London Brawling

WFTDA Playoff Recap: Montreal bows out; London heads to champs

Denver, Ohio and London are the first teams to qualify for the 2013 WFTDA Championship tournament.

Denver, Ohio and London are the first teams to qualify for the 2013 WFTDA Championship tournament.

Montreal’s New Skids on the Block came into the opening weekend of the 2013 WFTDA playoffs with high hopes and the high seeding to match. Under the WFTDA’s new playoff seeding system, the Divisional groupings had teams much more evenly distributed than ever before, seeing traditional powerhouses like Rose City (5th) and scrappy upstarts like Wasatch (7th) given challenging seedings. It was made clear early on that Denver was the cream of this crop, while last year’s fan favourites Ohio finally put it all together to advance to the Championship tournament. Montreal, on the other hand, struggled throughout, never seeming to get it all together for a complete game, finishing fourth after a loss to their playoff rivals, London, who became the first international team to qualify for the WFTDA Championship tournament.

Gaining a bye to the quarterfinals, Montreal opened against a Wasatch team that had been forced to play a qualifying game earlier in the day (a one-sided win over Grand Raggidy). Facing a history of three-straight Friday losses in the playoffs, Montreal hoped to turn things around against the team from Salt Lake City. However, it was Wasatch who stormed out of the gates and had Montreal scrambling for almost the entire first half. Multiple early jammer penalties to Mel E Juana and Lil Mama (which would become a huge problem during the tournament) had Montreal in a deep hole early. However, it was uncharacteristically loose packs that were truly the Skids undoing. Although the trio of Jess Bandit, Surgical Strike  (often joined by vet Rae Volver) provided the most consistent pack of the night for the Skids, for the most part, Wasatch’s relentless blockers easily won the pack battles.

Read Lex Talkionis' complete Wasatch v. Montreal recap on Derby News Network (featuring the photography of Bob Dunnell and Dave Wood)

Read Lex Talionis’ complete Wasatch vs. Montreal recap on Derby News Network (featuring the photography of Bob Dunnell-pictured-and Dave Wood)

Nonetheless, the experienced and playoff-hardened Montreal skaters held it together in the second half and once they had a lead (they took their second and final lead with 14 minutes remaining in the half), were able to maintain it and hold off a weakening Wasatch attack. The 188-159 victory propelled Montreal into the final four, guaranteeing the Skids their highest finish in a tournament, and giving them two shots at a Championship berth.

Unfortunately, it was a similar story against Ohio in the second game. Inconsistent jamming and loose pack work (there were some awkward formation decisions, especially on power kills) gave Ohio the early lead, one they would not relinquish throughout. Heavy penalty troubles kept Montreal packs small and inconsistent, leaving the Skids unable to stick with any sort of consistent lines. The jamming was inconsistent as well, with Mel E Juana following strong jams with penalty-filled ones, a more conservative Greta Bobo struggling to pick up leads, and even the indefatigable Iron Wench committing a handful of penalties.

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall's full game recap on DNN (featuring photography by Dave Wood-pictured-and Bob Dunnell)

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall’s full Ohio vs. Montreal recap on DNN (featuring photography by Dave Wood-pictured-and Bob Dunnell)

Ohio, on the other hand, came into the tournament more prepared than they ever have been before. Last year, the skaters from Columbus seemed burned out by the time they reached Regionals, and with a lighter regular-season load in 2013, they were fresher and sharper than ever and controlled Montreal completely in the first half.

While Montreal tightened things up in the second, they were unable to complete the comeback. At about the midway point of the second, they were within striking distance and playing their best derby of the game, but they couldn’t draw Ohio into the kind of mistakes they needed to. Also uncharacteristically, Montreal seemed resigned to the loss over the last five or six minutes (despite finally getting leads consistently and being within the 40-50 point range) letting the clock run down and leaving two timeouts and an official review on the board, perhaps saving themselves for what they knew would be a tough, third-place bout.

The third place game marked the third straight season that Montreal and London would meet in the WFTDA playoffs (add to that an Anarchy in the UK showdown, and this matchup counts as London’s biggest rivalry), but it would not have the drama of the others. London was clearly playing the best derby of the team’s history on the weekend, having the wherewithal to withstand Rose City’s relentless push and defeat them in the quarterfinals, but also to stick with Denver (defending WFTDA third-place team, and a valid contender this season) in their semi-final.

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall's full game recap on DNN (featuring the photography of Dave Wood).

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall’s full London vs. Montreal recap on DNN (featuring the photography of Dave Wood).

