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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.

Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby set for release Spring ’16

One of my favourite pics that has been featured on this site; this one is by Kevin Konnyu.

Since the book is historical, I thought I’d take a look at some of the historic shots that have appeared on the site; this one by Kevin Konnyu captures the intensity of the great early ToRD rivalry between the Gore-Gore Rollergirls and Chicks Ahoy!.

I still miss the Hangar and shots like this one (by Derek Lang) remind me why.

I still miss ToRD’s Hangar, and shots like this one by Derek Lang remind me why.

Some may have noticed that I’ve been posting just a little bit less this year as I have in the past—still hitting all the main high points in the season, but fewer of the traveling recaps and extra stuff I used to do. While this may be true, I can assure you that I haven’t been spending any less time thinking and writing about roller derby, I’ve just been focusing those energies toward a different project: a full length non-fiction book about the sport titled Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby that is nearing completion and will be released in Spring 2016 through Wolsak and Wynn.

There are, of course other reasons as well. I’ve been writing a column on WFTDA Canadian roller derby for Jammer Line and I’ve felt less pressure as there have arisen other great resources for derby news out of the ashes of DNN (among others); namely, Derby Central and even Derby Notes, which—even if I don’t always agree with the opinions expressed—is capable of producing very informative articles on the game. And of course, I’ve been on the road as part of the broadcast crew for this year’s WFTDA playoffs.

While the book has a Canadian perspective, the development of the larger game is certainly a focus as well. (Photo by Joe Mac)

While the book has a Canadian perspective, the development of the larger game is certainly a focus as well. (Photo by Joe Mac)

So yes, while my focus has shifted, I’ve still been immersing myself in the game: I’ve been following it as closely as ever, I’ve been researching its place in contemporary culture—how and why it has evolved the way it has. Eight-Wheeled Freedom is part sociological study, part memoir and part historical recounting of the 21st century revival of the sport of roller derby as a flat track game primarily played by women; there is a particular focus on the development of the game since it came to Canada in 2006.

Sustained global growth of the game has separated flat track roller derby from every version that came before it. This is a Greg Russell photo of the first game played at the first ever Roller Derby World Cup (Canada vs. France).

Sustained global growth of the game has separated flat track roller derby from every version that came before it. This is a Greg Russell photo of the first game played at the first ever Roller Derby World Cup (Canada vs. France).

While told from my point of view, it is not really a memoir in any traditional sense, but the structure of the text mirrors my growing understanding of the game and community right alongside flat track roller derby’s own growth. Also, while the text will provide a historical overview of the revival, it is not just a history book, and the focus is on why the sport has become so established in light of past failures of roller derby to inspire a grassroots movement. Another important focus of the text is the game’s evolution from sports entertainment spectacle to a complex, competitive endeavor.

An intense shot of intense action by Neil Gunner. Another focus in the book is on roller derby's evolution from spectacle to sport.

An intense shot of intense action by Neil Gunner. One focus of the book is on roller derby’s evolution from spectacle to sport.

The layout of the book is not chronological, but instead moves thematically in its exploration of the game and the surrounding community, tackling historical moments through an explanation of the cultural significance of the events. For example, a chapter on the influential 2006 A&E television show Rollergirls is framed around a discussion of roller derby’s role in third wave feminism. Another chapter looking at the history of Toronto Roller Derby’s relationship with Toronto Pride and the Pride-affiliated roller derby event that features an international all star game also examines the role that the sport has had in the LGBTQ community and, in turn, the influence this community has had on the development of the game.

With the WFTDA celebrating its 10th anniversary and the Canadian game about to celebrate a decade-long existence as well, it seemed like the perfect time to tell the story of flat track roller derby.

Some of you may recognize that Wolsak and Wynn also published my first book, David Foster Wallace Ruined my Suicide, and did an excellent job on it, so the book and the story are in good hands. That book’s designer, the excellent Marijke Friesen, returns as well. Work on the text is nearing completion with work on layout and other formatting concerns beginning as well, and keep an eye out for a book-specific website launching in the new year.

For now, stay tuned for updates on the final stages in the development of Eight-Wheeled Freedom.

Thanks readers and roller derby fans for your continued support!

Photo by Todd Burgess

Canadian Power Rankings: August 1, 2015

Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone, Dr. Jenny Fever and Derby Nerd rank Canada’s top A-level travel teams every two months (or so). Read the June 1st Power Ranking here.

