Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug

Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
After the opening of the world’s most impressive training facility and winning back-to-back league championships, Zug has made itself a major player in Swiss hockey. There's a lot to learn from its success.
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“Is that Arendelle?”

My 7-year-old daughter, Evelyn, jumps off the couch and comes running to my desk at the site of a beautiful photo of a village perched on a lake, with rolling hills as a backdrop and small European homes, nestled amongst the steeples of churches and castles.

Her eyes light up, like it’s somewhere familiar to her, but there is no Elsa or Anna of “Frozen” fame here.

“No, hun,” I explain. “This isn’t Arendelle, this is a town called Zug. It’s in a country called Switzerland.”

Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Zug, Switzerland

I scurry to the next tab to Google a map of the world to show her where Switzerland is compared to our home in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

“Why are you looking at this place?” she inquires, still not taking her eyes off the screen.

“Dad is writing a story about this town and their hockey program,” I offer.

Now she makes eye contact with me.

“They play hockey there!?” she asks with a stunned look on her face. “It’s beautiful!”

She’s not wrong. Searching images of this town of about 30,000 residents, you’ll think they are drawn from someone’s imagination. It’s quaint, charming and, on the banks of Lake Zug, looks exactly like what you would think a historic, European town would look like.

Zug, in some ways similar to Arendelle, has a secret.

But that secret is getting harder and harder to keep.

Past those hills and beyond the beautiful lakeside is a factory.

It’s a nearly 40 thousand square foot, eight story laboratory founded by pharmaceutical mastermind Dr. HP Strebel, with the goal of combining sports and science into something unmatched around the globe.

Hockey players, along with athletes from nine other sports, come here to not only train, but to learn. To develop not just their athletic abilities, but their minds and bodies as a whole.

When Dr. Strebel became President of EV Zug, his overarching mandate was to develop local players.

What he’s created is something far more impactful and profound. It’s changed the game.

It’s changed everything.

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Development takes time.

Gathering, sorting and implementing data takes time.

Patience is always the key.

No one knows that better than Dr. Hans-Peter Strebel.

Dr. Hans-Peter Strebel Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Dr. Hans-Peter Strebel

Dr. Strebel is a pharmacist, who was part of inventing a drug that helps against multiple sclerosis.

“Doing medical research, it’s never done in two days, it takes years – and you learn to be patient,” Strebel says. “It’s a process and that’s the main thing. You can’t think this will be done in one year or two years, it takes more, and it has to be done step-by-step.”

Strebel points to the chain reaction that comes from being able to live in that type of freedom, not just as a player, but as a coach.

“If the coach is afraid to bring in young players, then they cannot develop. And if the players are afraid to make mistakes, they will never develop. They must know, I can play, no one is killing me if I make a mistake, I am here to learn. That is the process.”

When the EV Zug Academy was launched in 2014, the target of the program was to develop players and create a pipeline where half of their first team were players from Zug.

That’s not an easy task, considering the aforementioned population of 30,000.

Switzerland’s state, or canton, system is very unique in that the country itself is divided into 26 different regions, all with different rules, timelines and, most impactful for Zug, school schedules.

In an area that is roughly 2.5 times smaller than the US state of Ohio, kids go to school at different times of the day and there is also a heavy cost for students who want to go to school outside of their respective canton.

Without over-emphasising it, you are dealing with the smallest of small percentages when it comes to building up a hockey program.

For some people, like current General Manager Reto Kläy, it was a challenge they were excited to take on.

Reto Kläy Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Reto Kläy

“I came from a small club and when I wanted to do some stuff, I had to be really creative because there wasn’t much in place, but here it becomes a bit bigger,” Kläy shares. “On top of that, the strategy was impressive because one of the main goals was to use our youth program as a foundation to reach the club’s next championship.”

Zug won a Swiss National League championship in 1998, but has not moved the needle much since.

The Academy was in its first year when Kläy joined the club so he was part of its birth, setting up the education side, along with schedules for practices and working out when and where the programming would even begin.

