Eight-Wheeled Freedom Tackles…RollerCon and the Evolution of Flat Track Strategy

RC 2016 Logo

I’ve done a lot in and around this sport, but this year—for the first time ever—I’ll be heading to RollerCon! There, I will be delivering two seminars on the evolution of flat track strategy.

Perhaps nothing has drawn more ire toward the sport of flat track roller derby than the strategic evolution that the playing surface has inspired. The sport is unique in that its antecedent is an incredibly similar sport played on a vastly different surface. The first six or seven years of the roller derby revival saw a flat track game that was played very much like the banked track versions that preceded it: skate fast, turn left and hit the opposition. It’s the way roller derby has been played essentially since the 40s, and looking back at the game even as early as 1960, modern skaters will easily recognize the sport that they play now.

On a banked track, this strategic simplicity made sense (and still does), but on a flat track, the blazing fast style seemed nearly antithetical; it seemed only a matter of time before a unique game arose organically from the new surface it was played on.

Photo by Derek Lang (www.bagelhot.com)

A big focus of the Roller Con seminar will be on the profound influence that the 2009 WFTDA Championship had on the evolution of flat track roller derby (Photo by Derek Lang)

This thesis is at the centre of a few of the chapters in Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby, and at RollerCon 2016, I’ll be delivering an interactive seminar tracing the history of this evolution. The discussion-based seminar will actually be drawn from two chapters in the book, one entitled “The Great Leap Backwards: 2009 and the Defining of Flat Track Strategy” and the other “Jumping Through Loopholes: The Evolution of the Flat Track Rules.” The basic argument made is that from 2003-2009 flat track roller derby was flat track roller derby in name only, while the sport didn’t truly find itself until 2009 when strategies unique to the surface began to emerge. It was a change—as change often does—that inspired fear and often anger and that (admittedly) led to an awkward adolescence on the track that didn’t really get ironed out until 2013.

The controversy around strategy and the massive evolutionary shifts that game has experienced over the past six or seven years actually make roller derby more like traditional sports than the community often thinks: flat track roller derby is such a personal, athlete-driven game that any small changes in strategy and the rules is often accompanied by cries of fear that the game has been ruined. But even just a cursory look at the early days of other team sports shows that the shifts, changes and, yes, awkwardness that accompanied early strategic evolution are quite normal. One example I often come back to is the idea of passing the puck forward in hockey (as opposed to laterally or backwards, as had originally been done): many are surprised to discover that the NHL only allowed for forward passing in all zones in 1929, and only after it had been experimented on and the transition fumbled through in other leagues.

From the book:

It was the beginning of the evolution of the flat track game, when strategies would arise organically from the surface and the elements that went with it – such as boundaries both inside and out, and the ease with which one could change pace and move laterally. It also began a massive evolution in the rules of flat track roller derby, further pushing this new version of the game away from its banked track antecedents.

At the upcoming RollerCon, attendees will have two chances to catch the seminar “The Great Leap Backwards: Denver, DNN, the 2009 Playoffs and the Evolution of Flat Track Strategy”:

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*Eight-Wheeled Freedom launched in Toronto on June 20 and is slowing rolling to stores near you (and is available online).

Eight-Wheeled Freedom Tackles…Men’s Roller Derby and the Global Growth of the Game

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Later this week, I’ll be heading to Calgary for the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup (hosted by Chinook City Roller Derby). Twenty countries will be playing on two tracks over two days, nineteen of which are trying to unseat the defending champion United States. This is the second Men’s Roller Derby World Cup after the initial event in Birmingham, England, in March 2014. That event consisted of fifteen nations.

The rise of men’s flat track roller derby has not been a smooth one in the community, and understandably so. Eight-Wheeled Freedom is clearly built around the notion that flat track roller derby is a women’s sport, but one that now happens to be played by men. Coming to this basic level of understanding took the community a long time, and it’s an acceptance that is still ongoing. This is the story told in the chapter “Lifestyle vs. Sport: Men, Children and the Grassroots Explosion.”