TEAM (League) CHANGE NOTES (Rollergirl.ca /WFTDA rank)
1. New Skids on the Block (Montreal Roller Derby)

Montreal Roller Derby: New Skids on the Block

 +1 This league just keeps finding a way to replenish itself. After a very minor slip at the beginning of the season, the Skids have pulled (slightly) away from its Canadian competition once again. Since losing to Terminal City in May, Montreal has been on a tear, winning six in a row  including crushing the likes of Windy City and Charm City by 200 points. (1 / 16)
2. Terminal City All Stars (Terminal City Roller Girls)Terminal City All Stars
 -1  A bit of a slip as they have not shown the same level of late-season consistency that their Montreal counterparts have. A shaky win against Calgary was somewhat tempered by a better win over Toronto. Suffered some heavy losses in June, but to the best-of-the-best (including Rose City and B.A.D.) (2 / 27)
3.CN Power (Toronto Roller Derby)New CNP Logo  After being neck-and-neck early in 2015, Toronto has lost pace with Terminal City and Montreal (losing to Vancouver by 117 points). They also suffered June loss to tumbling Ohio and just narrowly defeated D2 team Naptown (186-175). (3 / 32)
4.Rideau Valley Vixens (Rideau Valley Roller Girls)

Vixens Logo

 – The Vixens have been quiet since the last rankings (as the league focused on its house league season), with a tough but reasonable loss to Charm City on the books (182-120). The Vixens managed to cling to the final 2015 D1 playoff spot. (4 / 41)
5. Calgary All Stars (Calgary Roller Derby Association)Calgary All Stars Logo +1  Calgary has had quite a season of growth. Late-season inconsistency saw them slip from a D2 playoff spot, but strong performances in recent losses against Terminal City (242-216) and Toronto (243-171) show that they still have plenty of fight left in them. (8/65)
6Tri-City Thunder (Tri-City Rller Derby)Tri-City Thunder Logo -1  After surging back into the Top 5 in June, Thunder slip a spot after a recent loss to D2 Chicago Outfit (186-100) and a lacklustre win over Brewcity (196-122). Nonetheless, they held onto a D1 playoff spot and will return for the second year in a row.(6 / 40)

7.Les Duchesses (Roller Derby Quebec)Duchesses Logo

 – Quebec’s travel team continues to roll. Although they lost handily to Montreal, they managed to stay ahead of their Muddy River Rivals in a July win (242-210) and then shocked 85th Suburbia 428-50. It’s time to see this team against some top-flight competition. (9 / -)
8. All Stars (Winnipeg Roller Derby League) winnipeg logo +1  Winnipeg leaps up a spot on the strength of a pretty incredible summer. After losing to Muddy River in May, Winnipeg has reeled off five straight victories, including four crushing sanctioned wins over D3 opponents and another over Minnesota’s B-team. (11 / 112)
9. Lumbersmacks (Muddy River Rollers)Lumbersmacks Logo -1  After going 8-1 to start the season, Muddy River has been quiet since the last Power Rankings with only one result, a 242-210 loss to Quebec, on the books. (12 / 105)
10. Anarchy Angels (Mainland Misfits Roller Derby)

Angel-logo-bw

The Anarchy Angels remain in the Top 10 after slowing things down over the summer with a respectable 207-123 loss to Rat City’s Rain of Terror since the last rankings. (10/ -)

The Changes

While the Power Rankings did not have any major shifts in this addition, there were some noticeable minor changes to the Top 10. At the top of the list, Montreal takes over top spot from Terminal City heading in to the WFTDA playoffs. This season began with Montreal, Terminal City and Toronto neck-and-neck, but as its gone on and the New Skids considerable roster changes began to settle, Montreal has surged ahead and while Terminal City has kept pace better than Toronto, MTLRD remains Canada’s greatest hope heading in to the WFTDA D1 playoffs, continuing to find ways to replenish its roster, a mix of excellent internal training and some solid impressive transfers (Team Canada’s Dyna Hurtcha [Toronto] and KonichiWow [Windy City] joined the team mid-season)

Although Tri-City managed to defeat Calgary in the spring, this summer, Calgary’s play has pulled the team slightly ahead of their counterparts. Calgary’s impressive play in losses to high-ranked competition (culminating in a surprisingly close 242-216 loss to Terminal City) gives it the edge over Tri-City who has been quieter and has less impressive performances against lower ranked teams. And finally, Winnipeg has been simply crushing it this summer, defeating its four D3 opponents by an average differential of 191, clearly distancing itself form its D3 competitors.

The Watch List

Dolly Rogers (Capital City Derby Dolls) (13th)

E-Ville Dead (E-Ville Roller Derby) (14th)

Avalanche City Roller Girls (Fernie Roller Derby Society) (15th)

Shipyard Sirens (Fog City Rollers) (16th)

Brute-Leggers (Royal City Roller Girls) (17th)

Two more teams have popped up on the Rankings Crew’s radar: joining E-Ville, Avalanche City and the Brute-Leggers are Capital City’s Dolly Rogers and Fog City’s Shipyard Sirens. Both of these teams have been on and off the Power Rankings bubble before and strong recent play sees them both return. The Dolly Rogers opened the season with a loss to Montreal’s Sexpos, but since then have managed six-straight one-sided wins that have demonstrated an increasing level of play (in May they defeated Kingston’s Disloyalists by 194 points; in an August rematch, they’d increased the differential to 325). The Shipyard Sirens have been, and remain, Muddy River’s primary competition on Canada’s East Coast. Another late start to the season sees them pop up on the Watch List late, but they’ve kicked things off impressively with a smothering 354-69 win over Fredericton’s Capital City Rollers. More recently, they crushed Bangor with a slightly better margin of victory than Muddy River (163 vs. 132), which certainly piqued our interest.