Montreal’s Skids certainly played their best game of the weekend in the third-place bout, but they trailed virtually the whole game, and despite a few pushbacks, were never able to get within 80 points in the second half, untimely jammer penalties once again their undoing (although to the jammers’ credit, they were often drawn due to depleted packs). The win meant that London has become the first international team to qualify for the WFTDA Championship tournament joining Ohio and Denver from this Division (Denver took down Ohio in the final). Montreal’s fourth place finish, was their best ever at a playoff tournament as well. And it was fitting that the most experienced international playoff teams played in that deciding bout, a matchup that seemed almost destined to happen.

Although Montreal is out, for the first time ever, Canada can keep cheering at the WFTDA playoffs! Next weekend, in the second Divisional tournament, Vancouver’s Terminal City All Stars will be heading to Richmond, Virginia, where they will open the tournament against Tampa Roller Derby at 12:00 PM on Friday.

Read the Nerd’s full Canadian-Content preview here.

*All of the games were boutcast live on WFTDA.TV. Watch the archives here.

* Read the blow-by-blow recaps of each game on Derby News Network.

Pondering the Playoffs 1: WFTDA’s Eastern Regionals

Pondering the Playoffs

One Nerd’s reflections on the WFTDA Eastern Region Playoffs

The more things change the more they stay the same.

That cliché has never felt truer than after watching this weekend’s WFTDA Eastern Region playoff tournament. When it was all said and done, the same three teams (Gotham, Philly and Charm City) that represented the east at last year’s WFTDA championship were through again, but the group of teams they left behind could not have been more different, and they game they were playing continues to evolve in exciting ways: stronger, faster, smarter seems to be the theme of the 2011 WFTDA playoffs.

The Eastern Regionals were co-hosted by the DC Rollergirls the Charm City Roller Girls.

The first day was one of upsets and, eventually, upset. London Brawling became only the second international team to play in the WFTDA playoffs and the first European team to do so and they made a grand entrance. Despite their high power ranking from DNN, much had been made of their inclusion in the top 10 given their relative lack of sanctioned experience, but they quickly proved those skeptics wrong with a one-sided upset (160-67) over 7th seed Carolina. It would be the only upset on the opening day (the top four would advance), but it would not turn out to be the story of the first round.

After an impressive 198-117 victory over 9th seed Maine, 8th seed Dutchland made the controversial decision to forfeit their quarterfinal bout against Gotham to avoid the inevitable defeat and “remain fresh” for the consolation round. Condemnation of the decision was swift and harsh as social media sites exploded with criticism. The decision, made in the heat of the moment one would hope, is probably one that the team has come to regret, and while the criticism may have been extreme and perhaps even a little too harsh, it was a decision that rankled many because it ran counter to roller derby’s inherent “give it your all” attitude. With a wide disparity even at the highest levels of the sport, the key to a team’s development is to play against those better, and sometimes even much better. Just ask Steel City. They were the team that would eventually fall in front of Gotham in the semifinal on Saturday.  They were slaughtered by one of the largest playoff margins in history, falling 404-30. The second half was particularly harrowing for the Pittsburgh skaters as Gotham thoroughly dominated from pack to jammer. But in deference to the pounding, Steel Hurtin never stopped fighting and continuously adapted to what they were facing. Finally, on the closing jam of the bout, the Shocker managed to pick up the first lead jammer status of the half for Pittsburgh. Facing unspeakable odds she flew into the pack and took the full two minutes to claw and drag her way through to pick up 3 points (of only 7 in the half). When Steel City skated off the track they didn’t look like a team that had been pummelled for 60 minutes: they were exhausted, battered, but there was a particular glint in their eyes as they skated off the track, that undeniable glimmer of pride that comes from facing the impossible and not backing down.

Gotham and Philly's infamous "jam that wasn't" caused some jam-starting refinements that were on display this weekend.

As it’s been since the 2006 Dust Devil, at this early stage in the flat track evolution these championship tournaments are as much a process of sharing and dissemination than anything else. And with increased exposure and the ability to watch the bouts in high definition from anywhere on the planet, the importance of the WFTDA’s Big 5 in the continued development of the sport cannot be denied. The Eastern Region introduced what seems to be the next great strategic leap in the sport: the battle that occurs between the jammer and pivot lines. Particularly in the early going of the championship bout (but seen clearly all over the tournament), it became evident that how teams react in those first seconds after the opening whistle is becoming increasingly important in determining the outcome of the jam. More and more the battle was being taken directly to the jammer line and slow, grinding starts were the norm. There were times during the Philly/Gotham final when the two packs were like one undulating blob slowing inching its way to turn number one; then suddenly a jammer would pop out seemingly from nowhere to take lead. We also saw the end of “dead” starts (such as in this example of a “jam that wasn’t”), the bane of many a fan’s experience, as teams began to find creative ways to create a no pack after the initial whistle had already blown so as not to incur a destruction of the pack penalty (taking advantage of rule 6.10.2.1.2).

