionally doesn't make us better than anyone else, and that a guy who sells burglar alarm systems isn't really that much different from an attorney billing $700 per hour. You can either skate, defend, pass and score, or you can't.

* * * * * * * * * *

I have had three orthopedic surgeries since I started playing hockey five years ago -- one to repair a completely torn rotator cuff, an injury I waited nine months to treat because I didn't want to miss the winter season; one to repair a torn meniscus; and, most recently, one to repair my right pinky finger. I waited to schedule that procedure until my team had an off-week so I wouldn't miss a game. I've also had two E.R. visits for severely bruised ribs. My non-hockey friends always ask me if my latest injury means I'm through playing. My hockey friends ask me how long I'll be out before I can play again, which is the only right question to ask.

* * * * * * * * * *

I did an abbreviated stint with a team one summer that I thought consisted of pretty normal guys. I didn't have to run the team, just play, so I figured playing on an extra team would be fun.

Not so.

I had my first suspicions when the "captain" started bringing a stop watch to games to time individual shifts. I had set aside my earlier qualms about his excessive interest in our uniform design, who would get what number, how our relegation to a certain line would be based on our individual "productivity," and other such behavior more consistent with ten year-olds than adult men. I thought it was kind of odd that a couple of players -- the ones right out of college -- took beers with them to the bench, or that one guy habitually confused the direction we were skating offensively and once shot on our own goalie, but nonetheless stayed in our boss's good graces, or the retired Marine on our team who ended up in a fight or near-fight every game, but nonetheless addressed everyone as "sir." But I put those concerns aside and just skated my shifts . . . when the boss, who was by far the worst player on the team and maybe the entire league, deemed I had earned one.

What led to leave this team after the summer was our boss's decision to take the 20 year-old kid on our team to small claims court because he hadn't paid for his jersey and socks. Anybody else would have divided the cost of the jersey and socks by the rest of the guys on the team and chipped in for him. Not this guy. I got the hell out of there -- and took Lowell with me.

* * * * * * * * * *

My team is the Red Army. Our jerseys are replicas of the old Soviet teams that dominated world hockey until the Canadians and Americans started sending their professionals to play in the Olympics and other world-wide tournaments. We even have our names in Cyrillic on the back. A hockey friend told me once that was a nice touch, making our jerseys more authentic. I told him that wasn't the point. Rather, if no one could read the names on the back of our jerseys, no one could point out by name how bad we were.

I serve as captain of our team, which doesn't really mean anything when you have 15 guys -- and one especially -- who all think they should be in charge. Being captain means you serve as banker, general manager, player rep to our league board in the event that someone wants to file a grievance against another team or allege some undetected criminal infraction against another player and team mother, nurturing prima donnas who demand a "real" play-making center rather than, oh, I don't know, me. My most recent team has been together for almost two years, and we get along very well, having only had one real "crisis" during that time. That involved having to get rid of our goalie, who, while fundamentally a nice guy, turns into a complete nut job on the ice. When the player that leads your team in penalty minutes is your goalie, it's time to make a change.

Most of the guys who play on my team also coach their kids. We also have some single guys who volunteer their time to coach local high schools or teams in my son's hockey club. Guys like me benefit from meeting guys like Adam, one of the best players on our team, who is one of those single guys who gives his time to kids for no other reason than he loves the game and has the skills to teach it. Or Alan, a great player with the knowledge to match, and genuinely cares about seeing the lesser of us get better. And there is, of course, Jay, our resident "hockey whore" who will play anytime, anywhere and for any team as long as there is someone to pass him the puck. Despite his constant unflattering assessments of my playmaking abilities, I forgive him because I think his wife is absolutely gorgeous -- almost as gorgeous as mine -- and don't want to get on her bad side.

Sometimes, all this knowledge is not so good, since it can give the "coaches" the impression that they know more about the game than we -- I mean, they -- do. On the other hand, it's good, as playing a game we also coach reminds us on a weekly basis how hard hockey is to play, much less play well.