Nerd Glasses

*These rankings were compiled by the Derby Nerd, Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone, and Dr. Jenny Fever.

*Get caught up by reading the June Power Rankings here.

-Respectful disagreement and debate is encouraged!-

Canadian Power Rankings: June 1, 2015

Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone, Dr. Jenny Fever and Derby Nerd rank Canada’s top A-level travel teams every two months (or so). Read the April 1st Power Ranking here.

TEAM (League) CHANGE NOTES (Rollergirl.ca /WFTDA rank)
1.Terminal City All Stars (Terminal City Roller Girls)Terminal City All Stars  – Vancouver finally became the team to the end Montreal’s unbeaten streak. Since that win they’ve gone 2-3, but the losses have come against top-flight competition (Rat City, Rocky Mountain and Denver). (/ 17)
2. New Skids on the Block (Montreal Roller Derby)

Montreal Roller Derby: New Skids on the Block

 –  Their unbelievable Canadian winning streak finally ended, but it has seemed to inspire the team and they’ve been on a tear since, including a surprisingly one-sided win over Boston. (1 / 20)
3.CN Power (Toronto Roller Derby)New CNP Logo A strong showing against Montreal was followed by an up-and-down performance at Spring Roll However, the team seems to be integrating changes nicely and should still improve as the season goes on. (3 / 24)
4.Rideau Valley Vixens (Rideau Valley Roller Girls)

Vixens Logo

 – An inconsistent Beaver Fever saw them hold off Tri-City before inexplicably falling to Queen City. This inconsistency could threaten their playoff chances. (4 / 34)
5. Tri-City Thunder (Tri-City Rller Derby)Tri-City Thunder Logo +1 After some off-season adjusting, Thunder have been on a roll. Great showings at Beaver Fever and Spring Roll (including upset wins over Calgary and Queen City) has Tri-City back in the Top 5. (5/54)
6Calgary All Stars (Calgary Roller Derby Association)Calgary All Stars Logo -1 While briefly in D1 position, losses at Spring Roll (most notably to Tri-City) send them just out of the Top 5. Calgary has plateaued a bit after a surge up the rankings. (8 / 43)

7.Les Duchesses (Roller Derby Quebec)Duchesses Logo

 – Quebec’s travel team is just getting warmed up but holds its spot after a better result against Bangor than Muddy River had. Their upcoming showdown with the Lumbersmacks should be explosive.  (11 / -)
8. Lumbersmacks (Muddy River Rollers)Lumbersmacks Logo  +1  Muddy River keeps climbing after a second place finish at the grueling Mayday Mayhem tournament, where they defeated Winnipeg in the semifinals. (10 / -)
9. All Stars (Winnipeg Roller Derby League) winnipeg logo unranked Winnipeg finally enters the Top 10 after an impressive final-four appearance at Mayday Mayhem that helped improve their season record to 4-2 (all sanctioned play). (13 / -)
10. Anarchy Angels (Mainland Misfits Roller Derby)

Angel-logo-bw

-2 The Anarchy Angels remain in the Top 10 after a dominant performance at Flat Track Fever including a win over E-Ville. They are 5-0 on the season with an average differential of 250 points. (9/ -)

The Power Rankings had anticipated an end to Montreal New Skids on the Block’s all-time Canadian winning streak, and it finally happened in April. After coming back to take a narrow 9-point win over Toronto at home in Montreal, the Skids headed out west to the Big O where Terminal City had its chance. They took advantage. It was an intense, back-and-forth game that Vancouver was able to win on the final jam, 182-177. It ended a 17-game winning streak dating back to 2008 for Montreal and the results have the Power Rankings Crew holding the top three.

Rideau Valley also was able to hold on to its fourth spot with an up-and-down performance at Beaver Fever that included a solid 186-156 win over Tri-City. Speaking of Tri-City, Thunder returns to the Top 5 on a strong run at both Beaver Fever and Spring Roll that saw them upset Queen City and then Calgary. That loss is what sends Calgary tumbling a spot. The CRDA All Stars had briefly jumped into WFTDA’s Division 1, before slipping back to D2 where they hold a strong playoff position should they remain there.

While Les Duchesses barely hold the 7th spot, they will continue their burgeoning rivalry with Muddy River this summer, who has crept up next to them in the Power Rankings after a second-place performance at the Mayday Mayhem tournament in Colorado, where they knocked off Canadian counterparts Winnipeg (who are entering the Top 10 for the first time after a long time on the Watch List and then on the Bubble). As with Muddy River, expect a big WFTDA rankings debut for Winnipeg. Finally, Mainland Misfits Anarchy Angels are hard to judge as they have yet to truly face a challenge so far in 2015, but an impressive (dominant) run at Flat Track Fever keeps them safely in the Top 10.

On The Bubble

E-Ville Dead (E-Ville Roller Derby) (12th)

Avalanche City Roller Girls (Fernie Roller Derby Society) (17th)

Brute-Leggers (Royal City Roller Girls) (19th)

We’ve still got a long watch list to keep track of as the season progresses but there are three teams who remain directly on the Bubble. E-Ville, in particular, held off a strong challenge from Avalanche City at Flat Track Fever (keeping them both here on the Bubble), and finally Guelph’s Royal City Brute-Leggers started the season with an unsanctioned loss to Toronto’s Bay Street Bruisers only to go on a 3-0 run in their WFTDA sanctioned debut, securing an impressive initial ranking of 105th.

