by Monim Wains
It’s Friday night – midnight that is. The air is cold, the atmosphere tense, the suspense high. A queue stretches along the balcony, eager chatter is rustling through the crowd. The desk at the front screams over them, trying to get some order and calm. Group by group, they file down the stairs.
The Wallababes and the Wallababies… St Petersburg and Saint-Pierre… all shuffle towards the arena… a battle of puns before the real work begins. Last but not least, with Oriel pride, Nick-elback steps through.
Edges slide along the floor, blades shining, tied tight on their feet, ready and tall.
What is this arena? What battle shall commence? (How dramatic can I really make this?)
Dear reader, welcome to (*drumroll please*) ALTS cuppers 2020! (Totally worth it…)
For those poor souls unfamiliar with this peculiar sport, it’s ice hockey without pads (and also lighter pucks that are kept on the ice but let’s ignore that for dramatic effect again…). The twilight time may seem particularly antisocial, but ALTS 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. It would be four matches for Oriel, and a wait to see if we were through to the knockouts. The knockouts would begin with eight, down to four, down to two. The rink was booked till 4am.
The graceful circuits of the warmup ended, and the first games were called out. We were ready, hungry for the games to go. (Sainsbury’s had also closed at 11 before we could buy our snacks, which might explain that a bit.)
To start each game in ALTS, there’s almost a handshake. Both teams send a player to the middle, crouching either side of the puck. Three taps on each other’s sticks and the game begins. This is the face-off.
The first game was a win, 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 take their matches. A few minutes later, we were back on. Though we had a good start, nothing sticks on the ice, and the next game would not be so kind.
We drew 0-0. With such a small sized group, and teams evenly matched, it was always going to be close. In fact, by the end of the group stages, as I checked the scoresheet again, there was a single point between each of the top three teams in our group. Only two would qualify.
I looked at the top two. Out of the four, we had won two games… so had they…
It was with one more draw, that we had edged ahead, top of our group. Nick-elback swayed St Petersburg.
We celebrated, happy with the outcome. The night had already been worth it, with all games contested intensely. As we chewed over the pizza generously offered by The Oxford Backpackers team, our thoughts turned to the next round.
ALTS has regular sessions twice a week, so most of the faces around us were familiar. We eyed up the players who would be our next opponents. Team Buck-Shot – Magdalen. They were good. Not only were they players we had always noticed in sessions, their team stash was also on full display, sharp black and white. We hoped they were tired. We believed that we could. We knew it would be close.
The rules say that each knockout match is played on half of the rink for three minutes. If there is no winner by the end, we go for a golden goal (first team to score wins). If there is still no winner, it goes to penalties, sudden death.
So began the time. The game was as intense as expected, both teams shooting the puck to the other end and chasing it to keep the pressure. Sticks crashed into each other hard, everyone panting for breath. There were attempts at both goals, but none went through.
‘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 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. The tournament happened a couple of weeks ago (Friday 21 February) so I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but it would be a mix of excitement, enjoyment, and determination, I would guess. I bet the others felt the same.
We weren’t yet done, only taking a break. It would go down to the wire, an elusive golden goal.
We lined up once again, the only ones on the ice this time. (The other quarterfinal finished 2-0 – if only ours had been so simple.) We had two more minutes to win, and we were going to give it our all. It seemed that the games had tired no one, and it began just as it had done before. Both teams more intense, but neither with a clear edge. We slid from one end to the other, back and forth. 0-0.
We moved up to their goal, not much 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 desperate chase. One person went ahead, pushing it past our lines. Time was running out, and we had committed ourselves forward. They did the same, rushing one-on-one at our goalie. That was still no guarantee, but as the puck left the end of the stick, we watched with bated breath.
It went just to one side, still on the ice, and slid into our net.
1-0. Golden Goal. Buck-Shot were through.
Nick-elback sighed, but beamed nonetheless. Smiling; we were all on a rush. We met them happily. In all honesty, that was one of the best games I’ve ever played. They were a worthy team to progress to the next round. Our cuppers journey was over, but never regrettable.
Though the games were done for us, it was too much to leave behind. The semi-finals were even more intense, with one match even going to penalties. When the dust had settled, we watched the Wallababes claim the championship, Buck-Shot securing a well-deserved third overall.
I write this a couple of weeks later having recovered now from the loss of sleep (I hope). ALTS is indeed a weird sport at a weird time, but even when we were knocked out, it was ‘good games’ all around; teams gelled by a captivation for the fastest team sport on earth, played at a level where beginners compete right up against the pros.
For us, this was a triumph not only in cuppers, but in a club as a whole.
If you want to join us in our crazy shenanigans, look out on Wednesday/Friday nights – getting to the rink by 11:15pm/11:45pm! (At least it doesn’t get in the way of work?…)