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Hockey A hockey rivalry for the ages: Cambridge, Oxford prepare to play 100th varsity match

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A rivalry for the ages: Cambridge, Oxford hockey teams prepare to play 100th varsity match

A varsity hockey match between the Oxford Dark Blues and Cambridge Light Blues, Feb. 22, 1957. The teams have been battling each other on the ice for more than 130 years.

Never mind the Leafs-Habs, the world's oldest ice-hockey feud may well be Oxford-Cambridge. On Saturday, the venerable universities will play at the the site of the first varsity match in 1885. And, if it's business as usual, they will 'prepare for this like war'

Jim Johnson scowls as he stands at the back of the Oxford Ice Rink watching an Oxford University player rush up the ice and zero in on a Cambridge University forward who's moving slowly with the puck. "Hammer him," yells Johnson, a usually mild-mannered Oxford medical professor who hails from Vancouver. "Hit him into the boards."

It's a Saturday night in early March and the Oxford and Cambridge men's teams are facing off for the second time this season. Around 300 noisy fans have crammed into this tiny arena, where students are selling bottles of beer on a makeshift table and players from the Oxford women's team are drumming up ticket sales for their game against Cambridge the next day. Oxford goes ahead halfway through the second period and hangs on for a 2-1 victory. As the fans file out to the sounds of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Taking Care of Business, Johnson pumps his fist and doctoral student Jordan Thompson offers a wide smile. "It's always good to see Cambridge going down," he says as his fiancé, Vania Pinto, also an Oxford PhD student, nods approvingly.

This is no ordinary hockey rivalry. The Oxford Dark Blues and Cambridge Light Blues have been battling each other on the ice for more than 130 years, long before the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens. (Although even this pales in comparison to the Oxford-Cambridge rowing rivalry, which dates to 1829.) And the bitterness hasn't subsided.

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"Both teams prepare for this like war," says Daniel Orvomaa, Cambridge's backup goaltender, who grew up playing hockey in Finland and never encountered such fierce competitiveness until he joined the Light Blues. "It's hard to overstate how seriously people take the rivalry," adds Oxford forward Joey Wenig, a law student from Calgary.

Oxford forward Joey Wening checks his stick after leaving the ice between periods on March 3, 2018.

On Saturday, the teams will meet once more but this time in Switzerland to commemorate the 100th varsity match, an annual winner-take-all showdown that dates to the late 1800s and has only been interrupted for world wars. The venue for the historic game will be an outdoor rink in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz, the site of the first varsity match in 1885 when the universities reportedly threw together a bunch of players on the only ice surface they could find in Europe. The actual date and details of the game are fuzzy, but it's been verified by the International Ice Hockey Federation, so both teams lay claim to the oldest hockey rivalry in the world.

And who's to argue with hockey programs that have produced luminaries such as former Prime Minister Lester Pearson, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, one-time NHL boss Clarence Campbell, Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence and former Governor General Roland Michener?

Hundreds of alumni will be flying in from around the world for the weekend event, which will feature two alumni games as well as the men's varsity match (the women's teams were invited but couldn't make it because of scheduling issues). For many alumni, such as 74-year-old Peter Anderson, it's a chance to relive their college playing days and, with hope, inflict one more loss on their arch enemy.

"It's a big deal," said Anderson, a former biochemistry professor at the University of Ottawa who played for Cambridge in 1968 and 1969. He never won a varsity match during his playing days and the memory of those losses still burns. "You just remember it forever," he said.

Oxford and Cambridge men’s hockey players exit their dressing rooms before their game on March 3, 2018.

Anderson will get a chance for an early dig at his old rivals when he drops the puck in a special ceremony before the game with another old timer, H. Ian Macdonald, an 88-year-old economist from Toronto who played at Oxford from 1952 to 1955 and went on to become chair of Hockey Canada as well as a long-time president of York University. Anderson won't say for sure, but he won't deny that a slight elbow at the ceremony isn't out of the question.

The anniversary is also a fitting recognition of the role Oxford and Cambridge have played in developing university hockey in Britain. Both universities now have four full teams, men's and women's varsity clubs as well as development teams for players learning the game. A group of Oxford players also helped found the British Universities Ice Hockey Association in 2003, a national league that has grown to 48 men's and women's teams at universities across England, Scotland and Wales. The Oxford Ice Rink runs an ever-increasing number of hockey-skills programs and this fall Cambridge will open a new hockey arena, a first for the university and the city of Cambridge.

