It’s Friday night – midnight, that is. The air is cold, the atmosphere tense, the tension high. A queue stretches along the balcony, eager chatter rustling through the crowd. The desk at the front screams over them, trying to restore some order and calm. Group by group, they file down the stairs.
Edges slide along the floor, blades shining, tied tightly on their feet, ready and tall.
What is this arena? What is the battle that shall commence?
Dear reader, welcome, to ALTS Cuppers 2020, recounted from an Oriel perspective.
For those unfamiliar with this peculiar sport, ALTS is ‘alternative’, or non-contact, ice hockey: no pads or experience needed. It’s a surprisingly open club; many who play had never been on the ice, yet have become regulars on the rink. Though the midnight start may seem antisocial, this is one of the warmest sports communities you can find, and the heat boils over in Hilary, when the cuppers puck comes down.
There were 21 teams to begin with this year, split into four groups. The rink was booked until 4am. As the midnight mark came closer, our team was ready, hungry for the games to come. (Sainsbury’s had also closed at 11 before we could buy our snacks, which might explain the hunger.)
Each game in ALTS starts with a ritual. A player from each team goes to the middle of the rink, and with three taps on each other’s sticks, the players scramble for the puck and the game begins. This is the face-off.
The first game was a win for Oriel, 2-0. A good start against a good team. It gave us confidence as we slid our way off the rink to watch the other teams play their matches. A few minutes later, we were back on. Despite our optimism, nothing sticks on the ice, and the next game would not be so kind to us; we drew 0-0.
With such a small group, and evenly matched teams, it was always going to be close. In fact, by the end of the group stages, there was a single point between each of the top three teams, and only two would qualify. All three had won two games so far. It was with one more draw that we had edged ahead, top of our group. Oriel’s Nick-elback had swayed St. Petersburg (St Peter’s College… well done).
The night had already been worth it, with all games contested intensely. As we ate the pizza generously offered to us by The Oxford Backpackers team, our thoughts turned to the next round.
ALTS has regular sessions twice a week (on Wednesday and Friday night) so most of the faces around us were familiar. We eyed up our next opponents and became concerned…Team Buck-Shot (Magdalen). They were good.
Each knockout match is played on half of the rink for three minutes (like a regular session). If there is no winner by the end, we go for a golden goal (that is, next goal wins). If there is still no winner, it goes to penalties, sudden death.
The clock started ticking. The game was as intense as expected, with both teams shooting the puck to the other end and chasing it to keep up the pressure. Sticks crashed into each other hard, with everyone panting for breath. There were attempts at both goals, but no breakthroughs.
‘One minute remaining!’ the speakers rang.
‘30 seconds remaining!’ More close attempts.
All on the ice pushed forward.
‘3… 2… 1…’
‘That’s game!’… all eyes were on us. Still 0-0.
It was probably about 2am. Everyone straightened up and slowed to a stop, beaming with the energy of the match. It was the closest game we had played yet, brilliantly fun. I felt a mix of excitement, enjoyment, and determination.
As the game restarted, the intensity increased as both teams sought an elusive golden goal whilst aware of the two minutes remaining.
We moved up to their goal with little time on the clock.
They backed up, defending the net with every stick.
We circled closer.
The shots went flying, looking for a breakthrough, rattling on skate, stick (and probably a knee or two) alike. There was a slip. Buck-Shot managed to get the puck out of the ruckus – not too fast, but enough to warrant a scrambled chase. One person went ahead, pushing it past our defensive line. Time was running out, and we had committed ourselves forward. It was a one-on-one at our goalie. The puck left the end of the stick, and we watched with bated breath.
It went just to one side of our goalie, still on the ice, and slid into our net.
1-0. Golden Goal. Buck-Shot were through.
We sighed, but beamed, smiling. We were all tired, but were feeling a rush of excitement. In all honesty, that was one of the best games I’ve ever played. Our cuppers journey was over, but we had no regrets.
ALTS is without doubt a weird hobby, at a weird time, but even when we were knocked out, it was a ‘good game’ all round.
At Cuppers, teams gelled through their shared captivation for the fastest team sport on earth. For us, and the club as a whole, that’s the win. It’s never something I would have guessed before starting, but now it’s something I hope will never stop.
After progressing to the knock-out stage of ALTS Cuppers, Magdalen were eventually eliminated in the semi-final, losing to eventual champions Somerville, who triumphed 2-0 in the final against runners-up Jesus.