Toronto. The Hangar: home of the Toronto Roller Derby League. It’s a long weekend in May and dozens of skaters from across Eastern Canada have made the trek to be here, some coming from as far away as St. John’s and Houston, all to be a part of history. They’re sitting now, huddled in a tight circle, chests heaving after an intense day-long work out, helmets lolling on the concrete in front of them, sweat streaming down their necks. With his eastern counterpart “Furious” Paul Piche at his side, Team Canada head coach Pauly Perez is about to name the first twelve skaters to the Team Canada short list for the upcoming Blood & Thunder World Cup. It’s the final stage in a three-day Blood & Thunder selection camp, and whether or not they made the team, Coach Pauly has insured that he’s made ‘em all sweat. That’s his trademark, and it’s a philosophy that has made him one of the most sought after coaches in flat track roller derby.
FINDING THE SPORT
Considering how synonymous Coach Pauly’s name is with the sport of women’s flat track roller derby, it’s hard to believe that his involvement essentially came by chance. Having gone through a divorce, he’d just returned to dating. “(We) didn’t really have a plan as to what we were going to do, so I picked up our local free paper and let fate take over,” he explains, reminiscing about that fateful night late in the fall of 2003. “I told my date that whatever page I turned to, I would blindly put my finger on the page and whatever it landed on would be our entertainment for the evening…Low and behold it was the first Arizona Roller Derby bout.” After attending a league meeting shortly thereafter, his fate, as it were, was sealed.
That was back in the earliest days of the sport’s history. Flat track godmothers the Texas Rollergirls had only recently separated from their banked-track counterparts and had begun to define the rules of the flat track version of the sport. Arizona Roller Derby (AZRRD) had virtually sprung up on its own (thanks to the dreams of Ivanna S. Pankin), but quickly came to rely on both the knowledge and the organizational model that had been established by the Texas Rollergirls.
But what they needed, was a coach.
“I have coached multiple sports,” Pauly explains. “Highschool Football, Wrestling and Baseball.” Armed with that experience, he was a key leader in those early days of flat track history. He was there in Tempe, Arizona, in November 2004 when AZRD’s Tent City Terrors and the Texas Rollergirls kicked off interleague flat track roller derby, he was there (as head ref this time) in December 2006 for the first international flat track bout between Edmonton’s Oil City Derby Girls and Denver’s Rocky Mountain Roller Girls. And then in 2006, he was there for the 2006 Dust Devil National Flat Track Championship (the tournament that would eventually be known as the first WFTDA Championships). The Tent City Terrors would finish third in that first interleague tournament, a run that included a quarterfinal win (95-93) against the Rat City Rollergirls that is still discussed as one of the most exciting flat track bouts ever played (perhaps only topped by the 2010 WFTDA Championship final).
COMING TO CANADA
While it’s no surprise to see Coach Pauly involved in flat track roller derby’s first World Cup, how does an Arizonan boy with such deep roots in the Southern US resurgence of the sport come to coach Team Canada? “I met a sweet Canadian lady,” is the simple explanation he gives for how he came to settle so far from the Arizona heat. “(Rocky Mountain’s) Assaultin’ Peppa came to me (after the RMRG vs. OCDG cross-border bout in 2006) and said that there was this cute blond (Dee Vicious) that wanted to meet me…but the Canadian beers had already got the best of me so I missed my chance!” But in a twist of fate, that wouldn’t be the last time he’d get a chance to meet that sweet Canadian lady. “In April the next year the same skater skated into my life…over the next few years she skated for me at AZRD, we got married and had a little girl.”
By late spring 2010, the family would head north to Edmonton and Coach Pauly would take over coaching E-Ville Dead, E-Ville Roller Derby’s travel team. It would not take long for the experienced coach to have a significant influence on his comparatively younger team (the league formed in Edmonton right around the time Pauly was coaching at the first Dust Devil tournament). In June of 2011, E-Ville Dead won The Best of the West tournament, the first CWRDA Western Canadian Championship, defeating their Edmonton rivals Oil City in the first cross-city showdown between these teams before taking down Victoria’s Eves of Destruction in the final. This has been the defining moment of the league.