“To be honest, at the beginning I was not quite sure how it would go,” Kläy reflects. “The board was telling me with the academy in place they wanted half of our first team to be pulled from there in the next six years. And they wanted to be fighting for a championship. I thought that was a pretty ambitious goal, but let’s try it.”

Let’s be honest – they wouldn’t really even know if it’s working or not for years.

Kläy thought the same.

“I really didn’t see things working until a few players from our first class were able to reach the pro league and fit in, so that was four years from the start.”

As if creating the academy program from its infancy wasn’t enough, Kläy was also responsible for the first team, forcing the balance of wanting to win at that level and cultivating its future growth at the same time.

“When you see the NHL and they are talking about a rebuild, they are also not trying to win a championship,” Kläy notes. “With us, though, it should always be at the same time. The expectation was always you have to play the young guys, but you also have to be successful at the top level, so you need to balance those.”

The program also saw a massive growth in staffing – including full-time coaches at the U15 and U13 levels, along with a head of youth development, Corsin Camichel, and a head of player development, Ted Suihkonen.

Camichel had been coaching Zug’s U20 team until he was approached about taking on this new youth development model.

This role has now given Camichel an opportunity to see the program from a much higher level.

Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug Corsin Camichel
Corsin Camichel

“I go on the ice with U15, sometimes I run the practice, sometimes the head coach runs the practice and then we will discuss things that we can do better,” says Camichel, as he describes part of his role. “I can see different things because they are in the daily structure, so I can see it from a bigger picture.”

As much as the player development is important within this position, the coaching theory and philosophy is just as valued.

“I try to give the players development on the ice, but also off ice, and help them grow as people,” Camichel states. “Same with the coaches. I mean, maybe two players get to the pros, but if we can give all of them something for the future of their lives, I think this is a big part of coaching.”

Camichel is just one example of the people that Kläy has put in place as the philosophy has developed and grown.

Having control over both the youth development and the first team successes, one of Kläy’s first challenges was to find a head coach that can blend the two.

One thing Kläy hits on the first time we speak is a way of thinking that seems straightforward and common sense, but even when you look to the top of the pyramid of hockey, it’s almost the opposite.

“It was not easy to find that person who is able to work on both sides,” Kläy admits. “We have a clear vision and clear philosophy because it’s only when that is in place that we can find a coach that fits. We are not looking for a coach and asking him for his philosophy. We know what we are doing here, and we need a coach that will come in step.”

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For Kläy to find that man, he had to find someone who had worked with a similar structure.

There weren’t many hands up at that point and, unlike most hires in Switzerland, he wasn’t looking for the typical profile.

“When we signed Dan, in my opinion, he was that guy because I knew he could do it even without the proof at the time,” Kläy speaks of Dan Tangnes, a Norwegian coach who joined the club in 2018 after numerous years coaching in Sweden. “I was more interested in a guy where I knew what he could do in the future, as opposed to what he had done in the past.”

Dan Tangnes Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Dan Tangnes

“I didn’t have a lot of Cups on the shelf, but I think I ticked most of the boxes of what they were looking for,” Tangnes admits, looking back on his now five-year run with Zug. “We shared a lot of the same thinking, but for them it was probably a bold decision to go with someone without long term experience. I was 39-years-old when I came here, and I know I wasn’t the hottest name on the coaches market, but most importantly we shared the same philosophy of how to work together with people.”

For Tangnes, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to come to a club where he had his hand in shaping the science facility and the future of the club. There is a brain trust of five people that are the “decision makers” at Zug, and he’s got a seat at that table.

“This is my fifth year now, I would say a big part of our success is that the club has a clear identity,” Tangnes comments. “They communicate that pretty well to players, staff and personnel that get recruited here. They’ve done a great job of setting the expectations – this is what you can expect from us, this is what we expect from you and this is why we think you’d be a good fit to our organization.”

The return has been immediate and fruitful for both sides.

All Tangnes has done since joining Zug was win a Swiss Cup in 2018-19 and back-to-back NL Championships in 2020 and 2021.

Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug

“The hardest part is that you can draw a lot of stuff on paper, but to see how fast the development goes takes a lot of patience,” Kläy includes. “But in 2020 we became Champions and half of the team was our own developed players and we were also the youngest team in our league, so we knew then it was possible we could match those two together.”

