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Alex Pietrangelo’s savvy ‘local hero’ pressure play on the Blues

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In the hectic world of NHL free agency, I’ve found there’s really only one reliable imperative: Players don’t want to move their stuff.

Alex Pietrangelo, 30, is the belle of the free-agent ball this offseason, the kind of top-pairing defenseman in his prime who could complete a Stanley Cup puzzle for several teams — and one who is coveted even more for having won the Cup last season.

Pietrangelo’s “stuff” is very much in St. Louis. Based on his recent actions, it appears he doesn’t want to move it.

Now, “stuff” is a nebulous concept. The late George Carlin defined it as your material possessions during his classic bit about having a place for your stuff. (“That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”) In the NHL context, “stuff” refers to the total weight of the anchor that precludes a player from leaving for a new home: family, loved ones, friends, restaurants where they don’t have to pay, that one golf course, their teammates, that one vape shop and, of course, the house they built with their second NHL contract a few seasons before unrestricted free agency.

In Pietrangelo’s case, he was drafted fourth overall by the Blues in 2008, and they’re the only NHL team for which he has played, serving as their captain since 2016. His wife, Jayne, is a St. Louis native. They welcomed triplets in 2018 and a newborn daughter in 2020. They put roots down with a $1.9 million home they built in Ladue, Missouri, in 2017. Their family is a part of the St. Louis community and the Blues family.

If you had told me Pietrangelo would hit the free-agent market a year after winning the Stanley Cup with the Blues, that would have been a surprise. How many big names just re-sign with their current teams? How much temptation to “go to market” is canceled out by the desire to keep their stuff where it is? Steven Stamkos, back in 2016? His stuff was in Tampa. Drew Doughty, in 2018? His stuff was in Los Angeles.

On the off chance that a big-name free agent does sign with a new team, it’s usually because they have stuff there. John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018? Some of his stuff was still in Toronto from his childhood, perhaps even some bed sheets. (This has created some expectations that Pietrangelo, an Ontario native, would do the same.) Zach Parise to the Wild in 2012? Same deal as Tavares, except in Minnesota. Brad Richards to the New York Rangers in 2011? I don’t know, maybe John Tortorella counts as “stuff.”

It’s not a mystery where Pietrangelo’s preferred free-agent destination is. “Obviously, I want to stay a Blue. Of course I do. It’s the only place I’ve known professional hockey,” Pietrangelo said in August, after the Blues were eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals.

But you can’t always get what you want.

Well, at least not in this economy.

The Blues have offered Pietrangelo an average annual salary of $8 million at varying lengths of a deal, including an eight-year contract. But that hasn’t been enough to get a deal done because of the “structure” of the contract: Published reports say that Pietrangelo wants a no-movement clause, and wants there to be a signing bonus built into the latter years of the contract that would mean a cash payout if his contract was bought out. Considering that an eight-year deal would push him into his late 30s, this isn’t an outlandish possibility.

But the captain is essentially asking general manager Doug Armstrong for the two things he has never provided a free agent. The Blues’ roster has some no-trade clauses, but none of them are no-movement clauses. The Blues have only one player with a contract containing signing bonuses: Ryan O’Reilly, who was signed by the Buffalo Sabres in July 2015.

To say their talks have been unproductive would be an understatement. “The situation is teetering,” one NHL team executive told ESPN. “Doug is very good at what he does. Pietrangelo is represented by Newport [Sports] — also very good at what they do.”

If the situation is teetering, then you have to give Pietrangelo and his representatives credit for trying to push it over the edge.

On Sept. 18, it was reported that talks had broken off between the Blues and their captain. Normally, this isn’t anything out of the ordinary on the eve of free agency … except free agency doesn’t start for another two weeks.

The candor with which Pietrangelo discussed the matter with local media was also unique. “Contract talks haven’t gone the way both sides were hoping and unless something changes, it’s in the best interests for everyone to see what the market looks like on Oct. 9,” he told NHL.com. He also did a lengthy interview with Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic, with his newborn daughter cooing on his chest, explaining the situation, ensuring his fans there was no animosity and reiterating that free agency is hopefully a last resort.

