The Neon Army Advances

How Montreal’s New Skids on the Block Became Canada’s First Team to Play for the WFTDA D1 Championship

Photo by Sean Murphy (girlsofderby.com)

1. The Moment

It was set up to be a frantic finish.

With one jam to go in the third-place game of the opening weekend of the 2016 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Division 1 playoffs, the home team, Montreal’s New Skids on the Block, held a 10-point lead (167-157) over Bay Area Derby.

The penultimate jam had been a wild one; offsetting jammer penalties had necessitated a two-minute jam. Bay Area’s Brawllen Angel had managed to outscore Montreal’s Falcon Punch 13-8 to narrow the gap to 10.

B.A.D., one of the founding members of the WFTDA, had been there before. After appearing at the inaugural Dust Devil Championship in 2006, they had qualified for six of the next nine championship tournaments including the previous four consecutive seasons from 2012-15, finishing third overall in 2013 and ’14.

In a sense, Montreal had been there before as well: never to Champs, but on the cusp. Close enough to feel it and to be crushed by the disappointment of not making it. In the same game just the year before, they’d led Minnesota by as much as 30 points and were still leading late before a 48-18 run over the last seven jams secured the win for Minnesota.

Montreal’s Miracle Whips came to the line with the star on her helmet for the final jam against B.A.D. with memories of the previous year’s late collapse buried behind a straight-ahead focus. April Bloodgate was her jammer-line opponent. The crowd—substantial for a Division playoff tournament—was tense. Eerily quiet. The whistle blew and with blockers in the box, both jammers were able to shake free of the pack at turn one with Whips one step ahead; then the Montreal jammer, with the inside position staked out, threw a shoulder into the unsuspecting Bloodgate, who went down hard and was swallowed up by the swarming Montreal defense. The crowd roared in relief.

Two quick scoring passes extended the lead substantially, but with the Bay Area bench cradling one more team time out in its back pocket, the Skids needed to kill the final minute of the jam, so Whips pulled up on the back stretch to join her depleted pack to bolster the defense. After a second Bloodgate scoring pass—and with all of the Skids’ blockers now back on the track—Whips suddenly skated back from the pack to meet the fast-advancing Bay Area jammer. Whips took Bloodgate’s momentum and ushered her to the outside, finishing her with a little shove; then the drag back began. Whips went back. And she kept going back. And back. She drew the jammer all the way to Turn 4. Waited a second after the jam clock had ticked away for good measure and slowly, with a stone-faced calm, tapped her hips.

The partisan crowd went wild, danced in the aisles, chanted. Across Canada, from 709 in the east to the Eves of Destruction in the west, the jubilant track-side celebrations were matched in living-room viewing parties.

Montreal’s New Skids on the Block had become the first Canadian team to advance to the WFTDA Championship tournament.

2. So Bad It Hurts

On Friday, March 3, 2006 somebody going by the handle MissTheMeaner posted a message in Rollergirl.ca’s online roller skating forum with the subject line “Rollerderby in Montreal.”

She asked, simply, if anyone was interested in becoming part of a roller derby team in the city. The post got exactly one response, seventeen days later, from someone posting as Georgia W. Tush:

“i am! i am!! so bad it hurts.”

In 2006, Alyssa Kwasny had just moved to the big city of Montreal from Thunder Bay to study at Concordia University.

Cover image from the January/February 2007 issue of the Mirror, featuring a preview of Montreal's first game, a pre-season showdown with Toronto's Gore-Gore Rollergirls,

Cover image from the January/February 2007 issue of the Mirror, featuring a preview of Montreal’s first game, a pre-season showdown with Toronto’s Gore-Gore Rollergirls.

Early in that same year, a friend of hers in Chicago had joined one of that city’s roller derby leagues. While the idea of roller derby intrigued her, Kwasny quickly discovered that there was no roller derby league in Montreal. Indeed, her early Internet snooping led her to the realization that there were no roller derby leagues in Canada. She did find MySpace pages and websites for leagues south of the border and was immediately taken in by the riot grrrl imagery and the punk rock aesthetic.