For years it seemed like the club was keeping its head above water at the pro level, while trying to pull a boat up from the bottom of Lake Zug for reinforcements.

Was there ever time for concern? For sure.

Was there ever a doubt in the philosophy? Never.

“When things are not going the way you expect, it’s the biggest challenge,” Kläy explains. “We don’t start thinking that it’s not working though, it’s the patience part that most people don’t have and that’s where they fail. Sometimes there are adjustments, but at many points we don’t know anything at all, and we have to stick with what we think is the right path.”

Back-to-back Championships with the youngest team in the league is a constant reminder that the right kind of development plan, skills training and on ice work can do wonders.

But, that’s not the only trick Zug has up its sleeve.

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Enter science.

Dr. Strebel wanted to give back to his community in the most impactful way possible.

A lifelong sports fan, especially hockey, he found a way to marry his love of sport and his love of science into something you have to see to believe.

An idea in 2016 turned into an opening in 2020 of a complex you will not find anywhere else in the world.

OYM is a fortress. Just look it up.

OYM Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
OYM

Inside you will find state of the art technology, workspaces, practice venues and so much more it doesn’t do it justice to rhyme off.

Did I mention the full-time chefs making world class, healthy meals for everyone who enters?!

You’ll also find scientists, people who spend their days dissecting the individual breakdown of the human body in each athlete, running countless tests and data and creating a training package for every player to reach the personal maximum of that body.

For Dr. Strebel, it’s paradise.

“When I was first watching an athlete train, I would ask them ‘why do you do this or that a certain way?’” Strebel recalls. “The answer I would hear is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ But with OYM we are challenging every type of thinking with hard data and science.”

In our 30 minute conversation, Dr. Strebel hits on one particular thing over and over again – nutrition.

Proper nutrition, he says, holds 50% of the capacity any person can reach.

Strebel admits there was certainly a buy-in to the thinking, especially when it comes to food.

“The first reaction, of course, is if it’s healthy food then it’s not going to be tasteful,” Strebel mentions. “When they all came to OYM they were very surprised how good the food was. After maybe 10-15 days they realized their body had changed. They could feel it.”

Strebel remembers conversations he was having with some of those first classes at OYM and those players talking about how they were not tired in the afternoon, they are not hungry in the afternoon or they can start training sooner after they eat.

Once they started experiencing that, the sell job was over.

“I think the biggest mistake was the scientists tried to sell it first, but scientists are not the best salespeople,” Tangnes chuckles. “They pushed all the wrong buttons and the players thought they were going to jail here, 24-hour surveillance on every calorie going into your body. But when you do try to explain something of this magnitude and you don’t know, it’s human nature to be skeptical.”

Yet what was once frightening, in fact, is now the new way of life for nearly every athlete in the facility.

“Teams would have lunch at OYM and now players take boxes home with them for dinner,” Strebel says. “When we have big games, we have to do catering from OYM because they will not eat other food.”

Just like the individual training programs the players have, the meal prep is the same.

Players get individual boxes because not all players can eat the same. Some players feel bad if they eat after a game, so the chefs will make them shakes. Some guys would wait till they got home from a game, sometimes around 1:00 am and make something and go to bed, which throws their system off completely.

The Coaches Site Group-Membership-Ad-Banner-newsite

“I think the most important thing is that the athlete understands with science-based data we can look very deep and give them back all the information they need,” Strebel points out. “We can show them what’s missing, what we need to do more or less of and then as they see the results improving, the player gets confidence in what they are doing and it makes all the difference.”

The staff, to put it lightly, are believers.

“To be totally honest I thought I knew a lot about it before coming here,” Tangnes admits. “But the longer I’m here and see OYM in action, you don’t understand close to enough.”

Recovery is one of the segments of information that intrigues Tangnes the most.

“When you plan your week there isn’t much room for practices or workouts and we understood that what we are doing right now has to be more efficient,” Tangnes targets. “It comes down to what happens between practices and between games to optimize our recovery and being as fresh as possible.”