CONSTRUCTING TEAM CANADA
Since Pauly has almost been involved in flat track from the start, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that he’s been involved in conversations about the World Cup from its gestation as well. “Well long ago and far away I was having a conversation with Black Dahlia (Blood &Thunder editor) and Pieces of Hate (one of the key members in the growth of New Zealand roller derby) in a room at the Imperial Palace about how awesome it would be to have teams from around the globe playing each other,” Pauly reminisces. The notion was lodged in his brain and stayed there until Blood & Thunder finally began to develop the idea. “Low and behold I marry a Canadian and start a family here in the great white north,” he explains of his decision to apply to coach Canada given his long history south of the border. “I have made Canada my home.”
Joined by Furious Paul Piche (Hammer City Roller Girls) and Mack the Mouth (Terminal City Roller Girls), Coach Pauly then had to begin the arduous process of selecting a team from the over 80 senior female leagues currently operating in this vast country “Team selection has been anything but easy. There are so many great skaters across Canada. Each tryout brought out the best in all the skaters,” he said after the tryouts had concluded. “We wanted to have a balanced team with the best skaters possible from each region,” he explains of their approach to the selection process. “(The regional approach is) natural considering the population density in the country. We also wanted to have a clear view of each skater’s fitness as well as their game play so we came up with a balanced fitness test as part of our tryout process. From that we picked skaters that best fit the needs of the team over all.” What has resulted is a team Canada with members spread across in the country in small pockets, from St. John’s to Vancouver, with little to no knowledge of one another.
When asked whether some experience might have been lost in his attempt to have regional representation (until the last few years, roller derby in this country had been mostly limited to highly populated urban areas). “I don’t think we compromised anything with the choices we made,” he says confidently. “I think we have a good balance of experience and youth.”
TAKING ON THE WORLD
It’s no secret that the United States is heavily favoured in this inaugural World Cup, but considering the age of the sport (only eight years for the flat track version), it’s just astonishing that there are twelve other countries capable of tracking competitive teams. And while Pauly isn’t expecting any miracles, he’s confident about Canada’s chances. “We all know that the US is going to bring some of the best skaters in the world; if you compare any of the teams against the US team, of course you will see a disparity in knowledge,” he acknowledges. “The sport was created in the States and has had years to grow, (but) I have to say I think that people will be surprised at what the world is bringing especially Team Canada.” And while all eyes will be on the Stars and Stripes, there is a particular pressure on Canada. It is the “second country” of roller derby, produced the first international WFTDA leagues, and (aside from the US) has more flat track roller derby leagues that any other country on the plant. Not to mention it’s the host nation of this historic event.
The growth of flat track roller derby has been extraordinary, comparable only to MMA (mixed martial arts) in the rapidity of its evolution in the sports world in the past half century. When something changes so quickly and constantly, there is a lot of room for controversy, and the increased competitiveness of WFTDA, along with the development of internationally followed rules and regulations, has some turned-off some people who preferred the DIY-underground attitude the sport was founded on. But Pauly believes that not only is flat track roller derby ready for this step, but “this is just another step in the evolution of the sport.” One that could potentially lead to bigger things. “The World cup, in my view, is the precursor to the Olympics. I want to see what the rest of the world has to offer.”
As for Canada, Coach Paul knows that rallying a team of such disparate parts will require a very democratic approach. “When you bring skaters from different backgrounds you have to find common ground and bring the sum of all parts together and make the machine run,” he explains about his approach to the style of derby Team Canada will adopt. “I think our goals are simple: get our team to Toronto and play the best derby possible. The goals are the same no matter what group of skaters I am working with. At the end of the bout I want every skater on my bench to be able to say without a doubt that they played as a team and gave everything they had jam by jam.”
There have been big moments in Canadian flat track roller derby, from a trailblazing tour to the UK in 2008 to East vs. West bouts at Rollercon, but this attempt to put together a unified team of skaters representing almost every region of the country could have a profound effect on the sport in Canada
THE STATE OF THE GAME
“In my view derby in Canada lives in bubbles, if you will. Due to the sheer size of the country geographically and where the population centres are.” Undoubtedly, this has had a profound effect on the dissemination of the sport, and could be slowing the country’s unified development in terms of quality of play. “In central Canada derby has been around for some time but because of a vast difference in skills around the region it makes it hard for skaters to play at a higher level. If the established leagues want to play teams at their level they have to bring a team in or travel to higher level teams…when you play over and over within your own leagues, derby skills stagnate.”
