On September 24, 2010, in White Plains, New York, Montreal Roller Derby’s New Skids on the Block would make history, becoming the first non-American team to play in the WFTDA playoffs, setting off the international era of flat track roller derby. That year Montreal entered the Eastern Regionals ranked 6th, setting up an opening quarterfinal showdown against their long-time (but friendly) rivals, the Boston Massacre. The Skids would lose the game and finish 7th in the Regional tournament. The event, boutcast on Derby News Network and watched widely in Canada, inspired a growth of competitive derby in this country and abroad that continues to this day.
Four years later and Montreal has qualified for its fourth consecutive WFTDA playoff. But this year they are not alone, joined by Vancouver’s Terminal City All Stars and Toronto’s CN Power as Canadian representatives. And the influence of that game stretches even further beyond the borders of the great white north, with the Canuck contingent representing just the tip of the international iceberg. London Rollergirls London Brawling are back for their third stint in the playoffs, and this year sees Australia’s first team, Melbourne’s Victorian Roller Derby All Stars, joining the fray.
Fittingly, Montreal will lead the way this Big Five season, being the first Canadian team in action this coming weekend in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The new divisional system means that old regional rivalries have been thrown out the window, leaving teams squaring off based on a purely competitive basis. Montreal roared up the rankings in 2013 to end the regular season at a historic high 8th in the WFTDA, giving them a second seed in their divisional playoff. The favourable seeding allows them a bye straight into the quarterfinals, where they will await the winners of a Wasatch (Salt Lake City) vs. Grand Raggidy (Grand Rapids) qualifying round showdown (Friday, September 6 at 6:00 PM eastern).
Montreal head coach Ewan Wotarmy was on that historic New Skids team. Since retired from on-track play, she has taken over coaching this season, a season that has seen Montreal reach new highs in terms of rankings. While the high seeding surpassed their goals, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise.
“We had set a very achievable goal of making 12th place earlier in the season,” Ewan explains, “but I had been giving the team point differential goals for our games based on us being an 8th place team.” As usual, the team came on strong early, kicking things off with impressive victories over Tri-City, Maine, Chicago Outfit, and Boston before a narrow loss to powerhouse Windy City.
The early-season form got Ewan thinking: “I had a feeling, based on some of those early games, that we could make second seed.” Following the rankings and keeping up on the new system became key in planning: “The new ranking system makes it a bit easier to understand where you stand in relation to other teams…Athletes are inherently goal driven – having a clear, specific goal (like getting 87% of the total points scored) rather than more vague goals (‘doing better than team X, who played this team in April’) is huge in helping the team focus.”
From the very beginning, Montreal has been known for its endurance and fitness, but this year, after three season of coming up just short in the playoffs, the team has taken things to a new level. “The team has been very focused this year, and working hard,” Ewan says. “They are fitter than ever and incredibly focused on making Championships.” On the track, she says that one of the biggest positive changes for the team has been with discipline and taking fewer penalties: “All of our players have really made strides in this area. Having more players on the track is a huge advantage for any team.”
For Terminal City and Toronto, the situation is much different. After a few years of steady, under-the-radar growth—including making big impressions in 2012— both Toronto and Terminal City put in late-season runs to just sneak into the Division 1 playoffs for the first time. Ranked 10th in each of their divisionals, the teams will have to play a qualifying round game to kick off the tournament. Terminal City opens against Tampa Roller Derby (Friday, September 13th at 12:00 PM eastern) while Toronto will open things up against Sacred City (Sacramento) (Friday, September 27th, 10:00 PM pacific).
Despite the tough draw, each team was more than happy for the opportunity.
“We were ecstatic,” says Terminal City’s Coach Mack the Mouth of his team’s reaction to making the playoffs. “Everyone keeps a close eye on Derbytron, DNN, and Flat Track Stats to try to figure out where we are going to land (in WFTDA). We were very confident that would make top 40, but actually seeing it was a whole other level of excitement.”