Eventually her online sleuthing led her to the Rollergirl.ca website and a web forum devoted to starting roller derby in Canada. There she discovered that there were discussions about roller derby ongoing in Toronto, Hamilton, Edmonton and Vancouver, and then she saw that lone post about Montreal.

Kwasny, now officially Georgia W. Tush, ran with that MissTheMeaner post, starting a MySpace page and checking out roller rinks. Eventually, after getting enough traffic on the site, she organized a meeting at Foufounes Electriques, one of the city’s most venerable underground music venues.

Fourteen people came to the initial meeting, and the first person through the door was someone Tush already knew from the music scene, Marie-Chantal Trachy, the woman who would come to be known as Trash ’n’ Smash, another key figure in the development of roller derby in Montreal.

Just as Tush and Trash were really getting things started in Montreal that spring, on Saturday, July 22, 2006, at a sold out Burlington arena, the Hamilton Harlots and the Steel Town Tank Girls welcomed the sport of roller derby back to Canada, playing in the first public house league game in Canadian flat track history.

Inspired by the the success of Hammer City’s opening game, one of Toronto’s first teams, the Smoke City Betties, began to consider hosting a public event as well. In the end, they decided on a semi-closed tournament, or a “day of derby,” featuring a tournament of mini-games with the winner crowned Derby Queens of the Pre-Season. These Derby Queens would then take on the host Betties in a full-length regulation contest.

Poster for Betties' D-Day. Held in August 2006, it was the first tournament in Canadian flat-track roller derby.

Poster for Betties’ D-Day. Held in August 2006; it was the first tournament in Canadian flat-track roller derby.

The Betties D-Day took place at George Bell Arena in downtown Toronto’s west end on August 19, 2006. On that day, the formation of the Canadian roller derby community began. For many of the skaters there, despite having skated for months, it would be the first time they had ever seen a flat track roller derby game actually played.

Montreal had not even named teams yet and for this event divided its skaters into two squads, called the Cougars and the Felines. On the track, Hammer City’s established teams, not surprisingly, led the way. But it was Montreal who proved the biggest surprise, playing each other in the best game of the first round (a one-pointer won by the Cougars) before defeating the newly named Chicks Ahoy! out of Toronto in the semifinals.

While they did lose in the final to the Hamilton Harlots, the league’s performance provided a certain kind of foreshadowing for the dominant league it would quickly become.

*                                  *                                  *

Montreal's New Skids on the Block at the 2010 Quad City Chaos (Photo by Derek Lang)

Montreal’s New Skids on the Block at the 2010 Quad City Chaos (Photo by Derek Lang)

In March 2010 Toronto Roller Derby’s travel team, CN Power, hosted what was essentially an unofficial Canadian championship. The two-day tournament, called the Quad City Chaos, featured the four top teams in Canada at the time. Hammer City’s Eh! Team, Montreal’s New Skids on the Block and Vancouver’s Terminal City All-Stars joined Toronto for a round robin tournament.

One of the most anticipated moments of that first Quad City Chaos was the opening game between Hammer City and Montreal. Within the past year, both had become the first Canadian—and first non-US—members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which meant that they were going to be a part of the WFTDA’s ranking system and were eligible to compete for a spot in the association’s annual playoffs. This historic game not only contained the first WFTDA-sanctioned game in Canada, but it was also the first between two non-US teams and the first to ever be played outside of that country.

Montreal had been on somewhat of a tear at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, playing anyone and everyone and going wherever they needed to go to do so. In the weeks leading up to the Quad City Chaos they’d gone on a two-game weekend road trip to Arizona, followed by a three-game road trip down the east coast of the US, going 4-1 in the process. Although none of the games were broadcast, through textcasts on the Derby News Network and live twitter updates it was clear that Montreal was soaking up new slow-style strategies that were just being developed south of the border and had yet to reach Canada. By the time the Skids rolled into Toronto in March, they had become a changed team.