“I’ve never once said that I’m ruling the Blues out. I’ve never said that. I don’t think you really move on. Whether you’ve played 12 years in a city or one year in a city, I don’t think you really move on until it’s pen to paper and you’re going somewhere else. I truly don’t believe that, because it’s not official until then,” he said. “So maybe it’s in our best interest to see what other opportunities we can have, and maybe Doug has felt the same way, but it doesn’t mean that something can’t happen.”

This was an absolutely brilliant maneuver by Pietrangelo. As an unrestricted free agent, he has only a few cards to play. One is going to market. Another is using all the goodwill he has built up with Blues fans to put some wind in his sails in these talks.

“It’s an effective tactic,” one NHL player agent said, “the power of public sentiment.”

You could already feel that breeze earlier this season when Armstrong traded for Justin Faulk of Carolina and immediately signed him to a seven-year extension. Fans were baffled, hoping this didn’t mean the end of Pietrangelo with the Blues. When Faulk struggled this season — minus-3.7 goals scored above average, to Pietrangelo’s plus-18.2, per Evolving Hockey — it only stoked that frustration.

(Pietrangelo has denied he was upset by the trade or signing.)

Now, that breeze is a gale force, thanks to Pietrangelo being so candid about his plight, so far ahead of the actual “go to market” free-agent date. Social media buzzes with pro-Petro sentiment. Influential Blues fan site St. Louis Game Time wrote an article titled “Why the Blues need to step up and find a way to keep Alex Pietrangelo around.” The very idea that the Blues would play hardball with one of the franchise’s most dedicated players has been deemed abhorrent.

It has become very loud in St. Louis. But former Blues forward Cam Janssen, on his 590 The Fan radio show, playfully mocked the fans’ support of Pietrangelo this week before delivering some hard truths about why he believed the defenseman should just accept their offer.

“They don’t do up-front money and they don’t do signing bonuses. They don’t do it. They’re not going to do it for Petro, they’re not going to do it for [Vladimir] Tarasenko, they’re not going to do it for [Colton] Parayko. They don’t do that,” he said. “So if you want $9.5 to $10 million on the free market, and you’re going to go to another city with four kids and try to adjust, when that city wants everything from you, and you’ve got four kids at home — you think that’s going to be easy? When you buy a $4 million house? Is it really that much more money?”

There will be suitors for Pietrangelo, though how many is a mystery due to the impacted revenue shortfalls for teams because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is the type of player for whom teams will make space to sign. His agents are no doubt painting a picture of potential destinations. Pietrangelo has said his family has started mapping out which situations would be best for them.

But in over 15 years of writing about the “free-agent frenzy,” I can’t recall a more transparent attempt by a big-name player to pressure his team into keeping him around. We simply don’t hear this amount of news, or these kinds of comments, this far out of the start of free agency.

It’s obvious, however, why Armstrong feels he can play some “hometown discount” hardball with his captain, what with this full-court press after talks have broken off and with Pietrangelo’s clearly stated desire to remain in St. Louis.

After all, that’s where his stuff is.


Bubble fit of the week

Guessing that Patrick Maroon‘s VHS aerobics workout tape from the 1980s is quite arduous.


The three takeaways from NHL bubble confidential

1. Thanks to the many, many of you that read “NHL Bubble Confidential” from yours truly and Emily Kaplan this week, and thanks to the players who were so candid in answering our many questions about the hubs. I’ve been asked in a few interviews what my biggest takeaway was from the piece, and I have to say it’s how uncomfortable the players were with cohabitation in the same hotel as their opponents. There’s something low-key charming about players timing their elevator rides to avoid having to take one with an opponent, or refusing to make eye contact with a guy who just gave them a face wash the night before. It’s all very “Mean Girls,” but without the cafeteria brawl, alas.

2. The story was from the perspective of the players; and like any eyewitness, there might have been a few instances where their information was incomplete. For example, their gripes about a lack of excursions. An NHL source said that they had “boats chartered and golf outings booked” that had to be canceled, at the last minute, because teams lost the game the night before and decided not to take the excursions.

