March 2, 2007 / 1:24 AM / 10 years ago

Varsity rivals face off in age-old contest

LONDON (Reuters) - Slap shots and body checks in frozen climes does not sound British, but Cambridge and Oxford say their annual ice hockey match is the sport's oldest rivalry.

The two universities square off on Sunday in what they will celebrate as the 122nd anniversary of their first contest.

"The importance of this game is rooted in the fact that it is the longest rivalry," said Cambridge coach Bill Harris.

Although some teams in hockey-crazy Canada have also staked a claim to that title, experts say there is no questioning the rich history of the Oxford-Cambridge varsity match.

"It's like a living dinosaur, because it's a proper throwback to the roots of the game," said Michael Talbot, a hockey historian who has researched the varsity match.

Rivalries between professional teams, especially the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, are far better known. But they are younger -- about 70 years -- and are now caught up in the big business of the National Hockey League (NHL).

"The varsity match is one of the last bastions of amateur hockey, that's what makes it so important," Talbot said.

There is even a certain professionalism at the North American university level, where players are carefully recruited. Oxford and Cambridge make do with whatever fate brings their way.

Some of the talent is home-grown, with a handful of British players on both teams, but much comes in the form of foreign, mostly Canadian, students.

Skill levels vary massively. One Oxford player this season used to be in the Ontario Hockey League, a grade below the NHL. Another never played an organised game until two months ago.

"Nobody is going to be looking up at the stands to see if scouts are watching," said Graham Reynolds, a law student at Oxford who played on the team last year and coaches it now.

Even the world's most ardent ice hockey fans are surprised to learn of the place of Cambridge and Oxford in the game's history.

"Am I aware? Mildly," said Kevin Shea, editor of publications at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

"Most people? Not at all. But they probably should know."

It is established fact that two Canadian universities, Queen's University and Royal Military College, played each other in 1886 and have had an enduring rivalry ever since.

The Cambridge-Oxford longevity claim is based on an 1885 match, which supposedly took place in the Swiss resort of St. Moritz.

No one has yet found hard evidence of that game, though the two teams tout it as fact and the British Ice Hockey Association has recognised it.

Talbot said it might be a mistake or a case of someone creating "instant tradition." He is still scouring the records but an 1895 tie-up is the earliest he has discovered so far.

Whatever the truth, the varsity match has its own unique lore.

Many players have gone on to become big names -- not in ice hockey, but in science, business and politics, including former Canadian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson, who captained Oxford in the 1920s.

Fierce Rivalry

The fierce rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford is hardly exclusive to ice hockey.

One running argument between Britain's top two universities is which has more illustrious alumni. For what it's worth, Oxford has produced more prime ministers, while Cambridge has an edge on scientists.

The endless quest to be best, likely not provable by any academic measure, is instead sublimated into sports competition. The annual Boat Race on the River Thames is the pinnacle.

Not native to England, ice hockey is something of an outsider, attracting far less attention than rowing, rugby, cricket or football.

Yet the ice hockey teams do not begrudge this marginal position, because they see that their match benefits from the competitive spirit.

"It is part of the rivalry that is about every aspect of life in two very similar places," said Harris, the Cambridge coach whose day job is as a biology professor.

The two universities alternate as hosts of the ice hockey varsity match. There is no arena in Cambridge, whose turn it is this Sunday, so the two teams will play about one hour north in Peterborough.

Still, the teams expect a sell-out crowd of 1,000 fans.

Yet the latest chapter in this historic rivalry will likely be written without many others noticing.

"People will be focussed on the play-off races in the NHL," the Hall of Fame's Shea said.

"If it does make the papers, it will only get a passing glance."

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