The Hamilton-Montreal showdown was a very early Saturday morning game at ToRD’s Hangar; there were only insiders and superfans lining the track for this highly anticipated moment. The first hint that something might be different came while watching Montreal begin their warm-up off skates. While it’s since become the norm, roller derby in early 2010, certainly in Canada, was still deeply cloaked in its punk rock attitude and the notion of working out off skates to improve on-skates performance was new. It seemed to many skaters to be a waste of valuable track time. But there was Montreal, running laps around the space, doing leaps and stretches and planks.

Montreal baffled Hammer City and send a clear message to the Canadian roller derby scene at QCC 2010. (Photo by Derek Lang)

Montreal baffled Hammer City and sent a clear message to the Canadian roller derby scene at QCC 2010. (Photo by Derek Lang)

Within a few minutes of the opening whistle of that first game, it was clear that it was not going to be a pretty sight. Montreal dominated from the start; they baffled Hammer City with what at the time was strange play, alternating blazing speed with grinding slowness, an intentional duality that had never been witnessed in the Canadian game before. During the first New Skids power jam, when the Hammer City jammer was in the penalty box, the relentless Montreal blockers isolated a lone Hammer City blocker and then held her behind her counterparts who struggled to stay in play (i.e., to remain part of the pack). The jammer sped by the stopped skaters and Hammer City could only watch it all unfold, bewildered. Whatever game Montreal was playing was not the same as the one being played by their opponents.

To put things in context: within the previous eighteen months, Montreal’s and Hamilton’s travel teams had met twice in thrilling, incredibly closely matched contests. Montreal had been able to pull off both wins – but just barely – with fairly regular, though low scoring, results for the time: 58–48 and then 84–80. A combined difference of fourteen points over two games.

When the final whistle blew in that WFTDA-sanctioned game at the Quad City Chaos in March 2010 in Toronto, the scoreboard read 208–26.

Montreal would go on to beat Vancouver and Toronto with similar ease that weekend. Never before had one Canadian team so thoroughly dominated another, and especially not teams that shared such a similar history. But the game had changed: it had changed quickly and it had changed remarkably and it was obvious that Montreal was at the forefront of this evolution.

Montreal Roller Derby distanced itself from its Canadian peers in 2010, but then again, the team distanced itself from a lot of teams in 2010. The Skids would go on to skate to an 11–3 record that season, notching big wins against Tampa, DC, and Arizona.

By September of that year, the New Skids on the Block made flat track roller derby history when they laced up against their increasingly intense rivals Boston for a quarterfinal showdown in the WFTDA’s Eastern Region playoffs. It was the fifth year of the WFTDA playoffs, and Montreal, qualifying sixth out of the twelve teams in the Eastern Region tournament, was the first non-US-based team to play in them.

This was the second year that the Derby News Network would broadcast the entire playoffs and there was a slowly growing global interest in the games. For pretty much the first time, the derby community was seeing the game being played in a way that was no longer comparable to their local version. The teams in the playoffs, and particularly those top twelve teams that would qualify for the championship tournament, were playing at a completely different level strategically and athletically from everyone else. And because Montreal was involved, there were plenty of Canadian eyes trained on the playoffs for the first time.

Montreal would lose that quarterfinal game to the higher ranked Boston and be relegated to the Consolation Bracket that they were expected to dominate, and for the most part, they did, crushing the Dutchland Derby Rollers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by two hundred sixty-five points before Raleigh’s Carolina Rollergirls scored a controversial last-gasp two-point win over Montreal.

Montreal’s appearance would resonate even beyond the borders of Canada. In 2011, London, England, would qualify for the playoffs and the two teams would meet up in the first all-international WFTDA playoff game in the consolation final of the 2011 Eastern Region tournament.

In only five years, Montreal had emerged as a potential flat track roller derby super power.

3. Fresher and Furiouser

Montreal's Arena St. Louis (Photo by Leslie Schachter for The Link)

Montreal’s Arena St. Louis (Photo by Leslie Schachter for The Link)

Walking into Montreal’s Arena St. Louis is for fans of roller derby what walking in to the old Montreal Forum would have been like for fans of hockey. After the closing of Edmonton’s Grindhouse (AKA: the Metro Sportsplex) in the summer of 2014, Arena St. Louis became the single oldest continuously used arena for roller derby. It isn’t a particularly special arena, and despite its location just off Rue St. Laurent in a trendy part of downtown Montreal, is pretty non-descript: A squat, rectangular brick arena that wouldn’t look out of place in any small Canadian town.