Vancouver’s top team kicked off 2013 with two ultra-tight games against Jet City (Everett Washington) (a one-point win) and Santa Cruz (a two-point loss) before reeling off three straight wins over Sac City, Treasure Valley and Silicon Valley. But Mack sees their progress this season as more than just a single-season story. “We had such a strong year last year, climbing the west rankings from 53rd to 12th,” he explains of their astonishing leap in 2012. “Our work habits, discipline and fitness commitments paid off, so it wasn’t difficult to cultivate that energy around the team for this year. We knew we could build off of that momentum and move to the next level.”
Toronto also had a strong start to the season, with one-sided wins against Killamazoo and Fort Wayne, before encouraging losses to high-ranked Naptown and Ohio. CN Power Co-Captain Dusty says the team was “elated” at the news of their spot in the playoffs. Bench Coach Reverend Ramirez says that the team simply “got things right” in 2013. “We said ‘let’s go for broke’ (this season) and play teams like Windy City and Naptown—all the high level teams we could.”
CN Power Bench Manager Sonic Doom points out that while learning from those tough experiences was important, the confidence gained was just as valuable: “What we needed to do was learn that we are capable of competing against those high level teams. While we still haven’t earned that major result, we’ve had moments where we’ve competed.” Specifically, he points to the second half of the game against Naptwon where the Indianapolis powerhouse only outscored Toronto by 12 points as a particular turning point.
None of the teams has really changed too much in terms of their training heading into the playoffs, as they all point out that it was increased training over the course of the year that allowed them to achieve their goals. Instead, each team has been refining their games and fitness levels.
“We are really drilling the areas that have been challenges for us this season,” Ewan says of Montreal’s practices. “All of the players are watching a lot of derby and visualizing their individual roll in our collective success this fall.”
Mack says that the focus of their practices has changed, “I do run more scrimmage/game type scenarios as opposed to drills. Creating as many game type situations has always been the direction I like to take.”
Similarly, Toronto’s amount and intensity of practices has been at an all-time high for all of 2013 so not much has changed in that regard. One major addition has been adding an off-skates practice at a gym where the players can focus on fitness as a team. But again, the management team cites the increased level of their opposition as the best preparation. “We took some lessons from the Skids, who got their asses kicked by a lot of high-level teams (early in their WFTDA careers),” says Ramirez: “You’re not going to go very far if you just keep beating low-level teams.”
Dusty adds that one of the most important changes for Toronto was trust. “I think this year the team has finally become a team who has learned to trust eachother, and trust our coaches and captains and the decisions we have to make for the team.”
Also, the teams are focusing inwards on sharpening their own games, without worrying too much about their opponents. “That being said, odds would be better for us if we were to play Grand Raggidy, given that they are currently lower ranked and have not played any top 25 teams this year,” Ewan says, pointing out that Wasatch has been playing tougher teams later in their schedule. “Either way, the Skids are going into the game with the intent of controlling it from the first jam until the last.”
“By chance, I got to watch Tampa play at ECDX versus Boston and Windy City, then again at Rollercon versus Sin City,” Mack says of Terminal City’s first round opponents. “They match up well with us; fit, smart, high track awareness team. We are excited to play them.”
CN Power has watched some video of Sacred City says Dusty and Ramirez. “They are a great defensive team,” Dusty points out. “They have big, but agile girls, which is a huge strength to have in derby. We have been working a lot on our offense for that game specifically.”
Just as Montreal’s appearance in the playoffs in 2010 had such a profound effect on the sport in this country, having three teams play in the Division 1 playoffs (not to mention Tri-City’s success in their D-2 tournament) will have an extraordinary impact as well; one that will be felt from coast to coast.
“It’s going to bring the national game to new levels,” says Ewan Wotarmy who also happens to be Team Canada’s head coach. “It’s great that the are teams in very different locations across the country, so the learning can easily be shared in scrimmage and in more formal bouts across Canada…As the sport continues to get more competitive, we will likely be better able to attract experienced athletes to the sport. Given the number of young Canadian women who, like myself, grew up on skates…we could have an international advantage in that, but we have to show these athletes that they have a competitive future in this sport.”