There is always a balance between quantity and quality.

The club has always put an emphasis on having a clear purpose, plan and focus going into practices, training sessions or games.

As Tangnes says from experience, there is a mental balancing act to playing the game where you need to find the right focus and adrenaline level, where you have to be tuned in, but also a little pissed off to go into these games.

What tends to be forgotten is what happens after those games and how quickly players can enter into some kind of recovery mode.

“What are we eating after a game, when are we eating after a game, are we doing breathing techniques to get your heart rate and adrenaline levels down so you can get into recovery mode quicker,” Tangnes rhymes off some of the things he gauges with the information from OYM. “I know it’s a common thing for hockey players to not get a great sleep after a game, but if we can improve that by even one or two hours, there is a huge benefit and advantage to that.”

The easy comparison is to Premier League in soccer and how they would run a program on a completely different level from monitoring and controlling nearly everything that happens with their players.

Tangnes is quick to point out how beneficial it is to train, study and focus on everyone as an individual, making the point that all forwards are not created the same, all goalies are not created the same and an 18-year-old has to do many different things than a 36-year-old from the same team.

Strebel insists that is not what is happening at OYM, but instead it organically builds amongst the people inside.

“All these athletes in all these sports are all together in the gym. They are all driven by being the best and it’s beautiful. The spirit of sport is in that building,” Strebel says, beaming with pride. “Every day you feel the spirit of sport. All of these athletes are happy, it’s a beautiful building, there are a lot of windows to see out and it’s just gorgeous. And we’re only just getting started.”

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So, what do you do with all this information?

I just imagine rows and rows of chalkboards and formulas and computers and no clue whatsoever what to take from it.

Trust me, no one is going to confuse me for a scientist any time soon.

“In the end for me, the million dollar question is do you know how to use it?” Kläy proposes. “Because if you are just collecting numbers just to do it and it’s not going towards our goal, then it’s not going to help.”

Ted Suihkonen had been in Russia, working with Yaroslavl as a skills coach and director of player development for five years until he got the opportunity at Zug.

Ted Suihkonen Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Ted Suihkonen

“It was supposed to be a nine month contract,” Suihkonen shares with a laugh.

“I got a few more contracts after that and we were in the middle of our development process, so it was important for me to stay. But when the opportunity with Zug came up, it gave my family and I a chance at a better life.”

“When we started talking with Zug, it was a perfect fit because they had the same goals as Yaroslavl,” Suihkonen continues. “They wanted to build up the academy and build up young, local players into their pro team, so the mindset and philosophy was a match made in heaven.”

Suihkonen goes on about the similarities between Zug and Yaroslavl, a program that has three titles in Russia’s junior hockey league.

His role with the club is twofold. On one hand Suihkonen acts as an advocate for the players, where they can come and air everything out and come up with solutions. On the other hand, it’s the skills side, where he will provide individual reports so players understand who they are and how they can use their assets in the team game.

“OYM is obviously a game changer in every way,” Suihkonen states. “When kids come in here it’s the first time they are looking at the holistic style of themselves and not just on ice. You have to get the whole player because that’s where you will see meaningful change.”

In his first season with Zug, Suihkonen came in quietly at the start, then through a series of player meetings, reports and conversations, he was able to establish trust with a more personal approach.

Ted Suihkonen Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Ted Suihkonen

“Surprisingly, they were sponges. There was no push back,” Suihkonen reiterates. “The most important part is when you speak with the players the first time you don’t feed them bullshit. You give them individual tactics to the team game, then they start seeing success and see how it can be used and the buy-in will naturally happen.”

Camichel chimes in from a youth level, the two connected by development.

“It’s a difficult discussion, what’s the best way to develop a kid,” Camichel admits. “We have to develop 20 guys the same way, but not everyone’s the same. We must find the right ways with the basic stuff like skating and stickhandling, then we go to smaller groups to determine which guys need more work on a particular aspect.”

Dan Tangnes agrees.