In the summer of 2008, on the heels of hosting two successful house league seasons and one of Canada’s first flat track roller derby tournaments (that April’s inaugural Beast of the East), Arena St. Louis hosted Montreal’s recruitment training sessions, also called “fresh meant.” The goal was to get potential skaters from zero skill to ready for competition by the opening of the next season. The annual group of loosely organized skaters would eventually form their own rookie-team called the Smash Squad. It was a process and model that would become standard throughout the sport in Canada, the first step toward becoming a competitive skater, and in Montreal, the first step toward eventually becoming a member of the New Skids on the Block.

The Smash Squad builds into a houseleague-Bteam-Ateam system. The houseleague consists of three teams: Les Contrabanditas (Montreal’s first official team, who debuted in February 2007 when they faced Toronto’s Gore-Gore Rollergirls); Les Filles du Roi (who won the first house league Championship in 2007); and La Racaille. Their B-team, Les Sexpos, has been competing since 2008, virtually as long as the league has had a travel team, and has had continued success, including winning the 2015 B-Cup Challenge and finishing 9th in the 2015 Full Metal Bracket (which was essentially a WFTDA championship for B-teams).

While this is a model that is pretty standard in the sport, in Canada, no league has been able to use this structure to its advantage or replace talent at the top as consistently as Montreal Roller Derby has. From the very beginning, this consistency has been evident, and while over the past eight years they have tinkered with the model (creating more blend between the A and B-travel teams for example), they have held the course and the commitment to consistency has paid off in consistent results.

While their house league hosts the annual Beast of the Beast tournament and the Sexpos and Skids are two of the busiest travel teams in the country, given Montreal’s lack of proximity to other leagues of a similar calibre, the Smash Squad didn’t debut to the larger Canadian public until the summer of 2012. Montreal, by then, had clearly pulled ahead of the Canadian flat track pack, but there was one tournament where the league had yet to make a splash: the Fresh and the Furious.

Montreal's Fresh and Furious debut was a record-setting victory over Woodstock. (Photo by Greg Russell)

Montreal’s Fresh and Furious debut was a record-setting victory over Woodstock. (Photo by Greg Russell)

Spawned from 2008’s Virgin Suicides Brawl, a five-team tournament featuring new teams in established leagues that had been hosted by the GTA Rollergirls, the league resurrected the rookie-focused tournament in 2011 as a sixteen-team double elimination tournament played out in 20-minute games. Taking place over the course of one (long) day on two tracks, the tournament has become the launching point for virtually every skater in Quebec and Ontario. In 2012, Montreal’s Smash Squad entered their first Fresh tournament as virtual unknowns, and promptly opened with a then record-setting 127-10 victory over Woodstock and proceeded to destroy the competition from there, rolling all the way to the championship game.

In the thirty-minute final against Royal City’s Top Herloins, the Smash Squad were trailing for much of the first half of the game and were down 50-42 with thirteen minutes to go. With a power start and some momentum building, the Smash Squad decided to go with a lean, powerful—though sometimes erratic—jammer who seemed loaded with as-of-yet unrefined talent, but who had been inconsistent and had picked up a few penalties in this game already. She promptly powered through Royal City’s defensive wall and along with the help of some good offense, carved up the Guelph defense for a 19-point, game-changing jam. It would be the first of a game-deciding 44 points scored over the next ten-minutes of the game by a first-year jammer named Miracle Whips.

The Smash Squad would go on to dominate that final third of the game, cruising to a 122-61 win. While the team would feature other future stars of the league like Demanda Lashing and Saucisse, the tournament-clinching win had provided the derby community with the first glimpse of the game-changing potential of Miracle Whips, but mostly reminded the community that from the ground on up, Montreal Roller Derby was a step ahead.