Why are men’s and junior roller derby equated? Well, the emergence of both happened to occur at the same time, and, the chapter argues, they both emerged when roller derby transitioned from being solely a punk-rock third-wave feminist lifestyle movement into also being a full-on competitive sport.

From the book:

“It may seem strange to equate the entry of men and children into the sport, but the beginnings of both mirror each other in timing. The connections between men’s and junior derby may seem on the surface to be an accident of time, but they are an off-track side effect of the on-track evolution of the women’s game. The fact of the matter is that the growth of these two aspects of the game stem from the same shift in the flat track roller derby community. Men’s and junior derby were essentially given the space to emerge when flat track roller derby stopped being exclusively a lifestyle and started being a sport.”

2014 MRDWC Results

Check out the complete results from the 2014 Men’s Roller Derby World Cup.

One of the key aspects of the rise of flat track roller derby has been the global grassroots explosion, which had never occurred with any other version of the game and which has been key to the accelerated growth of this version of the game. This aspect of the sport is primarily covered in the chapter “Going Global: The Roller Derby World Cup and the Globalization of the Game.” The chapter charts the rise of the global flat track community through the organization—particularly—of the first men’s and women’s World Cups concluding that “within just over a decade, what had started as an all-woman underground American game had become a global, multicultural sport played by everyone.”

Inevitably, this exploration led to the hotly debated topic of flat track’s inclusion in the Olympics (still a long way off) and the developing tension with FIRS (Federation Internationale Roller Sports), which is currently the IOC-recognized governing body of many roller skating disciplines. FIRS, primarily through its relationship with USARS (USA Roller Sports), would like to gather roller derby under its wings, a move that has been met with some understandable resistance from the democratically run WFTDA.

Whatever the future holds for the sport on a global level, the present is establishing a strong foundation to build on. The second Women’s Roller Derby World Cup was even bigger than the first, and the Men’s second addition promises the same growth.

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Click on image to see livestream preview.

*You can tune in to the 2016 Men’s Roller Derby World Cup: Get the livestream for four days of flat track on two tracks.

*Eight-Wheeled Freedom launched in Toronto on June 20 and is slowing rolling to stores near you (and is available online).

Eight-Wheeled Freedom Tackles…Roll-Out!

Roll Out Banner

Roll-Out 2016: The Pack is Queer represents the 8th year of the Pride-week all-star game put on by Toronto Roller Derby.

When writing a book about flat track roller derby, it’s impossible not to write about the sport’s place within the LGBTQ+ community, nor that community’s profound influence on the development of the game. It is utterly unique in the history of sport and perhaps one of the most significant cultural impacts that the flat track game has had on North American society.


The first Pride-week all-star game was held in 2009 at George Bell Arena.

In Eight-Wheeled Freedom, the chapter “Out Ina Bout” focuses squarely on this relationship. As a cis-identifying man, I was well aware of my limitations in writing about this topic, but as a chronicler of the flat track game, I was also well aware of my responsibility to do so. So while the chapter is framed by my personal experiences with the history of the event now called Roll Out (from 2009’s Clam Slam right through to last year’s Uhaul Brawl), the narrative of the chapter is shaped by the writing of others.

Along with the chapter about the influence of third-wave feminism on the early development of the sport, “Out Ina Bout” is a heavily researched chapter that traces, broadly, the history of the LGBTQ+ community’s relationship with sport. While many writers are cited in the chapter, two of the main sources were E. Nicole Melton, a professor of sport management at UMass Amherst, and Dr. Melanie Sartore-Baldwin, a professor at East Carolina University whose expertise is in diversity-related issues in sport.

From the book:

“Most of the researchers in the field… seem to agree that sport, as an institution, is inherently masculine, to the point of marginalization of all other groups, and it is one that celebrates and encourages not only heterosexuality but heterosexual masculinity in particular.”

This is a challenging starting point, but an essential one in understanding flat track roller derby’s importance in the culture at large. The chapter moves through an examination of the LGBTQ+ community’s relationship with traditional sports, culminating in the creation of the Gay Games (and eventually the World OutGames). However, based on the above assertion that sport is institutionally patriarchal, the chapter concludes that the LGBTQ+ community, despite massive advances forward, remains stigmatized within mainstream sport.