Then there’s the per diem issue, which was pointed out by a couple of players. The NHLPA’s Jonathan Weatherdon told us that there was “an enhanced per diem of $130 USD per day, with no deductions for club-provided meals. For the first five days prior to that, it was $55 for game days and $111 for non-game days in the bubble.” An NHL source said that “their room service charges were over and above their per diems, which were north of $200 per day.”

3. Finally, it was interesting to hear about the future of bubbles. The players we spoke to were adamant about never going into the bubble again … while at the same time admitting that they might be down with returning to the bubble if it’s the only way to play games next season. (i.e. “get paid”). One player also made the point that the seven teams outside the postseason bubbles are going to have a say in this. If the season starts in mid-January, those players won’t have played a game in 10 months. You think they might accept a bubble?


Listen To ESPN On Ice

We’re recording a new ESPN On Ice with guests Ryan Kesler and Frank Provenzano on Thursday. You’ll be able to find that episode, and all our episodes, here.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Leon Draisaitl

The Edmonton Oilers star was not atop my MVP ballot. That’s OK. I’m known for approaching this award from a different viewpoint than many of my peers. But I’m happy Draisaitl won the Hart Trophy, along with the Ted Lindsay and the Art Ross. He had an absolute monster season. It’s not intended to be an insult to Draisaitl if I thought Artemi Panarin and Connor Hellebuyck were more vital to their teams’ success. Or at least had less help.

Loser: Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid

Like I said, I have my own peculiar approach to the Hart Trophy; and if you can defend your pick in a logical manner, I have no issue with anyone casting their vote in a peculiar way. But I do have to question the six voters who had Draisaitl first and teammate Connor McDavid second for league MVP. I can’t fathom how the two most valuable players in the NHL to their team could play the same position on the same team. Wayne Gretzky never had an Edmonton Oiler as his MVP runner-up. Mario Lemieux never had Jaromir Jagr or Ron Francis in second place. Sidney Crosby never had Evgeni Malkin, or vice versa; Stan Mikita never had Bobby Hull, or vice versa. I don’t get it.

Winner: Switzerland

While Draisaitl made history for Germany, the NHL Awards were also a big win for the Swiss. Roman Josi is the first Swiss-born player to win an individual honor at the NHL Awards, after winning the Norris Trophy. The Bern native is also the first Norris winner in Nashville Predators history, which is a bit strange when you consider they’ve had Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and P.K. Subban.

Loser: ‘Merica

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson? Second for the Norris. Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes? Second for the Calder. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella? Third for the Jack Adams. Sure, we got Hellebuyck winning the Vezina. But overall, it could have gone better for the U.S.-born awards finalists.

Winner: Steven Stamkos

At this point, there’s no telling how much more action Stamkos is going to see in the Stanley Cup Final. But he had more impact in 2:47 of ice time than some players have in two games, factoring in the emotional lift his return to the ice gave to the Lightning. He has been through a lot. He’s an easy player for whom to root, and someone you wouldn’t mind finally seeing lift the Cup.

Loser: Suspensions

Not to jinx this thing, but we’ve had only three postseason suspensions — one game each to Drake Caggiula (hit to the head), Matt Niskanen (cross-checking) and Ryan Reaves (check to the head) — despite the fact that there were eight extra teams and an additional playoff round. That’s after we had six suspensions in each of the previous two postseasons. Theories range from players being a step slow to the different emotional dynamic without fans in the building. But sometimes, the playoffs are just cleaner: We had only two suspensions in the 2017 postseason.

Winner: NHL

The NHL once again had no positive COVID-19 tests in its bubble this week. This news used to garner headlines. Now, it’s just assumed. That’s to the credit of everyone involved in the restart, from the NHL to the players to the doctors to those cleaning the facilities. What a miraculous couple of months, to go from Gary Bettman answering questions about having to make the call on COVID-positive players, to being a week from the finish line without a documented infection.

Loser: KHL

Discouraging news from the Russian hockey league, which is experiencing a “COVID-19 disaster” according to Aivis Kalnins, as all but one team has experienced at least one positive test.


Puck Headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Tremendous story from Chris Peters on the Brick Invitational Tournament, another Edmonton championship hockey tournament with an exceptional legacy and some “bubble life.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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