4. Mending a Broken Heart

Montreal's home bench at Centre Pierre Charbonneau, site of a 2016 WFTDA Division 1 playoff tournament. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

Montreal’s home bench at Centre Pierre Charbonneau, site of a 2016 WFTDA Division 1 playoff tournament. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

It is probably safe to say that no one thought 2016 would be the year. At least, not by the time playoffs rolled around.

By September 2016, Montreal Roller Derby and fans of the New Skids on the Block had become accustomed to playoff heartbreak; so much so that you could say it had become like a yearly ritual:

  • 2010: Carolina 127 vs. Montreal 125. Although expectations were muted for 6th seeded Montreal in their debut at Eastern Regionals, they were expected to at least improve their ranking, but after leading Carolina for much of the game, they entered the final jam up by 3 only to receive a controversial jammer penalty and give up 5 points. It was a shocking loss considering Montreal had destroyed Carolina (in Carolina) 135-29 during the regular season.
  • 2011: London 137 vs. Montreal 135. The fifth-place game at the 2011 Eastern Regionals was an instant classic and one of the great games of the era. But yet again, a regular season win over London had expectations high for Montreal. After a close first half, Montreal had to overcome a 70-point deficit in the second, coming up just short after a furious comeback. It also just happened to be the first WFTDA playoff game between two non-US opponents.
  • 2012: London 191 vs. Montreal 122.This highly anticipated quarterfinal rematch between third seed Montreal and sixth seed London was won midway through the second half when Montreal failed to field a jammer resulting in a 35-0 London jam from which the Skids could not recover.
  • 2013: Ohio 212 vs. Montreal 149. The path to champs was laid out perfectly for second-seed Montreal, who were upset by sixth-seed Ohio in the semifinals after an inexplicably lacklustre performance. Despite an extraordinary game from legendary jammer Iron Wench (in her last playoff appearance), who jammed 22 out of 43 jams for a game-high 84 points (four other jammers on Montreal skated the other 21 jams), the team looked unprepared and unfocused. Poor clock management on the bench cut short a potential late comeback.
  • 2014: Charm City 143 vs. Montreal 142. This heartbreak came in the Division quarterfinals and it came after leading the game for all but one jam in the second half (and by as much as 31 points with 8 minutes to go). A penultimate 23-point jam from Charm City to take the lead stunned Montreal, who would go on to destroy the consolation bracket by an average differential of 142 points, leaving everyone to wonder “What if?”
  • 2015: Minnesota 162 vs. Montreal 134. 28 points was the difference between a Championship berth and heartbreak last year. The third place Division playoff game was another classic, featuring six lead changes in total. Montreal led by 1 at halftime and then again, 116-112, with 12 minutes to go but couldn’t hold off Minnesota in the waning moments.

Despite the oh-so-close loss to Minnesota in the 2015 Division playoffs, Montreal had to be feeling good about themselves after coming on strong at the end of what was expected to be a rebuilding year.

The Skids were pushed by Canadian teams like never before in 2015, and seemed to have lost their stranglehold on the Canadian flat track scene. In successive games in late April and early May, Toronto had come within 9 points of knocking off Montreal before Terminal City finally accomplished the feat at the Big O with a thrilling 182-177 win.

Terminal City’s win at the Big O tournament put an end to a streak of national dominance that Canada will probably ever see again. Although Terminal had defeated Montreal once before in a shortened, non-regulation game, beginning in July 2008, the Skids had been on a nearly eight year, seventeen-game winning streak against the top teams that Canada had to offer. During that time, Montreal defeated Hammer City (twice), Toronto (six times), Rideau Valley (twice), Tri-City (twice), Oil City, Calgary and Terminal City (also twice); essentially, the cream of the crop of Canadian flat track.

But despite the early season growing pains, by the end of the year, they had clearly distanced themselves from their national rivals and after the playoff success of 2015, hopes were much higher coming into the 2016 season.

And it started off with a bang.

Rideau Valley and Toronto were the first victims of Montreal this year, and despite 13-point and 9-point nail biters in their two most recent meetings, the Skids stomped a rebuilding Toronto team by 363 points in April. By June’s ECDX tournament, Montreal was sporting a 6-1 record with the sole loss coming to London.