Enter women’s flat track roller derby.

Photo by Neil Gunner (neilgunner.com)

Read Nerd’s recap of the 2015 uHaul Brawl featuring photography by Neil Gunner.

Although the initial stirrings of the flat-track revolution had its focus squarely on women’s empowerment, the freedom that early flat track spaces provided women from the oppressive limitations of traditional sports institutions very quickly expanded to others and flat tracks became safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As the reach of the sport has broadened and the competitive level has risen, that progressive core has remained. Perhaps because of this—the sport’s ability to operate so freely and progressively within such potentially oppressive constraints—I think that flat track roller derby is the most important sports movement of the 21st Century.

I conclude as much in the chapter as well, ending with a discussion of the 2014 Clam Slam that took place during World Pride and featured singer/filmmaker/cultural powerhouse Peaches as the special guest to blow the opening whistle.

From the book:

“Here’s a competitive game built and shaped by women in the midst of a sporting environment absolutely dominated by men. Here’s a game that has not only welcomed the LGBTQ community but celebrates it, has put it at the core of its growth and has allowed it to shape the nature and attitude of the game. Here’s a sport that has eschewed all traditional notions of what a sport is and how it should be, taken a punk-rock DIY approach and made it work on a national, then cross-border and now global scale. Roller derby, like Peaches, has become a twenty-first century force of nature. And I think our world is a better place for it.”

So this is what I’ll be thinking about when I head to Ted Reeve Arena for Roll-Out 2016: The Pack is Queer; namely, how important flat track roller derby is in general and, specifically, how Roll Out is rightfully one of the most fun, and certainly the most celebratory, roller derby events of the year.

As I’ve said before, this event features roller derby at its purest: joyful, competitive, progressive.

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*Doors open at 6:00 PM with the opening whistle for the first (mini) game at 6:30 featuring the Blundstone Brigade vs. the Glitterazzi. Game 2, Team Bi-Yonce vs. Team Gay-Z, kicks off at 8:00 PM. Tickets will be available at the door, or for a discount online.

* You can watch Roll-Out online at layer9.ca!

*Eight-Wheeled Freedom launched in Toronto on June 20 and is slowing rolling to stores near you (and is available online).

Canadian Power Rankings: June 2016

Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone, and Derby Nerd rank Canada’s top A-level travel teams every two months (or so). Read the the April 2016 Power Rankings here.