London Brawling, featuring 11 Team England skaters, helped provide a World Cup preview.

But interest in the Eastern Region playoffs actually extends beyond just the WFTDA tournament cycle. Owing to the inclusion of London and Montreal in this tournament, more than any other regional playoff it offered a brief glimpse of what the inaugural World Cup of Roller Derby might look like. 10 members of Team USA played in the tournament (including five from Gotham alone), while the cores of both Canada and England populated Montreal (six Team Canada skaters) and London (11 of England’s 20). Thus, the consolation final on Sunday between the Skids and the Brawling offered a little bit of a preview of the two teams who many believe could be in the running for second place at the World Cup. England actually has a huge advantage  in that so many of these players play together regularly and have proven that they are playing the sport as well as anyone on the planet. Montreal once again showed that they have a certain tenacity and focus that allows them to always play a full 60 minutes of straight-up derby every bout and remain calm in the most stressful and dire of situations. And if that extraordinary 5th place bout (137-135 for London when they held on after being outscored 8-4 on the final jam) is any indication, there is a lot to look forward to when the world comes to Toronto in December.

Gotham has proven beyond a doubt that they are contenders for this year's WFTDA championship.

But the story to carry forward is that Gotham is the real deal. Last WFTDA champions in 2008, they’ve been relegated to the second tier of flat track in the last two years as the top western teams have dominated at the national level. But after a thoroughly dominant performance here that saw them overwhelm a very, very good Philly team in the final (252-97), there should be no doubt that Gotham is ready to contend.

**The highly anticipated WFTDA Western Regionals are next weekend.**

**For bout-by-bout recaps visit DNN.com**

Nerd Meat Part 7: Leaps and Bounds

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

Part 7: Leaps and Bounds

Now that the weather is starting its slow ascent into summer, I’ve been starting to skate outside. Equipped with some outdoor-appropriate wheels by wheel-hoarding rollergirl partner (are all rollergirls, by nature, wheel hoarders?), the first experience on concrete was not at all as frightening as I’d initially anticipated. There’s a school near us and surrounding the soccer field behind it is a full-size, smoothly paved track. Running drills, playing cat and mouse, I was reminded of that first time my partner and I went skating outside. We were still in Montreal at the time, and had just watched the 2008 MTLRD championship bout (the “Celery Championship,” won by La Racaille—picture flailing stalks of celery replacing the traditional white towel at hockey games and you get the idea), and my partner had finally gotten to the point where she was no longer content to sit in the suicide seats and watch anymore. She wanted to get out there and play. Only problem: She couldn’t skate.

Slaughter Lauder, jamming for the Betties in ’09, was the last ToRD skater to don artisitic skates in bouts. (photo by Kevin Konnyu)

Her first skates were those old-school, white artistic skates (last worn in ToRD during the 2009 season by Slaughter Lauder), bought for a few bucks at the Salvation Army on Rue Notre-Dame, just a block or two north of the Lachine Canal and the recreation trail that follows its coasts. She was committed enough even then to try to skate home and so we began a slow, laborious stutter-stepping march along the smooth trails next to the Canal.

2008 was a strange season for eastern Canadian roller derby: there was a sense of “settling” going on. The rush and adrenaline of the first seasons had passed, leaving leagues to deal with what they’d created. In Montreal, that meant a unified, highly competitive home league of three teams; in Hammer City, it meant the continued focus on the development of the Eh! Team and traveling far and wide; in Toronto, it meant a struggle to maintain control of the largest flat track roller derby league in the world. Perhaps most importantly, 2008 would see the creation of the New Skids on the Block and CN Power, the travel teams in Montreal and Toronto: the first forays into the larger world of flat track roller derby for these two leagues (this would be mirrored out west as well, in Edmonton and Vancouver among others). There was still a sense that things were settling: it was definitely still an era of change and foundation building.

The Eh! Teams takes on Texas’s Hot Rod Honeys in 2008. (photo by Derek Lang)

The development of roller derby in this country continued to be led by Hammer City. That year the Eh! Team would have the pleasure of heading right into the primordial ooze of flat track roller derby by taking on a Texas Rollergirls’ hometeam; they would also strike up a long standing cross-border feud with Killamazoo that continues to this day. And of course, they would continue to blaze a trail into big-tournament participation by continuing to take part in Fall Brawl (where they would finish 2nd in the non-WFTDA bracket).