Nerd Glasses

*These rankings were compiled by the Derby Nerd, Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone, and Dr. Jenny Fever.

*Get caught up by reading the April Power Rankings here.

-Respectful disagreement and debate is encouraged!-

Lay of the Land: Where Canadian Teams Stand Midway Through WFTDA Season

The Nerd breaks down the rankings and records of Canada’s top WFTDA teams as the playoff push continues.

DIVISION 1

All four Canadian D1 teams have seen considerable action this season, and at the midway point, all seem fairly secure in their D1 status for the season. Barring any disastrous summers, the next few months should be dedicated to improving placement.

Photo by Bob Ayers (from TCRG All Stars home page)Terminal City All Stars

Current Ranking: 17th / 2015 Record: 4-0

Terminal City is officially the top team in the nation, but they have not in any way distanced themselves from Montreal and Toronto. Impressive wins over Helsinki and Nashville to kick off the season were followed by the narrow streak-stopping victory over Montreal (182-177) and an even narrower win over Boston (177-174). Interestingly, despite the loss to Vancouver, Montreal has better results against Nashville and Helsinki, and Toronto has a better result against Boston but lost (barely) to Montreal. It seems that there is nothing really separating Canada’s top three teams right now.

The Terminal City roster returns largely unchanged from last season but there have definitely been internal shifts, with the likes of Eve Hollows and Sundown taking on more on-track leadership and Maiden Sane rising to the top of the jammer rotation.

Next up for Terminal City are Wasatch (39th) and Rocky Mountain (14th) at Besterns on May 29th.

Photo by Ulrick Wery (from Skids home page)

Montreal Roller Derby: New Skids on the Block

Current Ranking: 20th / 2015 Record: 4-1

Montreal started the season very well holding off frantic pushes from both Rideau Valley (166-140) and Toronto (180-171) before handling Nashville and Helsinki with relative ease and then suffering the team’s first ever defeat to a Canadian team in the last-minute loss to Terminal City.

Montreal is going through a minor rebuild this season from the bench staff right through to the jammer rotation. And while skaters like Ohi(0) and Demanda Lashing in the pack and Falcon Punch with the star have emerged as prominent pieces, there is still a very experienced core at the heart of this team that includes Jess Bandit, Mange Moi El Cul, Cheese Grater and Mel E. Juana.

The Skids have a busy June coming up with tough games against Boston (21st), Stockholm (32nd), and a tumbling Windy City (13th) scheduled.

CNPOWER 2015

Toronto Roller Derby: CN Power

Current Ranking: 24th / 2015 Record: 4-3

Toronto has been very busy so far this season and despite a considerable roster shuffle in the off season has looked strong in 2015. An impressive three-game winning streak over Rideau Valley, Steel City and Boston built up CN Power’s confidence going into a showdown with long-time rival Montreal, a game they led most of the way before losing narrowly. An up-and-down Spring Roll saw them sneak by Kansas City (191-188) before strong performances in losses to higher ranked Arch Rival (18th currently) and the surging Dallas Derby Devils, who have jumped 31 spots in the standings so far this season.

Toronto, largely, has a new-look jammer rotation with transfers Mad Megz, Smoka Cola, and Bay Street Bruisers graduate Bellefast all in the top four of the depth chart. Blocking, Misery Mae has added some much-needed power to the pack while Ames to Kill has emerged as a more-than-capable team leader.

Toronto faces some old (and also rebuilding) rivals in Naptown (35th) and Ohio (22nd) next.

vixens2014_logo-resize

Rideau Valley Vixens

Current Ranking: 34th / 2015 Record: 3-4

The Vixens remain somewhat of an enigma. Although their record speaks to the quality of competition the team has faced in 2015, they have had some inconsistent results. Starting the season with a big win over Steel City, Rideau Valley looked very good in losses to the higher ranked Toronto (32 point loss), Boston (23) and Montreal (26), they then crushed Green Mountain and held off a cagey Tri-City before coming up flat in a loss to Queen City (a team that, to be fair, has often seemed to baffle the Vixens—for whatever reason).

While the Vixens have been slowly extending their bench (and the B-Team Sirens are developing well), depth remains a problem. Skaters like Jamie’s Got a Gun (who has transitioned nicely from the junior to the senior game) and Restless Ross are taking on more responsibility in the pack, but they still have problems at the jammer position. With Shania Pain once again missing most of the summer schedule, they have yet to find a consistent third jammer capable of replacing her at this level, a gap that was evident in the loss to Queen City.

The Vixens do, so far, have a quiet summer planned, but have a very important showdown scheduled against Baltimore’s Charm City in July.

DIVISION 2

Canada has two teams securely in Division 2 playoff spots, and although both would love to advance to D1 by the season’s end (and it remains a possibility), either team could do some serious damage in the D2 playoffs and would both be considered contenders if they remained.