TEAM (League) CHANGE NOTES (Rollergirl.ca /WFTDA rank)
1. New Skids on the Block (Montreal Roller Derby)Montreal Roller Derby: New Skids on the Block  –  Montreal had been on a tear in 2016 winning seven of eight and seemingly on the verge of jumping into a coveted three-seed for the playoffs, but they ran into a roadblock in the form of a determined Philly at ECDX (256-139). Nonetheless, the Skids remain well ahead of the pack north of the border.  (1 / 13)
2. Terminal City All Stars (Terminal City Roller Girls)Terminal City All Stars
 – Terminal City’s 2-5 record in 2016 is a little misleading as all but one of the team’s losses has come to a Top 10 team (and the other was a narrow loss to 24th-ranked Helsinki). In a small league all of their own with Montreal right now at the top of the Canadian pyramid. (2 / 21)
3.Calgary All Stars (Calgary Roller Derby Association)Calgary All Stars Logo Calgary has had an inconsistent 2016, as evidenced by the team’s 4-5 record. Injuries and a tough travel schedule may have played into it, but a recent 10-spot jump in the rankings has them poised for their WFTDA playoff debut and should make some noise in the D2s. (4 / 52)
4. Tri-City Thunder (Tri-City Rller Derby)Tri-City Thunder Logo  +2 Tri-City has actually handled its 2016 rebuild fairly well. The team’s busy 3-7 record has given this roster a ton of valuable track experience moving forward. Consistency is the key, and hopefully that begins with the roster. A season ending 150-67 loss to rising Ann Arbor may have just (barely) been enough to hold on to a D2 playoff spot.(5 / 58)
5. Misfit Militia (Orangeville Roller Girls) Misfit Militia Logo Misfit Militia remains undefeated in 2016, including a 147-144 unsanctioned win against D1’s Queen City. However, a recent closer-than-expected win over Capital City shows that the team still has some work to do to make the top flight. (3 /-)
6Rideau Valley Vixens (Rideau Valley Roller Girls)Vixens Logo –2 The 2014 Division 2 runners up are 2-6 in sanctioned play (4-6 overall) on the season, and it’s been a strange 2016. Somewhat surprising wins over playoff-bound Calgary and (potentially) Tri-City are balanced by blow-out losses to Montreal and Tampa. The inconsistent results mean that the Vixens will unlikely see the track during this year’s playoffs. (9 / 60)
7All Stars (Toronto Roller Derby)New CNP Logo  – The bright side of Toronto’s tough 2016 is that they have played a lot of games against some quality competition. The resulting 2-7 record is indicative of the tough rebuild the teams is going through. Although there were some bright spots in losses at the recent ECDX tournament, Toronto will be out of the WFTDA playoffs for the first time since 2013 and have a high mountain to climb to get back. (14 / 63)
8. All Stars (Winnipeg Roller Derby League) winnipeg logo +1 Winnipeg continues its dance with Muddy River and slips up one spot after strong Mayday Mayhem and Beach Brawl appearances see the team’s record sit at 5-4. The two losses at MM were to eventual finalists Oklahoma Victory Dolls and Australia’s Paradise City.   (11 / 99)
9. Lumbersmacks (Muddy River Rollers)Lumbersmacks Logo -1  Muddy River has had a comparatively quiet 2016, and after a 2-0 start, got roughed up at Beach Brawl where they went 1-3 including a blow-out loss to a rising Paris team. After holding steady for a year, the team has continued its slow slide out of Division 2. (7 / 110)
10. Dolly Rogers (Capital City Derby Dolls)
Capital City Derby Dolls Logo
Capital City has had a baffling 2016. Solid victories have been followed by surprising losses and their two differing results against the Misfit Militia show that: a 151-point loss in April was significantly bettered in a 55-point loss in May, a result that secured their place in the Power Rankings.  (10/ 130)

The Rankings

After three straight years of steady competitive growth at the WFTDA level, for the first time since 2012, Canada will have less playoff-bound teams than it did the previous year, a result of some of our larger and more competitive leagues facing rebuilds or having plateaued. There hasn’t been much change in the rankings despite a busy late spring and early summer. The top three holds steady and will, not surprisingly, be our top-seeded playoff teams. Montreal missed out on a prime shot at making their playoff lives a little easier falling in surprising fashion to Philly Roller Derby (even if the loss was not surprising, the ease of it was). If healthy, Calgary could be poised to shake things up in the D2 playoffs.

The 4th-6th ranked teams (Thunder, Misfit Militia, Vixens) are virtually in a dead heat right now, with Thunder surprisingly holding steady despite a massive roster overhaul, the Militia still largely unproven and the Vixens seeming to have plateaued after years of steady growth.
The 8th-10th teams are similarly bunched, although of the three Winnipeg seems to be the most stable competitively. Muddy River can’t quite seem to get over the hump that’s been in front of them for two years now and Capital City, after steadily rising, seems to be plateauing similarly to their cross-city counterparts from Rideau Valley.
Toronto’s sheer size and league depth keeps it from slipping past the 7th spot, but it’s going to be a long road out of the depths of WFTDA’s D2 and a dose of roster consistency will help with this. If the All Stars can stay together for another season and remain focused on travel and training, there is much to build off of from 2016.