Our team plays in a league that is not affiliated with any of the major companies than run adult hockey in North America. We're basically a co-op, managing our own affairs and purchasing our own ice time. "We" is a bit of a stretch. The Ice Pack Hockey League is really the brainchild of one person, Gary Rosenfeld, who, like, Lowell, is the only other person that everyone knows by his first name. Gary isn't at all like Lowell, except for the fact that they both have hearts that far exceed their bodies' physical capacities. Gary modestly says that we are a collective enterprise, but everyone knows that Gary does everything for us -- organizes the schedule, makes sure that teams pay their dues, counsels teams to get certain players under control, resolves disputes and provides us with some of our best spent time of the week -- and asks only that we try to act like grown-ups when we're on the ice.

I'm not the oldest guy on my team this time, and I don't think I'm the worst either -- two good things. Even though we are a laid-back team by adult hockey standards, we have our share of characters. Leading the way are our own "Hanson Brothers," Elan and Eli, by far the best
players on our team. Of course, it helps that they are under 30 and can still skate more than
four shifts without feeling the need to throw up. I met them when they joined my team, sight unseen, for our first season two years ago. It took them a couple of months to realize that "no-check" hockey meant "no-check" hockey (although there are plenty of people who "have trouble stopping," but that's a different story). For a while there, I kept expecting to walk in the locker room and see them playing with their slot cars. Once it kicked in that this was hockey for old guys (I'd say the average age of guys playing in our league is about 45. The range is 21-65), they adjusted their game and became model citizens. Sure, they are great players by rec hockey standards, but the best thing about them is their personalities. They know they're stuff and always have something constructive to say without being obnoxious. Having young guys around makes things more fun, and forces you to try a little harder so you won't embarrass yourself in front of them . . . sort of like covering your bald spot and sucking in your gut when you see a pretty young girl, even though she is oblivious to you.

And then there are the rest of us . . . the guy who wants to get the rink a little early so we can discuss "strategy," but usually arrives five minutes before the game, the addict who keeps track of his plus-minus statistics, knows who every other player is playing at every level in every league in the DC area, and is the first to eyeball ringers ("I know that guy plays for the Zodiacs in the Laurel league. He's an A player. Find out if he's registered.") brought in to upgrade a team, the guys who work on Capitol Hill who take their Blackberrys to the bench and check their messages between shifts, the guy who won't take a shower after the game, the guy who reminds everyone that he was president of his law school class, the token Republican whose enthusiasm for guns and other weapons of violence immunizes him from the abuse that regularly flows back and forth in the locker room, the "specialist" who only plays left wing and the guy who keeps insisting that every game is his last one, something he has been doing for two years. For a while, we had a team doctor, although, as an OBGYN, that didn't do us much good.

Elan just left us to move to New York. We'll find someone else to take his place but there is no way anyone can replace his personality. I'm not sure what it says when a bunch of 40-something guys are hanging their heads because they're really going to miss hanging around with a 26 year-old guy on Tuesday nights at midnight.

But . . . we still have Lowell.

* * * * * * * * * *

The most remarkable thing about the whole adult hockey madness is that, with just a few exceptions, everyone is out to have a good time and not cause any problems. A few months ago, the hockey club our kids play in, Montgomery Youth Hockey, held its now-annual "Coaches Tournament." Translated, our club donated some ice time to the coaches who donate their time during the year to coach kids. Gary, of course, drew up the teams and organized the event and we skated for about two consecutive hours with only a minimal break between periods and games. Our skill levels varied wildly, from the most novice player to the guys who played junior or minor league hockey, and played it pretty well. But once the better players got an idea of who could or couldn't do what, they adjusted their games to get everyone involved. Naturally, the only meltdown came from the goalie who used to play for my team, and by that time I had put on waivers.

Then, in something that would never happen in any other sport, we all lined up at center ice after the games were over and went through the traditional post-game handshake line that is unique to hockey. No referees or "league officials" were there, no league officials, no one, really, except a bunch of guys whose best days, to the extent we ever had any, were way behind us. Isolated moments of confrontation were quickly forgotten, and smiles and laughter replaced the sometimes-too-intense attitudes that we have on the ice. No one "made" us shake hands. We just did it because that is what you always do.

Besides, there was beer on ice in the locker rooms waiting for us. And in the world of table top hockey for grown-ups, that is all that ultimately matters.

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