Photo by Brangwyn Jones from CRDA All Stars home page

Calgary Roller Derby Association All Stars

Current Ranking: 43rd / 2015 Record: 3-6

A very busy Calgary team is getting a crash-course in how hard it is to stay competitive in WFTDA’s Division 1. The darlings of the Association last season (built upon a record-setting surge up the standings), Calgary briefly slipped into D1 early in 2015 before settling back high in the D2 standings. Calgary hasn’t yet managed the big wins this season as they’ve faced some stiff competition, losing one-sided decisions to strong teams from Arizona, Jacksonville, Arch Rival and Dallas. However, most surprising was their recent loss to 54th ranked Tri-City (208-196) in a thrilling game between the cross-nation teams.

Calgary retains its core after last year’s run up the rankings and their jammer rotation (led by Team Canada’s Kryss Myass) has been shored up by the strong play of Mulan Bruise and Easy Break Oven.

Calgary awaits its schedule for Beach Brawl 2015 in June, and also has yet to announce an opponent for a June 6th home game.

TCRD travel team 2015

Tri-City Thunder

Current Ranking: 54th / 2015 Record: 6-2

After a seemingly ominously auspices start to the 2015 season (a one-sided loss to a rebuilding Ohio), Tri-City has turned its fortunes around and anchored by a solidly rebuilt jammer rotation has won six of the last seven games to all-but-secure a spot in the D2s once again (they were in the D1 playoffs last season, but the D2s in 2013). The only loss in that run was to the higher-ranked Rideau Valley (186-156) and included considerable upsets over Calgary (43rd) and Queen City (30th).

Changes all around have helped to shore up Tri-City’s game. Recent transfers Andy Slamberg and Anne Tastic join Fox Hadley, Wylde Leigh Coyote, and Fraxxure in a deep pack, while the jammer rotation has been completely rebuilt around transfers Honey Badger and Crazy Squirrel (with double threat AnneX providing the most consistent relief with the star).

Up next is a tough June meeting against 45th ranked Chicago Outfit in Chi-town.

THE BEST OF THE REST

The rest of Canada’s WFTDA teams are either currently unranked due to lack of sanctioned games (Muddy River and Winnipeg, for example, who both just picked up a handful of games after strong performances at Mayday Mayhem and will enter the rankings shortly) or have either fallen far out of D2 (Hamilton continues its slide, down now to 141st) or haven’t yet climbed their way into it (Forest City, for example, whose inconsistency has them still hovering at 136th).

However, the best of the rest is easily the Royal City Roller Girls’ Brute-Leggers, who after winning their first three sanctioned bouts, have leap-frogged the rest of the Canadian competition to find themselves ranked 105th and on the cusp of Division 2. The Brute-Leggers’ next sanctioned action comes in June at ECDX where they will square off against Salisbury (107th) and Connecticut (112th). It will easily be the stiffest test the team will have faced yet in sanctioned play, but they are both winnable games that provide a quality opportunity to build on what has been an incredibly successful start to their WFTDA run.

Nerd Glasses

*I’ll be at the Bunker in Downsview Park this weekend working with Rogers TV to broadcast Toronto Roller Derby’s playoffs! After their quarterfinal win on May 9th, the Smoke City Betties have advanced to take on the defending champion Death Track Dolls for an opportunity to play in this year’s Battle For the Boot. The night will begin with the D-VAS hosting Royal City’s Our Ladies of Pain (5:00 PM), with opening whistle for the semifinal scheduled for 7:00 PM. Tickets are now available.

Canadian Power Rankings: April 1, 2015

Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Dafone, Dr. Jenny Fever and Derby Nerd rank Canada’s top A-level travel teams every two months (or so). This is the first Power Ranking of 2015.

TEAM (League) CHANGE NOTES (Rollergirl.ca /WFTDA rank)
1.Terminal City All Stars (Terminal City Roller Girls)Terminal City All Stars Idle thus far in 2015, but Terminal City has seen very little turnover on a team that played its way to the top last season.   (/ 18)
2. New Skids on the Block (Montreal Roller Derby)

Montreal Roller Derby: New Skids on the Block

Another untested team thus far in 2015, and one that has seen considerable turnover in the off season. But until there is evidence to the contrary, the Skids hold their spot. (1 / 17)
3.CN Power (Toronto Roller Derby)New CNP Logo Despite big off-season changes, Toronto kicked off 2015 with three straight wins over quality competition (Boston, Steel City, and Rideau Valley) to hold onto third spot. (3 / 28)
4.Rideau Valley Vixens (Rideau Valley Roller Girls)

Vixens Logo

The Vixens come into the season with their roster virtually intact and looked solid with a 1-2 record at Quad City Chaos that included a significant upset over Steel City’s Steel Hurtin’.  (5 / 39)
5. Calgary All Stars (Calgary Roller Derby Association)Calgary All Stars Logo Calgary surged up the WFTDA (and Power) Rankings last season, and have picked up right where they left off, going 3-1 to kick off 2015 (2-1 in sanctioned play) with a loss to Arizona. (4 / 53)
6. Tri-City Thunder (Tri-City Rller Derby)Tri-City Thunder Logo A team in the midst of a rebuild (evidenced by a big loss to a similarly rebuilding Ohio), the Thunder did pick up some nice pieces in the off season and remain a D2 threat. (7/46)