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"When I first came here, there were only two university teams, Oxford and Cambridge," says Bill Harris, a Cambridge anatomy professor and hockey diehard from Toronto who came to the university in 1997. "So over the course of the 20 years that I've been here, it's grown from basically two teams to about 50 teams, which is amazing."

Harris has been a guiding light for university hockey at Cambridge and Britain, serving as a volunteer coach, a player on the development team and the driving force for the new arena. It was Harris who realized when he went to Cambridge that the university was sitting on a £1-million ($1.8-million) gift from a Swiss-Canadian businessman, David Gattiker, who had donated the money in 1993 for the specific purpose of building a hockey arena.

Cambridge University professor Bill Harris, who is also a hockey player for the varsity Cambridge Eskimos, is seen before his game against Oxford, March 3, 2018.

Harris knew all too well that the Light Blues badly needed a local rink given that the closest venue was an hour away in Peterborough, which has limited the men's and women's teams to just one hour of ice time a week. So he got to work on the arena, prying funding out of the local councils, cajoling reluctant university officials and badgering the British Army to pull up the roughly 200 homemade landmines that had been planted on the proposed site during the Second World War.

The final push to cover most of the £5.2-million construction costs came thanks to £300,000 in donations from Canadian alumni. The 500-seat facility will open in September. Now 67, Harris is retiring this spring but he can't wait to see Cambridge finally have its own rink. "I think we're going to end up here with some really very strong development of hockey," he said.

Canadians and Americans have played significant roles in British hockey for years and players from both countries have traditionally dominated most university teams. The Canadian influence is so strong that before the Oxford-Cambridge league game this month O Canada was played along with God Save the Queen.

Cambridge's Ivan Grega (L) is checked by Oxford's Jason Lacombe, March 3, 2018. Jim Ross

But that dominance is fading as the face of hockey here changes. Today, Oxford and Cambridge have players from a dozen countries across Europe as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, India, South Korea and, recently, South Africa. There's also a growing number of players from Britain, where hockey has gained a foothold in several pockets around the country.

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Many Brits, such as Cambridge goaltender Stephanie Owen, fell in love with the sport almost by accident. She grew up near Liverpool and had never heard of hockey until she landed at Oxford for her undergraduate degree. Someone showed her an NHL game online and she was hooked. "I was like, this is such a fast-paced, awesome sport, just the environment of it and atmosphere of it," said Owen, 24, who has since adopted the Winnipeg Jets as her favourite team. She's now balancing hockey practices and games with her research into the genomics of ovarian cancer as a PhD student at Cambridge. "You bring the intensity to the game that you bring to your academic work," she said.

And there is no give on the academic side for players at Oxford or Cambridge. Sports are truly amateur pursuits here. There are no athletic scholarships, no recruitment of players, no high-paid coaches and no glittering facilities. Players wear mismatched uniforms, endure long bus rides in the middle of the night and exchange cases of beer at centre ice after each game. Make no mistake, though, these are not your typical rink rats or blockhead hockey players.

One look through the lineups and you'll find a host of PhD candidates in everything from global health science to microbiology, history and medical anthropology. Oxford forward Tim Donnison, 26, is researching new vaccines as part of his doctorate in medicine while Cambridge co-captain Spencer Brennan has degree in chemical engineering from McGill University and is now working on a doctorate in physics.

"It's unlike any other hockey team that's for sure," says Brennan, 28, who's from Toronto and finds some of the discussions during bus rides mind-bending. "PhDs here work like crazy because that's how you get here, that's how you do good work." All but two players on the Cambridge squad are post graduates. "We always say we're the most educated team in the world," says Cambridge co-captain Vaclav Beranek, 28, who's from the Czech Republic and is pursuing a doctorate in molecular biology. "Or most overeducated."

Oxford’s Jordan Ho (10) is checked by Cambridge’s Vaclav Bernaek (9) during a hockey game on March 3, 2018.

But for now all focus is on Saturday's varsity match in St. Moritz and the intensity is building. Oxford's players feel they have the edge. The Dark Blues have won both league games and they've got a hot goalie in Fabian Sivnert, a master's student in comparative government who played in the top junior ranks in Sweden and at NCAA Division 1 Bemidji State. "This year, we are quietly confident," says Donnison, who has yet to win a varsity game in his four years at Oxford. "It's all about the varsity game."

But Cambridge isn't conceding anything. Eligibility rules mean Oxford will be without some key players for the varsity game and Cambridge has focused its entire season on this one match, even forfeiting some league play in order to better prepare for the varsity. The Light Blues will also have some players back from injury, giving them a full roster for the first time in months.

"Every single thing comes down to playing this one game," Brennan says. "We really do hate them. It's not pleasant out there on the ice."

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