But growth in the sport certainly wasn’t limited to Hammer City. In Vancouver, Terminal City was setting the pace out west, and in August of that year would host Derby Night in Canada, where the TCRG All Stars would defeat Montreal’s newly formed, suddenly continent hopping New Skids on the Block 66-48 in the final. But Canada would also have a hand in spreading the derby word internationally as well when in June, Team Canada, a conglomerate of 4 different Canadian leagues (stretching from as far east as Toronto and as far west as Vancouver), headed to the United Kingdom to take on Glasgow (a 102-41 win) and then London Brawling (won by the hosts 128-45). This would mark the first international flat track roller derby bouts played between intercontinental teams.

Hammer City’s Eh! Team and ToRD’s CN Power, first met in June, 2008. (photo by Derek Lang)

But as much as there was growth, there was also change. One of Canada’s first teams, the Steel Town Tank Girls would not survive the season (though the gap would be filled by a third Hammer City team, the Death Row Dames), and ToRD was struggling through its second season, attempting to maintain some sort of control over a sprawling, six-team league. While the CN Power travel team would be formed, the league focus on internal politics and attempts to placate the differing directional opinions (not to mention trying to maintain ToRD’s steadily growing popularity in the city) would mean that it would be largely overmatched by, in particular, the Eh! Team (they would first meet on June 21 at the George Bell arena in Toronto’s west end). ToRD’s six-team league would not survive 2008 with both the D-VAS and eventually the Bay Street Bruisers contracting (though the Bruisers would actually have one last hurrah at the BOE ’09, and the D-VAS would be reborn as a farm team).

MTLRD’s New Skids on the Block became the first Canadian team to defeat the Eh! Team in July 2008. (photo by Susan Moss)

But the biggest change in the sport in Canada would actually not fully come yet, but be hinted at in a July bout at Arena St. Louis in Montreal. Hammer City’s far more experienced Eh! Team would head north to take on the upstart New Skids on the Block, a rag-tag looking squad of Montreal all stars decked out in the now ubiquitous neon. Only the hometeams had faced each other to this point with HCRG taking almost all of those match ups, with only La Racaille managing a slim (32-30) victory over Steel Town at the BOE 2008. That would all change during that Saturday night in July, when the Skids would ride the momentum caused by an intense, ever-intelligent home town crowd to a historic 58-48 victory, marking the beginning of a shift in power in Canadian derby that would take almost another year to fully play out.

I was there at that bout, in my customary spot in the suicide seats, cheering wildly and probably a little belligerently (funny how when I knew the rules less, I actually used to yell at the refs more). While I was already completely enamored with the sport at that point, I was only just beginning to get a sense of the larger world of derby, and the greater significance of that Skids’ victory was lost on me at the time. Upon retrospect, it’s clear to see now that it was the first step in a complete recalibration of the sport in this country, led by a Montreal machine that would help expand the borders of the game.

The D-VAS (in black) last played as a ToRD hometeam in 2008. They now serve as a farm team for the league. (photo by Kevin Konnyu)

It’s remarkable how quickly flat track roller derby is evolving, how that bout was only three years ago but seems like a different era all together. My partner was able to go from absolutely no skating ability to being rostered in a single year. Now, with 90 new recruits, the gap between the skaters who will be ready for drafting by the end of the program and those who won’t be, will be significant. The sport also requires a new level of athletic and strategic commitment as well, and the isolation and pace strategies that fresh meat are now learning at an early stage of training, didn’t even exist in 2008. Here in Toronto, players aren’t even necessarily drafted to teams upon completion of the fresh meat program anymore; instead, they will hone their skills playing for the resurrected D-VAS, which now serves as a league-wide farm team, allowing skaters to be drafted at a significantly higher level. Now, before a skater plays a bout with a ToRD hometeam, she will have the experience of being part of a team, attending regular practices, and most importantly, bouting. All before she’s even drafted.

And this is just the beginning of another massive evolution that will truly change the nature of the sport; as right now, hundreds of young girls are playing in junior roller derby leagues all across North America (including here in Toronto), learning the fundamentals of the game at a mind-bogglingly young age. When these kids start reaching playing age and a wave of junior-trained skaters starts being drafted into leagues (some who will have been skating for up to nine years at that point), it will signify a massive leap forward and the sport will change once again.