7.Les Duchesses (Roller Derby Quebec)Duchesses Logo

Les Duchesses have picked up right where they left off last season with a one-sided win against Bangor. This team has been on an upward trajectory for a few years now and should be poised to jump even higher. (8 / -)
8. Anarchy Angels (Mainland Misfits Roller Derby)

Angel-logo-bw

 No action yet in 2015, so they get the benefit of the doubt and hold their spot. (10 / -)
9. Lumbersmacks (Muddy River Rollers)Lumbersmacks Logo  After skirting the Top 10 for the majority of 2014, Muddy River’s all stars make the leap. They’ve only got one result this season, but it was an impressive one-sided sanctioned win over the Rock Coast Rollers.  (11 / – )
10. Avalanche City Roller Girls (Fernie Roller Derby Society)Avalanche City Logo A WFTDA apprentice league, Avalanche City makes its Top 10 debut after a 1-1 start to the season including a win over Flat Head Valley and a loss to Snake Pit. (14 / -)

The top two teams in the rankings have not seen any action yet in 2015, but they get the benefit of the doubt. Terminal City ended last season with the strongest, most accomplished roster, and virtually nothing has changed since, so until there is evidence to the contrary, they hold onto top spot. Montreal gets the benefit because, well, they are Montreal. However, in 2014 it was a dog fight to keep their (sanctioned/regulation) undefeated record against Canadian competition and with upwards of seven new faces on the roster this year, they will be challenged to do so again. They’ve got some stiff tests against Rideau Valley and Toronto coming up that should give us a clear picture of how this Skids team will look in 2015.

Toronto, Rideau Valley, and Calgary have all gotten off to strong starts this season and are very tightly bunched from 3-5. Both Rideau and Toronto played in the Quad City Chaos and looked very good, with Toronto running the board, including a convincing 55-point win over 25th ranked Boston. Calgary were the biggest movers and shakers in 2014 and although it will get harder to make those massive leaps in the WFTDA rankings now, they are solidly in a D2 payoff position and based on the strong start to the season (their only loss being to under-ranked Arizona) and a bolstered 2015 roster, they could challenge for a D1 spot when all is said and done.

Tri-City slipped out of D1 last year, and is in the midst of a continued rebuild. They have picked up some transfers that could help bolster their jammer rotation especially, but it remains to be seen how far the Thunder can go this year. However, a strong organizational foundation helps prop up the team. Quebec’s Les Duchesses leap up to their highest spot in the rankings after a one-sided win over Bangor and are followed by the Anarchy Angels (who are the only non-WFTDA affiliated league in the Top 10).

The Top 10 is rounded out by two teams making their Top 10 debuts: both Muddy River’s Lumbersmacks and Fernie’s Avalanche City were on the bubble or certainly on close watch in 2014 and should both make a competitive jump this season. Muddy River is now a full WFTDA league and coming off of their busiest and most challenging season to date, could be set to make some noise in 2015 (and started off the year with their first ever sanctioned win). Similarly, a newly appointed WFTDA Apprentice, Avalanche City, looks to be finally making the jump into more competitive territory in 2015.

**A few things to note: Perennial Top 10ers Red Deer’s Belladonnas have ceased operation after the 2014 season, although some of the roster have dispersed to other leagues. We’re sorry to see the team go, but wish the skaters the best of luck in their new endeavors. Also, The Rankings Crew has decided not to include Alliston’s Misfit Militia this season. Not a knock on this team’s excellent training and commitment, but just that a vast majority of the members of their roster play in other leagues, with a considerable number now on the already-ranked Toronto team.

TEAMS TO WATCH IN 2015

Teams may come and go on this list as the season progresses, but to kick things off, these are the teams that are making the most noise on the Ranking Crew’s radars, representing a threat to crack the Top 10 at some point (with Rollergirl.ca rankings in parentheses):

E-Ville Dead (E-Ville Roller Derby) (13th)

Sugar Skulls (Pile ‘O Bones Derby Club) (15th)

All Stars (Winnipeg Roller Derby League) (16th)

Shipyard Sirens (Fog City Rollers) (18th)

Deadlies (Tournament City Derby Dolls)   (19th)

Brute-Leggers (Royal City Roller Girls) (20th)

Timber Rollers (Forest City Derby Girls) (23rd)

Mind Fox (Saskatoon Roller Derby League) (26th)

Rated PG Rollergirls (29th)

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2015

Each year, the Rankings Crew likes to point out some skaters that may fly under the radar but deserve some extra attention and could be primed for breakout years.