“With the club we are running, everybody has to develop and get better,” Tangnes promotes. “I see myself as a coach who likes to win, but development and winning go hand in hand. Whether they are 18 or 36, what the next step is for the older player is just as important as it is for the younger players.”

That’s where science comes in.

That’s where the individual training for a team game rears its head.

Suihkonen is quick to use comparisons to his time in Russia and now Switzerland to what is happening in North America. It’s a stark difference and a nearly opposite mindset in a lot of ways.

“In North America, you don’t have that chain of events in development,” Suihkonen shares. “What you have is a lot of supplementations of players going to different camps or hockey schools just getting better, but that’s not tied to what the team is trying to do. Here, it’s like training to be a tennis player for a team game.”

Suihkonen says he sees a lot of kids that are good at a particular skill or skills, but it’s not transferring in the game. The cause of that, Suihkonen says, is clear.

“Families are not talking to the coaches or understanding the structure, so there’s a disconnect,” he points out. “In North America, in U16, the coach only has them for 8 months, on the side the player is paying someone else for skill development and when you’re paying all this money everywhere, everyone wants results now.”

Even though everything has happened so fast for Zug, the one thing on their side has always been time.

“We don’t have to rush. If we get these kids when they are 15, we’ve got them for the next 5-6 years possibly,” Suihkonen points out. “There’s no rush to get them somewhere because they won’t be making that jump too fast too soon, so you’ve got the time to really work with them.”

The biggest gains come in practice.

Camichel and Suihkonen both suggest at the youth level, the amount of games is not what matters, but what the practice, like what they study in the lab, has to coordinate.

“There was a study during the COVID year, when the players didn’t play they just practiced,” Carmichel recalls. “The players grew, got bigger, stronger and they were technically better. So, we are always talking about needing to play games, but when we look back at this past year we just practiced, and the kids got better. I think the games are overrated in junior – especially with the travel and such, when you could get in a good hour of practice.”

As much as nutrition drives Dr. Strebel and recovery interests Tangnes, it’s sleep that catches Suihkonen’s attention.

“When we have babies, they sleep 18 hours a day sometimes and they grow so much. I have a nine-year-old and he is still sleeping 12 hours a day and he keeps growing,” Suihkonen launches into. “At some point, we get to an age where we don’t think it matters any more, but it really, really does.”

Suihkonen regales research he has done on the patterns your brain follows when you sleep, first to declutter and store information and then recovering for growth. He notes some of the biggest athletes in the world, LeBron James and Tom Brady, nap during their day to prioritize that function.

“You start looking at some of these younger kids, you’re 15, you’re growing, you’re a little weak but then you ask, ‘how much are you sleeping at night?’ and they are saying 5-6 hours,” Suihkonen states. “In Western culture, you think you can fix everything with a pill or something else, but there is no substitute for the benefits of whole foods and the power of sleep.”

“Sports science was always a topic, the off-ice part was always interesting, the nutrition part was always a topic, but since we came to OYM it’s amazing,” Kläy pronounces. “There are a lot of people in that facility that when you talk to science guys they look at things totally different. Sometimes it’s really interesting and both sides can definitely benefit from each other.”

There are still a lot of unknowns with the data and studies being done at OYM, but Zug is starting to see the impact it’s having on a global scale – and they’ve got some big named fire power to promote it.

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If you’ve followed the Hockey Factories series or listened to the Hockey Factories podcast, you will know I’ve had the opportunity to speak with any number of high profile hockey people.

Well, add Peter Forsberg to the mix.

The two time World Champion and two time Stanley Cup champion makes his home in Zug now and has two boys playing in the program.

Forsberg, who wanted to live in a hockey town while he has business dealings in Zurich, says it was really easy to get involved with the program.

“Everything is very organized and structured. There is a plan and everyone is following it, which is a great start,” Forsberg shares. “It’s big in the long run for the program. It’s run very professionally and when you look at the academy, they don’t take school lightly. You aren’t doing school just to be there, they are pushing the education and getting a degree and setting the kids up for their futures, not just on the ice.”

Forsberg can admit to the differences between his native country of Sweden and the program he played through as a kid, MODO, but he is also blown away by what players have available to them at Zug.