The Watch List

E-Ville Dead (E-Ville Roller Derby) (6th)

Anarchy Angels (Mainland Misfits Roller Derby) (12th)

Les Duchesses (Roller Derby Quebec) (13th)

Brute-Leggers (Royal City Roller Girls) (15th)

No real change to the Watch List, but it is worth noting that E-Ville won its WFTDA sanctioned debut in dominant fashion, crushing its watch-list counterpart the Anarchy Angels 279-89, to leap to 6th overall in the Rollergirl.ca Canadian Roller Derby Ranking.

Nerd Glasses*These rankings were compiled by the Derby Nerd, Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone

*These are the first Power Rankings of the year. Read the final April 2016 Power Rankings here.

-Respectful disagreement and debate is encouraged!-

Eight-Wheeled Freedom Launches in Toronto

8-Wheeled Full Cover

Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby made its official debut at the Burdock brew pub and music hall in Toronto on Monday, June 20.

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Nerd and Mr. Whistler on stage at the Burdock. (Photo by Alex Willis)

The event, hosted by Noelle Allen, the editor of the book and publisher of Wolsak & Wynn, featured a short reading from the book followed by an interview conducted by Mr. Whistler.

The audience featured current and retired members of Toronto Roller Derby, Hammer City Roller Girls, GTA Rollergirls and  Durham Region Roller Derby alongside members of Toronto’s literary community. In celebration of the launch, All Lit Up asked writer and skater Pain Eyre (AKA: Kate Hargreaves) to share her experiences with the sport. You can read that essay here.

Stay tuned for further information regarding a variety of appearances and readings in Guelph, Peterborough, Kitchener-Waterloo, Calgary, and Edmonton. Nerd will also be running a few seminars on the evolution of flat track strategy at RollerCon in Las Vegas (July 27-31) and then a slightly abbreviated version at Camp Roller Derby in Haliburton, Ontario (August 19-21).

The book should be slowly rolling to retail stores across the country and is available  through a variety of online sources including All Lit Up, Amazon, and Chapters/Indigo.

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Nerd and cover photographer Kevin Konnyu. (Photo by Andrew Wencer)


Navigating a Nautical Disaster: Chicks Overcome Early Penalty Problems to Win Fourth Boot

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The moment of victory: 2016 ToRD champs Chicks Ahoy! celebrate the win moments after the final whistle. (Photo by Neil Gunner)

It should have been a disaster.

Over the opening 17 minutes or so of the 2016 Battle for the Boot, the Chicks Ahoy! looked like a team on the verge of a collapse. Over the course of those twelve jams the team had managed only four lead jammer statuses, two of which had been negated due to penalties, on top of that, the team had given up a nearly unbelievable eight power jams. One of their best blockers, Joss Wheelin, had picked up 6 penalties, and the 2016 ToRD regular season leading scorer Monster Muffin had already notched five trips to the box of her own. It should have been a disaster.

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Gores’ Lexi Con scored 26 points in the first half, almost all within the opening 17 minutes. (Photo by Greg Russell)

And yet, with a 65% lead percentage and eight power jams, the Gore-Gore Rollergirls had managed to build only an 11-point lead, so when the seas finally settled, the game was the Chicks’ for the taking. And take it they did. The Chicks eventually righted the sails and took the lead three jams later. It was a lead that they would never relinquish, eventually cruising to a 164-88 victory to become the 2016 Toronto Roller Derby champions.

The historic 10th ToRD Championship was a fascinating game, fast-paced and low scoring, providing a fitting conclusion to what has been an excellent season that saw the re-emergence of the league’s two most successful teams. The Gores, who had upset the Chicks in the page-playoff quarterfinal, got off to the kind of start that they wanted. Although Monster Muffin had given the Chicks the lead with a 12-point opening jam (to the Gores’ 4), a Beaver Mansbridge 7-point power jam stole back the lead for the skaters in leopard print. The Chicks picked up jammer penalties on the opening two jams, then four jams later Muffin took back-to-back back blocking penalties followed by cuts to Boxcar and Pink Slamminade. The procession to the penalty box ended when Monster Muffin picked up a cut and then another back block on consecutive jams.