First up, out west there are a couple of Calgary skaters who could help put that team over the top in 2015. Taz may not be so new a name to fans of Canadian roller derby (she was a member of Team Canada in 2011 while with Red Deer), but now on Calgary, this strong, agile skater will get a chance to shine on a grand stage as part of Calgary’s impressive jammer rotation. Similarly, her teammate at CRDA, Knox Hersoxoff, is a blocker poised for a breakout season. One of new Top 10 teams, Avalanche City, also has a skater to watch in the explosive Jenna Jammerson. Jenna’s been around for a few years, but with Avalanche City now a WFTDA Apprentice league, look for her profile to rise. Similarly, fast-climbing Anarchy Angels boast a solid double threat in Mala Justed, a strong all-around skater who will benefit from the Angels’ increased level of competition.

In the east, Tri-City Roller Derby has picked up a few new skaters including Crazy Squirrel. After playing for a variety of leagues in southern Ontario, this jukey jammer has now landed at Tri-City and will have an opportunity to shine on a considerable stage. Another team to watch, the Brute-Leggers, features an impressive blocker in Allie Artuso. A third-year skater with a background in figure skating, look out for this smart, agile blocker (with definite jamming capabilities), known for playing well above her size. Toronto’s CN Power has a new-look jammer rotation filled with excellent transfers that will undoubtedly turn heads, but we’re going off the board a little for this pick: Sleeper Hold. Although a B-team skater at present (with ToRD’s impressive Bay Street Bruisers), Sleeper Hold is arguably the future of Toronto Roller Derby’s offense. She’s got all the tools: size, strength, smarts and a calm focus on the track. And finally, although Muddy River’s Burnie is well known to fans on the east coast, look out for this super-fit, multi-position skater to turn heads all across the country as the Lumbersmacks continue their ascent up the WFTDA ladder.

Nerd Glasses

*These rankings were compiled by the Derby Nerd, Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Pounder, and Dr. Jenny Fever.

*Can’t remember how last year ended? Read the final Canadian Power Rankings of 2014 here.

-Respectful disagreement and debate is encouraged!-

Neil Gunner’s Into Battle to Launch at ToRD’s 2015 Season Opener

“I definitely had it in my mind to represent the full derby experience as much as possible.”—Neil Gunner on preparing to publish Into Battle, his book of roller derby photography that will be available this weekend at ToRD’s 2015 Season Opener.

"If I'm having to use my teammates to try to claw my way through, it's probably because I'm under heavy attack. That's how it feels when you're playing against Windy City." - Minnesota's Juke Boxx (now with London) on facing  Windy City in the final of the 2012 WFTDA North Central Regional Championship.

“If I’m having to use my teammates to try to claw my way through, it’s probably because I’m under heavy attack. That’s how it feels when you’re playing against Windy City.” – Minnesota’s Juke Boxx (now with London) on facing Windy City in the final of the 2012 WFTDA North Central Regional Championship.

Into Battle: The Roller Derby Experience in Photos and Interviews is a coffee-table sized sports photography book, but it’s not your typical sports book, nor is it your typical book of photographs. And those are both good things.

The book is not simply a collection of the author’s best or favourite photographs; it is instead curated thematically, divided into 27 sections that mimic the narrative of a roller derby event, from pre-game talks to stretching and gearing up, right through to the elation of post-game celebrations.

Beautifully and meticulously put together from the inside covers right through to the subtle background images of the text (ghostly shots of the floor the Bunker, home of Toronto Roller Derby), perhaps the most astonishing thing about the book is that it was self-published by the photographer himself, Neil Gunner. And everything from the vision to the actualization was all his doing.

“My main motivation was that I wanted full creative control, from art direction and layout to treatment of photos and skater stories to physical specs for the book,” Gunner explained in a recent interview. “I didn’t trust that some mass-market publisher would do justice to roller derby the way someone within our community would.”

So despite interest from an American publisher, Neil set out on his own with little more than his large collection of personal photos representing a number of events (from house league matchups to the WFTDA playoffs) and 19 distinct leagues from throughout Canada and the United States, and only a slowly evolving vision for the book.

“When I started the process, I had no idea if it was even going to work,” he admits now, “It all depended on the skaters – if they were willing to share, we were in business. Thankfully, the vast majority were very open and engaging; once I’d done a couple of interviews, I knew I was on to something.”

Interestingly, the book emerged out of a somewhat constructed collaboration that went beyond the natural game-time collaboration between photographer and subject. Instead of simply organizing the photographs into thematic sections, Gunner also made the fascinating choice of interviewing the subjects of the photos and using those words to accompany the photos as opposed to his own descriptions; this was one of the ideas that preceded the publishing of the text and ended up inadvertently shaping the content as well.

“When I started, I didn’t immediately think ‘chapters’; I wasn’t even sure what the theme would be… As I started to complete interviews and create transcripts, I could see themes and patterns emerging; it was just a matter of putting those patterns together. Over several weeks, the patterns became categories, which became sections and then chapters, right down to individual page spreads…The photo and story I chose for the introduction—where Arch Rival’s High Pains Drifter (Bench Coach) and Downtown Dallis are having their heart to heart—when I put those stories together, I thought, ‘This is it. This represents the whole derby attitude.’ It set the tone for the entire book.”

"I was just thinking  to myself, desperately like, 'Grab Acid's hand and take that whip.'" - Ohio's Smacktivist on a 2012 playoff showdown with Naptown.