“I don’t think there is anything in the world like OYM. It’s a great story,” Forsberg says. “You have an owner who loves hockey and loves his community and comes from the science community, it’s an amazing mix between the two sides. From food to weightlifting to rehab to ice time, it’s world class.”

Forsberg, like more and more people daily, is a believer in what the data OYM is collecting can show.

“For me, I was a little afraid to try new things. It worked for me to eat the pasta and meat sauce and corn flakes in the morning, so until it was really proven I didn’t want to change,” Forsberg reflects. “But the things we learn here, like, the food is organic, the chefs are professionals, you know all about the food you are putting in your body. You barely knew what a calorie was back in the day. It’s a different world, but to give yourself the best shot to be a really good player you have to do these things.”

And where does Forsberg fit into the mix at Zug, under the title of Ambassador to Zug Academy?

“I don’t think I can teach too much like shooting or the technical side any more,” Forsberg admits. “I just know those years were one of the best times of my life and I can use my experience going through hockey to help these younger guys. I had Markus Naslund with me when I was younger and he made sure we got to practice on time and we took care of ourselves. I want to show it’s worth it to invest the time to be a hockey player because you get it back 10 times more when you’re older.”

Forsberg and his family have made a life for themselves in Zug. He is proud of his Swedish heritage, but is also very quick to wave the Zug flag for anyone who wants to see it.

“I hope I can help people around the world realize this is an incredible place. I can help teach them about Zug, they can learn about the facility and show players and families if they are serious about being a hockey player this is the place to go after it.”

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After the opening of the world’s most impressive training facility and back-to-back league championships, Zug has made itself a major player in Swiss hockey.

However, the vision of the club is on a far larger scale.

OYM is the catalyst to everything, the secret Zug does not want to keep secret.

“The European scouts don’t travel much to Switzerland, but we think that is going to change too,” Tangnes predicts. That might be my most important job: to influence those NHL scouts to book more flights to Switzerland to see how much has changed here. We are not as connected as Sweden or Finland in that regard.

“We would love a European title as well, that would be a big statement if we could win the Champions League here because that would impact Swiss hockey entirely, that’s the next goal for us.”

Carmichel is still blown away by what has been built within this club.

“With the facility we have with OYM and the ability to bring our club together with the fitness and nutrition and science, it’s crazy,” Carmichel says almost still in awe. “When I was 20, we didn’t even have a dressing room, now they have dressing rooms, flat screens, hot tubs. We just have to make sure these kids don’t think it comes this easy anywhere else.”

Former NHL head coaches have come to Zug to see what is happening. Former players too. Each one of them tells Dr. Strebel how fascinated they are with OYM.

That fact is not missed by anyone in the organization, especially the General Manager.

Everyone is saying we have such great development in Switzerland, but the outcome has not been what I’ve expected,” Kläy says honestly. “The benchmark is always the top nations. We have reached the top, but staying at the top is another thing. We must control the drop off.”

Reto Kläy Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
Reto Kläy

Kläy speaks of both the club and of OYM when he looks to the future, getting players to the NHL and getting the NHL to Zug.

“I believe it would be beneficial to both sides if there was a team that was open minded and not just thinking from the East coast to the West coast,” Kläy announces. “It could be really interesting to help develop a draft pick from North America. I think we have to do a better job of networking and bringing scouts and NHL GMs to Switzerland and start to build some of those relationships.”

Discovering the magic of ice nearly destroyed Arendelle (don’t pretend like you haven’t seen Frozen.) But while Zug has been seeing historic success on the ice, it’s in the labs where its magic comes to life.

The best part is, it’s only just begun.

“I’ve learned a lot since working with OYM, but it’s important to remember that we are really still at the start of this,” Tangnes says, almost giddy.

“It will take a lot more data to find some clear trends and hard facts to offer them, so it’s very exciting.”

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Matt Dumouchelle

Matt Dumouchelle is the Assistant GM with the Leamington Flyers of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, a position he’s held for the last three seasons. Matt is the proud father of Evelyn and Crosley and currently resides in Windsor, Ontario.

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