“In the east you have a greater population and close proximity to other leagues,” he explains as a reason why roller derby has thrived in population-dense areas like Southern Ontario and the Lower Mainland in BC. “Some leagues in the east have a huge advantage being so close to the border. They can drive to play some great teams and not have to deal with the huge travel costs. In the west Derby is very similar to the east (in that) they are close to the border which gives those leagues a greater advantage.”
But flat track roller derby’s advantage is that it has evolved in the information age, and the accessibility gained through social media and the ease with which video and live-streaming can be disseminated has helped the sport overcome a lot of these issues. In Canada, the ranking work being done by Rollergirl.ca, the attempt to centralize live-streaming ala DNN that is being done by Canuck Derby TV and the increased involvement of CWRDA (Canadian Women’s Roller Derby Association) in organizing large tournaments has helped to bridge gaps. Coach Pauly applauds these efforts, and confirms his belief in mutual, shared organization as being the best way forward. “Going back in time, the WFTDA started with a small group and has become the driving force it is today. I see derby developing in a similar manner in Canada with its own governing body with equal representation from each league.”
It will take a huge effort to “bring down the silos” or “pop the bubbles” that have sprung up around Canada’s individual leagues and micro-regions. This is something that Coach Pauly has been working on at all levels, beginning at the top with Team Canada, but also at the provincial and even municipal level. “I am currently working on an organization that is directly based on organizing all the leagues across Alberta (the Alberta Roller Derby Association) with the goal of raising the public interest, building cooperation between the leagues and giving leagues more bouting opportunities.” On an even smaller scale, at the Best of the West tournament Pauly found himself in the middle of one of Canada’s oldest divides, between Edmonton’s two competing leagues: Oil City Derby Girls and E-Ville Roller Derby. “This was the first time the leagues have met on the track, and it was a great game,” Pauly points out (123-119 was the final score). This inner-city dividing has been a problem that has plagued leagues in both Canada and the US and has resulted in multiple leagues in big cities like Toronto and Edmonton, but also far smaller markets like Regina, Kingston and even Timmins. For the sport to fulfill its highest potential these (almost always personal) rifts will need to be mended, as perhaps they are beginning to be in Edmonton. “There has been a lot of beef between the leagues (Oil City and E-Ville) in the past, but after that game I am hoping that in the future it will all be about the game instead of a few people’s differences.”
GIVING BACK TO THE FUTURE
At this stage of flat track’s existence, inclusion is the key to steady and healthy growth. Anyone involved at this point in the history of the sport—whether they like it or not—is helping to lay the foundations of the game for the future. Given his role as coach and teacher, Coach Pauly has been at the centre of this foundation building for a long time now. “One of the biggest things I have always prided myself on is sharing knowledge and helping as many skaters and leagues as possible to elevate their game. Seeing skaters that I have worked with in the past becoming great coaches and paying it forward (is rewarding).”
And as the sport evolves, so do the roles within it, and Pauly’s sports history has prepared him well for that. “The evolution of the sport has forced coaches to be more aware of all the facets needed to be successful in derby,” he says, alluding to his increased focus on fitness and cross-training. “Scrimmaging and derby drills alone won’t allow (a skater) to reach the next level. Coaches have to bring all of the knowledge from other sports and infuse it into (roller derby). Add some fitness, core-conditioning and some cardio and ‘poof’ you have the recipe for success,” he concludes, making it sound so easy. But this is not only something that he’s preached, it was central in his approach to choosing Team Canada as well.
While Canada has embraced Pauly in his first year in the country (from his local league to the national team, and of course his beautiful family), in some ways the Great White North has not been kind to this born and bred Arizonan. “Once I got my papers and moved to Edmonton I endured one of the worst winters in the city’s history…I survived, so I guess it will be OK.”
While coaching Team Canada may prove to be one of the great challenges of Coach Pauly’s career, moving from sunny Arizona to snowy Alberta has undoubtedly prepared him for anything life can throw at him.