Chicks Pack BFB16 Neil

Rosemary’s Rabies, Biggley Smallz and Wheels of Misfortune wrap up Beaver Mansbridge; the Chicks defence was the difference maker in the game. (Photo by Neil Gunner)

However, the Chicks’ pack put in a monumental effort during the deluge and seemed to be one step ahead of their Gores’ counterparts all game. Both teams were riding short benches, but the Chicks core contingent of Biggley Smallz, Sleeper Hold, Rosemary’s Rabies and Joss Wheelin’ got extra playing time in the early going and were virtually impenetrable at times, frustrating the Gores’ jammers and constantly unsettling their packs. So when the penalty parade finally ended, the Chicks were poised to take control; and they did so in commanding fashion.

With their jammers on the track, the Chicks held the Gores scoreless for five-straight jams, a stretch that saw them retake the lead with a 16-0 run. The Gores were actually only able to score 10 points over the final half of the first period while the Chicks notched 36 over that stretch. The lead was narrow on the scoreboard at the break, with the Chicks leading 76-61, but the gap on the track was clearly widening.

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Viktory Lapp attempts to free Jill ‘Em All from Sleeper Hold after a Gores’ star pass. The Gores were forced into 10 star passes during the game. (Photo by Greg Russell)

The old sports cliché is that while offense might win games, defense wins championships, and that was never more evident than in this game. For example, Beaver Mansbridge was dominant this season: second in the league in scoring (197 points) and first overall in lead percentage (72%), but after going 4 for 4 out of the gate for 19 points in the championship game, she was shut down mercilessly by the Chicks’ defense; she went 1 for 7 the rest of the way and managed only 6 more points. Similarly, the team’s leading scorer in the game Lexi Con, scored 26 of her 38 points in the first half, mostly during that opening string of power jams. Indeed, the Gores were held to only 27 points in the entire second half—easily the team’s lowest-scoring half of the season—and 37 points over the game’s final forty minutes.

So sound was the Chicks’ packs that they were able to bench Monster Muffin for the entire second half (she picked up her sixth penalty as a blocker early on) relying on Boxcar (64 points on a 71% lead percentage), who didn’t even begin the season in the rotation, Pink Slamminade (44, 67%), who missed the whole regular season due to injury), and Banshee (38 points), who is playing with a poise that belies her rookie status. It was an impressive performance from the rotation, stepping up to carry the load that Muffin had propped up so formidably all season. And the team also got strong play across the bench, notably from a controlled Vag Lightning, Annguard (playing arguably her best game of the season) and Francesca Fiure, who returned from injury just in time for the Battle for the Boot.

2016 Champs

The Chicks Ahoy! hoist the Boot for a record-setting fourth time in ten years. (Photo by Neil Gunner)

In the game the Gores had three skaters on the track from the team’s last championship win back in 2010, and while Santa Muerte, Chronic and Jill Em’ All played their hearts out, Santa, who missed virtually the whole season, lacked her usual spark on the track, the lack of track time evident as she struggled in the second half, particularly as a relief jammer. The Gores, who battled through serious injuries and inconsistent rosters all season, looked much “looser” on the track than their Chicks Ahoy! counterparts, who did not face the same adversity this season and peaked at the right time, playing their best derby in the semifinals and then finals. Although it should be noted that they were without long-serving Robber Blind, who was trackside due to injury, but who collected her third Boot with the win as she was the sole remaining member of the Chicks’ 2011 championship team.

However, the Gores accomplishment cannot be overlooked. This season the Dynasty qualified for its ninth championship game in ten years, capping an unbelievable run of consistency. Yet the Boot still eludes them and instead, it’s their chief rivals (playing in their also impressive sixth champs), who sail away with the win and claim their record-setting fourth Battle for the Boot victory.

*The game was filmed by Rogers TV; stay tuned to local listings for replays. Also, make sure to check out Layer9.ca’s trackside footage.

*The ToRD houseleague season may be over, but there’s lots more derby left to be played in 2016! Next up, on June 30, is the annual Pride Affiliate event newly renamed Roll Out. The D-VAS will be in action at the Fresh and Furious on July 9th.