(* This article was originally written for print, but unfortunately the magazine folded before it could be published. A significantly edited version of this article appeared on this site in May 2011. UPDATE: ToRD now plays out of The Bunker in Downsview Park, while TJRD now plays out of Jimmie Simpson Community Centre)
If you stopped by The Hangar, the home of Toronto Roller Derby (ToRD), on any Sunday afternoon this past winter or spring, you would have seen a pretty normal scene: A bunch of rollergirls running drills, scrimmaging, a few refs working on calls, refining their knowledge of the rules. It would look like any other scene that has been playing out in derby spaces all across North America (and increasingly, the world) since roller derby was reborn last decade. But if you were to get a little closer to the track, you’d see that what you were looking at wasn’t just a normal roller derby practice, and these were not regular skaters. You’d quickly realize that this was a Toronto Junior Roller Derby practice, and what you were looking at was the future of the sport.
Toronto Junior Roller Derby (TJRD) was founded in May 2010, an initiative of long-time roller derby super fan B.D.I. with a lot of help from her derby-playing mom Lucid Lou (of ToRD’s Death Track Dolls). TJRD is one of nine (though they are popping up by the day) junior roller derby leagues in Canada (the others are established or just getting started in Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Regina, Saskatoon, Yukon, West Kootenay, Montreal and Saint John), and just the tip of a growing North American trend. The popularity of the Toronto league is undeniable as almost 50 skaters are now involved.”I thought it would be a good opportunity for girls in Toronto,” B.D.I. responds when asked about her drive to start a junior league. “There aren’t a lot of sports just for girls.” This sentiment is echoed among the other skaters in the league. “It’s an active sport…I’ve always been tough and I like how you can interact (on the track) with other girls,” says Lil’ Trouble, one of the league’s original skaters, when asked why she chose roller derby over other sports. Her teammate Monster Mayhem is a little more direct: “I can hit people.”
While this isn’t exactly true yet (junior roller derby plays a “loco,” or “low contact” form of the sport based on the WFTDA rule set), it does speak to roller derby’s appeal as a non-traditional option for girls in a male-dominated sports culture. TJRD skater Seemore Bruises actually started in ice hockey, but didn’t like it. “When she saw roller derby and the crazy cool chicks who play, she was really keen to try it,” says Seemore’s mother (and self-proclaimed “ridiculous” derby mom) Nancy Jo Cullen. “She loved the idea of an all-girl sport where a girl would be allowed to express her personal identity the way one can in derby.”
The twenty first century brand of roller derby (played on a flat track with strict, refereed rules) differs most from its earlier counterparts in its accessibility and reputation, two things that have been essential in its successful perpetuation. The flattening of the sport changed the nature of the game, and the slow strategic, positional derby that is rising out of it is a sport that (like football) allows and even encourages a variety of body types to play. This seems to be another important aspect of the sport for parents looking to get their girls involved in some kind of healthy activity. “There are so many different kinds of women playing roller derby, all kinds of body shapes and expressions of gender that I really appreciate. I think it’s a powerful, edgy, hysterical sport…there’s just so much fun in it,” says Nancy Jo. “I want (Seemore) to grow up believing that beautiful women come in all shapes and sizes and derby truly is a testament to this.” This inclusivity and accessibility is one of the key reasons that flat track roller derby (junior or otherwise) is establishing such deep roots.
And not only is flat track roller derby planting roots for the long haul, it is actually thriving and growing at an astonishing rate. The importance of these junior leagues to the continued success of the sport cannot be downplayed. The creation of senior level farm teams to develop draft-eligible players has already had a profound effect on the level of play of the sport, as skaters are now drafted into the league with ample experience, including bouting (ToRD’s farm team, the D-VAS has proven successful in developing high-level, game ready rookies). But this impact will seem small once the junior leagues start to graduate skaters into the senior ranks on a regular basis, the entry-level skills and confidence of the players will change in a big way. To put it simply: Competitive derby is about to get a whole lot more competitive.
**Thursday: Part 2; a recap of TJRD’s first cross-border game against New Hampshire’s Mad Missfits)