By JEFF GRAY
Tuesday, March 12, 2002
OXFORD, ENGLAND -- Right from the opening, dirge-like rendition of God Save the Queen, it was an atypical hockey game, to say the least.
Oxford against Cambridge, billed as the sport's oldest rivalry, remains a tough annual grudge match for the two elite universities -- but played by teams almost entirely composed of Canadian graduate students.
The players aren't exactly toothless goons. Cambridge's 24-year-old captain, Andrew Ashcroft, is an engineering doctorate student on a prestigious Gates Scholarship, trying to design a "scientific" hockey stick.
But the Sudbury-born forward, who wouldn't talk much about his research for "patent reasons," used only standard-issue lumber at the Oxford Ice Rink on Sunday to score three goals, be chosen as man of the match and lead his team to an 8-1 victory.
And tonight, his team will celebrate at a private, black-tie dinner at Cambridge's 650-year-old Corpus Christi College, with full silver service on a huge dark oak table.
"It's very Cambridge," acknowledged Ashcroft, who said that last year he couldn't even afford to rent a tuxedo to attend other campus formals.
With bigger and more experienced players, Ashcroft's team walked all over Oxford in front of 1,200 fans -- 300 of whom were bused in from Cambridge.
The win cemented Cambridge's recent dominance of the rivalry, with the university coming out on top in five of the past six contests, even though it doesn't have a campus rink to practise on.
Oxford was missing defenceman Rob Follows, a Toronto resident who had broken a rib after being thrown from a horse in polo practice.
The rivalry, which goes back to an 1885 Oxford victory on a lake in St. Moritz, Switzerland, has been an annual event since 1920.
It has long been dominated by the Canadians at both schools, especially because of Oxford's Rhodes Scholarships, which have filled its rosters through the years with players who went on to become Canadian establishment figures.
Former prime minister Lester Pearson skated for the Oxford Blues in the 1920s. So did former New Brunswick lieutenant-governor George Stanley, who came up with the red-and-white stripe design for Canada's flag. And the late Supreme Court of Canada justice Ronald Martland played with former National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Before Sunday's game, the judge's 29-year-old grandson, Peter Stewart, a Jumbotron operator at Calgary Flames games, presented Oxford with jerseys, skates and team photographs left by his grandfather, who died in 1997.
But despite being so steeped in Canadian history, the Oxford-Cambridge game seems to be slowly broadening its horizons.
While there has often been the odd Scandinavian player, more British players are strapping on skates, too, said Oxford coach Michael Talbot, who grew up in Victoria and studied English literature at Oxford.
"Before . . . the English guys couldn't skate," he said. "You wouldn't let them play. It wasn't safe."
While generally ignored in Britain, hockey has become marginally more popular lately, partly as a byproduct of an increased interest in roller hockey.
On Sunday, there were three Britons on Oxford's squad, and two playing for Cambridge.
"Some of them are roller hockey players who have seen the light," said Oxford captain Daniel Farewell, a 22-year-old mathematics student from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.
"It's only in recent history that we've had English guys."
In the stands on Sunday was Malcolm Proudfoot, 22, a Briton who played for Cambridge last year but who grew up playing the sport at Oxford's rink.
"You get a lot of strange looks" when you tell people you play hockey, he said, adding that Britons see the sport as "excessively violent."
There was no shortage of heavy hits, penalties and minor shoving matches on the ice on Sunday, as the tensions between the teams mounted. But the referee, who had a local accent, let almost nothing slip by without a whistle.
Although the game's organizers say the annual match-up is the third most watched campus sports event behind rowing and rugby, it is a very distant third. And hockey won't come close to touching the more traditional British sports any time soon, Farewell cautioned.
Oxford's women's team, which is made up almost entirely of Britons, some of whom had never skated before they got to university, fared better than the men, beating Cambridge 2-0 on Saturday.