“I was just thinking to myself, desperately like, ‘Grab Acid’s hand and take that whip.'” – Ohio’s Smacktivist on a 2012 playoff showdown with Naptown.

Neil Gunner (whose derby photography can be found on his Flickr site) is unique in one way from most derby photographers: He is very selective about what photos he releases to the public after a bout or tournament, sometimes to the point where a double header, for example, will produce as little as twenty pictures; so even in his regular derby photography, he is building a narrative and it’s something that he is conscious about: “One thing you’ll notice when you look at my derby photography in general: I like to curate and I like to tell a story, if I can. Sort of a dramatic documentary. The one thing I knew from the start was that this (book) couldn’t be just a bunch of photos with no context – I mean, who’d care, right?”

This structural decision makes for a surprisingly engaging read. As with any book of photos, it’s entirely possible to open randomly and be impressed by the pics and the layout, but rare in photography books is the ability to read it from start to finish as you would a novel or even a game recap.

But collecting and selecting the images and doing the interviews—while undeniably a massive undertaking—is just the first step in the production of a book; beyond that, the actual production can take as much time or more and can offer immense challenges, particularly from someone self-publishing a book for the first time. As Gunner admits, it required a lot of patience and the willingness to learn on the fly: “Every step of the process presented a unique set of challenges. The ones I didn’t see coming all had to do with production. For instance, I taught myself InDesign in order to build the book layouts. I learned all about retouching to fix a couple things within some photos.”

But the biggest challenge, he explains, was the actual preparation of the images for printing: “Photos intended for paper and a multi-million dollar printing press require a different output format than photos intended for a computer screen (CMYK versus RGB for those interested). The conversion process isn’t hard, but the trick is maintaining image quality: images reproduced on paper often lose something. I did a lot of testing, and this is one reason why finding the right printer is so important.” He ended up choosing a printer from Manitoba, and along with printing, they were able to offer advice as well.

As you learn through talking with people who have self-published, finding and receiving help along the way is key in the production. The term “self-publishing” itself is a bit of a misnomer, especially when producing a book as technically and structurally challenging as this one. All the steps a “traditional” publisher would take still need to be taken, and Gunner made sure to seek out help where needed, which included hiring a print production management team, Heidy Lawrance Associates, who ended up putting him in touch with the Manitoba-based printer and gave advice about aspects such as layout.

And that help extends into post production where he hired a copy/substantive editor, Stephanie Halldorson from h:editing, as well as a proofreader, Tan Light. “Believe me,” Gunner is quick to point out, “the book was very much improved by their attention.”

But when it all comes down to it, the stars of the book are the photos themselves and the subjects they contain. And the years of shooting roller derby have given Neil a refined eye for the sport and the action it contains.

There is a wide range of levels of derby captured in the book. The opening two-page spread of the “Teamwork” section (pp.76-77), for example, provides one image of a farm-team level game in Toronto opposite an image of a WFTDA elimination playoff game between Ohio and Naptown; despite the disparity in the levels of the game, the subject matter (two blockers attempting to whip their jammers past quickly advancing defenses) and the captured intensity are equal and presented as such.

"It was a messy, messy couple of seconds." - Windy City's Killanois on this encounter with a Montreal pack.

“It was a messy, messy couple of seconds.” – Windy City’s Killanois on this encounter with a Montreal pack.

The set-up also allows for narratives to be told over two pages. One example appears in the “Contact” section where a sequence (pp. 46-47) showing the knocking down of a jammer (Windy City’s Killinois) by a couple of Montreal blockers is described over both pages, with the narrative of the blocker (Montreal’s Mel-E. Juana is the interviewed blocker) and the jammer accompanying the images. Similarly, a three-photo spread (pp. 160-161) in the “Tenacity” section shows an ongoing battle between a blocker (Forest City’s Mirambo) and jammer (Toronto Roller Derby’s Bala Reina). It’s a compelling style, and one of the reasons that makes this book of photography so “readable.”

In the end, what Gunner has managed to produce is as compelling a book about roller derby as the contemporary revival has seen. Add to that the fact that as a DIY project, it was a labour of love in line with the cultural aesthetic of contemporary roller derby, and you have a book that successfully captures a community.

While talking with Neil about the book, you get a sense that despite the effort, he enjoyed making it as much as we’ve enjoyed reading it. “You really have to enjoy the process. It’s a huge amount of sustained effort; several phases were a full-time job. So you’ve got to have fun along the way or you’ll never get through it. Which is why I’m eternally grateful to every skater who agreed to do an interview over a beer.”

When asked if self-publishing was the right decision, he doesn’t hesitate, “it was absolutely the right decision.”

ToRD 2015 Season Opener BannerInto Battle will be available at Toronto Roller Derby’s 2015 season opener, a double header featuring a rematch of the 2014 Battle for the Boot (Death Track Dolls vs. Gore-Gore Rollergirls) and Chicks Ahoy! vs. Smoke City Betties. Neil Gunner and others who appear in the book will also be available to sign autographs.

Tickets are now available.