Mack the Mouth is also part of Team Canada’s coaching staff and also sees how this success could impact our national team directly: “It will make the Team Canada try-outs explode with skaters. It will help push more Canadian teams to apply for their WFTDA apprenticeship. And lets not forget Tri-City and Rideau Valley; I expect both of those teams to be pushing for Division 1 spots in 2014.”
Toronto’s Sonic Doom agrees that Canada’s impact on WFTDA is just beginning. “I expect the number of Canadian teams in the playoffs to triple next year,” he explains. While agreeing with Mack’s selections, he adds Hammer City to the list as a Division 2 team.
One of the biggest changes this season is that Canadian teams have somewhat lost that element of surprise. Montreal, in particular, is no longer seen as an underdog with many expecting them to advance to Championships this season. “I feel that we are still punching above our weight (literally and figuratively),” Ewan points out. “We certainly have an advantage going into the tournament, given that we are seeded second, but all the teams at these tournaments are really fantastic! This has been a year of many upsets in the WFTDA.” And they do have a tough bracket, joined by WFTDA stalwarts Denver and Rose City, but also Arch Rival, Ohio and their playoff rivals London.
Sonic Doom points out that while Toronto is new to the playoffs, they do have significant tournament experience, “We’re not unfamiliar with tournament play. We’ve done well at Brewhaha and ECDX and we host the Quad City Chaos every year (since 2010).”
What it all boils down to for these teams is hard work: It took hard work to get to this point and it’s going to take hard work to advance.
“We are seeing this as an opportunity, and opportunities don’t make themselves,” explains Ewan Wotarmy. “We have to rise to the occasion and shine that weekend. That’s not going to just happen on its own – but it will happen when we stay focused, play clean and work hard. I have faith in my team to do just that.”
Dusty is also brimming with an excited confidence at Toronto’s chances. “I know we just squeaked in there in the last quarter, and we all know we are coming in at the bottom, but we have something to prove, and we have nothing to lose, and those kinds of teams can be the most dangerous.”
Montreal Roller Derby: The New Skids on the Block
Season Record: 10-4
WFTDA Ranking: 8th (2nd in their Divisional tournament)
First Game: VS. TBD (Wasatch or Grand Raggidy): Friday, September 6 at 6:00 PM eastern
Usual Suspects: Blockers: Jess Bandit, Smack Daddy, Bone Machine, Lil Mama. Jammers: Iron Wench, Georgia W. Tush.
Skaters to Watch: Blocker: Surgical Strike. Jammer: Greta Bobo
Terminal City Roller Girls: Terminal City All Stars
Season Record: 5-4 (in WFTDA play, 8-4 overall)
WFTDA Ranking: 38th (10th in their Divisional)
First Game: VS. Tampa Roller Derby: Friday, September 13th at 12:00 PM eastern
Usual Suspects: Blockers: Kim Mackenzie (AKA: 8Mean Wheeler), Lisa Suggit (Rollergirl). Jammers: luludemon, Bobbi Barbarich (Beretta Lynch), Kim Janna.
Skaters to Watch: Blockers: Flow’erPlower, Scarlett Bloodbath, Jocelyn Ingram. Jammer: Evada Peron.
Toronto Roller Derby: CN Power
Season Record: 6-6 (in WFTDA play, 7-6 overall)
WFTDA Ranking: 39th (10th in their Divisional)
First Game: VS. Sacred City: Friday, September 27th, 10:00 AM pacific
Usual Suspects: Blockers: Nasher the Smasher, Dyna Hurtcha, Tara Part. Jammers: Dusty, Bambi.
Skaters to watch: Blockers: Bruiseberry Pie, Betty Bomber. Jammers: Kookie Doe, Bala Reina.