Part 5: Opening the Doors
During our second day of scrimmaging, the two guys involved in ref training were pulled to act as on-skates officials. When I wasn’t pulled with them, the remaining skaters I haven’t yet met were really starting to wonder what I was doing there. So while once again fielding questions about my purpose at fresh meat, I had a moment of slight confusion myself: what was my role within this group of women? I knew, literally, why I was there (to get a better understanding of the sport), but I finally realized that a lot of the women weren’t sure how to interact with me, and I, them.
I have really enjoyed the loco scrimmaging we’ve been doing, settling into a pivot role on the track in most cases, but that doesn’t really explain anything about my role in the group. I’ve had the time to think about this a lot more lately because we had a week off from training due to the Quad City Chaos tournament. For the second year in a row les grand étoiles from Montreal swept in and delivered their own unique lesson in how to play flat track roller derby. It was an extraordinary display of the game, proof that—at its best—the sport has reached that important point in its competitive evolution where the top teams in the game playing at their absolute best are capable of attaining a certain level of competitive beauty—there is a flow and continuity to the play that is mesmerizing to watch because of how effortless it appears, and how that level of flawlessness highlights both the nuances of the natural flow of the game and the contrived sophistication of the strategies that have evolved.
It was the kind of display of athleticism and preparedness that leads people to call even a fairly primitive sport like soccer, “The Beautiful Game.”
Another reason that it was so amazing to watch Montreal perform the way they did at the QCC, was because it has only been four years since every team in Canada was more or less on equal footing, with Hammer City always a few steps ahead. They were trailblazers for the sport in this country, particularly here in the east. Although teams in other cities were skating and even scrimmaging, it was those Hammer City rollergirls who helped lead the growth of the sport in this country. If 2006 was the year everyone learned the sport from the skating on up to league organization, 2007 was the year the doors of flat track roller derby opened for the Canadian public.
The Betties D-Day had a profound effect on roller derby in Toronto, inspiring a roller derby merger in the city: the four teams that had formed out of the Toronto Terrors (Chicks Ahoy!, Death Track Dolls, D-VAS and Bay Street Bruisers) joined the Smoke City Betties and their new off-shoot team the Gore-Gore Rollergirls to form ToRD, the Toronto Roller Derby League. At the same time, in Quebec, the Montreal skaters had headed home from the tourney to form Montreal’s first team, Les Contrabanditas. In February, 2007, Les Contrabanditas hosted ToRD’s newly formed Gore-Gore Rollergirls in a closed bout (a nail biter that would be won by the Montreal team on the last jam), to begin an amazing year of roller derby in Canada.
But if there is one month in Canada’s flat track history that will go down as being a turning point, it will be May, 2007. On May 5th, at the Royal City Curling Club in Vancouver, the Terminal City Rollergirls would host a Red vs. Black scrimmage, beginning what would quickly become one of the most successful leagues in Canadian roller derby. Exactly one week later, on May 12th, Hammer City would kick off its first full season, and a few weeks later at the George Bell Arena in Toronto, ToRD would host a day of scrimmages open only to friends and family that acted as a dry run for their first season opener on June 2nd (which would see the Gore-Gore Rollergirls defeat the Death Track Dolls 117-78). Add to that the formation of the three-team Montreal Roller Derby League, and organized scrimmaging in Forest City (London), and the public birth of roller derby in this country can be easily dated.
While in 2007 MTLRD and ToRD focused on increasingly popular house leagues, Hammer City continued to travel and host intra-city bouts. In June the Harlots and the Tank Girls would host and defeat Montreal’s Les Filles du Roi and Les Contrabanditas; the following month they’d prove equally inhospitable hosts of The Forest City Derby Girls. Later in that summer, Hammer City would blaze yet another path when the Steel Town Tank Girls hosted the Buffalo’s Queen City All Stars in the second ever cross-border bout in flat track history (Edmonton’s Oil City had hosted the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls only months earlier). That fall they would visit the Penn Jersey She Devils and form what would become Canada’s first WFTDA travel team (fittingly called the Eh! Team) to head to Fort Wayne to take part in the inaugural Fall Brawl.
An argument can easily be made that Toronto and Montreal’s early focus on their hometeams was what held them back from catching the continent-trotting Hammer City Roller Girls. But at the same time, it could also be argued that it was Montreal’s careful nurturing of a comparatively small and competitive home league (ToRD, with six teams, was the largest flat track league in the world at the time) that would lead to their fast-tracked evolution at the end of the decade.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even though Les Filles du Roi proved tops in Montreal and the Gore-Gore Rollergirls would win their first (of three and counting) ToRD championships (89-53 over the Chicks Ahoy!), at the end of 2007 there was no question that the Hamilton Harlots were the best flat track roller derby team in Canada. They’d ride that momentum right into 2008.
The more I think about it, the more my role in this fresh meat intake seems obvious. The women who were on my line on our Sunday scrimmage a few weeks ago had a mixed range of derby knowledge, and when I tried to set them up to perform a fairly complex strategy on our first jam, it was predictably disastrous. I realized that once again, my brain was well ahead of the abilities of me and my line mates. But then, as we waited for our next jam, one of the girls looked at me and said something along the lines of, “so on that power jam we were trying to trap that blocker so the pack would slow down and the jammer could get to the pack quicker, right? to score points?” She nodded her head almost imperceptibly, coming to a key realization, showing that quickly growing knowledge of the sport that is common among this group.
The next time we had a power jam our line quickly fell to the back of the pack, isolated an opposing blocker and ground the pack to a near halt. After the jam I was exhilarated. This group of fresh meat, some of whom had seen as little as one bout, were already beginning to pull off complex isolation strategies, and they had no idea how amazing that was, how amazing they were, and how far ahead of the curve this batch of new skaters was compared to those of the past. All they needed was someone to tell them what to do. That could be my role.
It’s really exciting to be able to see a sport develop at this early stage, and simple pleasures like witnessing a well-executed power jam by a lineup of fresh meat remind me how profoundly lucky we all are–me especially–to be a part of it.
***Get to know the Hammer City Roller Girls in this 2010 feature produced by CBC.
**Read previous posts here.