Philly handled Montreal with surprising ease in a June showdown at ECDX (Photo by Joe Mac)

Philly handled Montreal with surprising ease in a June showdown at ECDX (Photo by Joe Mac)

However, word on the track heading into Philadelphia was that all was not right on the bench with the Skids, and although they were able—as expected—to handle Boston in their opening game, Montreal completely came apart against Philly in the ECDX closer. After a tight start to the game, Philly went on an early 56-4 run and barely looked back on their way to a surprisingly easy 256-139 victory. Although expectations had been high for a first-ever Montreal win over their rivals, the Skids lacked cohesion on the track, and at three separate times during the game were held scoreless for stretches of at least five jams. While they were lacking injured veterans Jes Bandit and KonichiWow, the team, to put it mildly, looked out of sorts.

After that weekend, behind-the-scenes tension led to a mid-season roster shakeup that saw core veteran skaters Scores Easy and national team member Demanda Lashing  (and up-and-comer Russian Cruelette) leave the team. By the time Montreal rolled into the Division playoffs, the Skids were a team thin on experience. First-year Skids Lau-Rider, Ptite Pouliche and Sneaky Devil all saw track time in playoff games, and as the team prepared to face off against Bay Area in the third-place game, they had just seven skaters on the roster who’d played in the third-place game only a year previous. Al K Traz, Cracker Jass, Why So Sirius and Ti-Coune, all in their first year as regulars on the all-star lineup, were suddenly thrust into major competitive roles in the pack in the biggest game of their league’s history.

While the jammer rotation had retained Miracle Whips and the French national-team skater Falcon Punch (both of whom played the derby of their lives in the tournament), it was bolstered by transfer TerminateHer (from Green Mountain) and the return of Honey Badger after a year skating with Tri-City in southern Ontario.

Bolstered by a raucous home-town crowd at the Centre Pierre-Charbonneau, The Skids got off to a ferocious start against Dallas in the quarterfinals, going on a 44-6 run over the opening 10 minutes of the game. Dallas would not get within 30 the rest of the way. That game was followed by a tough semi-final loss to London, setting up the must-win game against Bay Area.

Montreal's New Skids on the Block moments after clinching their spot at the 2016 WFTDA Championship tournament. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

Montreal’s New Skids on the Block moments after clinching their spot at the 2016 WFTDA Championship tournament. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

Although the roster lacked playoff experience overall, it was anchored by some core skaters who played their hearts out in the game. From double threat Mange Moi El Cul and long-time skater Chees Grater (literally one of the most experienced skaters in the Canadian game; she’d played in that inaugural Hammer City game in Burlington on 2006), to the late-season return of national-team member KonichiWOW, the veterans came to play when it mattered. Surgical Strike was a stalwart blocker, whose seemingly unflappable (and unmoveable) presence on the track acted as both a literal and figurative anchor. But given the situation and the stakes, perhaps the greatest performance came from the sole-remaining original New Skid, Jess Bandit.

After missing most of the season due to injury, not too much was expected of the decade-long member of Montreal Roller Derby and two-time member of the Team Canada, but when it mattered most, Bandit’s even-headed play and veteran poise kept the team in check. She was stunning in the final against B.A.D., elevating her game when it mattered most, reminding the Canadian crowd that she is one of the great blockers in our country’s history with the sport.

At the draw for the 2016 WFTDA Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, a few weeks after the emotional victory, the Skids ended up with arguably the most unfortunate first-round opponent in the tournament: Los Angeles’s surging Angel City Derby Girls. It will be a tough match up, but regardless of the outcome, after such a long, heartbreaking wait, it is one that will be savoured  by not only Montreal Roller Derby and the New Skids on the Block, but also the legions of fans in the Neon Army marching behind them.

Nerd Glasses

*Most of the historical elements in this profile are adapted from Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby. Now available in bookstores and online.

*Montreal is not the first Canadian team to play at the WFTDA Championship tournament. Read a similar profile of the Rideau Valley Vixens, chronicling their march to the 2014 Division 2 championship game here.

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