Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.
Members of Toronto’s CN Power (in pink) bump up against Michigan’s Killamazoo Derby Darlins during a February 26 bout. Intimidating face paint may not exactly be de rigueur. But it’s certainly not frowned upon either.
“Just don’t write another ‘Women on Wheels’ story,” entreats Krizsanta Greco, laughing politely.
Greco, a.k.a. Santa Muerta, a member of the Toronto Roller Derby League, is probably right to worry. Like anything you know next-to-nothing about, it’s hard to shake preconceptions. And there are plenty of those about women’s roller derby. Like the idea that it’s just some trendy mutation of girl power ‘tude practised by ill-behaved women with chest piece tattoos. Or that it’s somehow fixed. Or, worst of all, that it’s a “girl’s sport.”
To the victor goes the spoils. To the loser? Well, not so much.
Okay, so let’s can some of those right away. Toronto Roller Derby, now in its fifth season, is more than just hazy feminist ideals and broad punk aesthetics on wheels. It may well be—in a matter-of-fact way—a “girl’s sport,” being as the players are exclusively women, but, in the pejorative sense, that’s the only “girly” thing about it. The idea that the sport is fixed is probably attributable to two of its foundational principles. First of all, there’s the high concept stuff, like the nicknames. All players skate under a pseudonym, which can be punny (Dyna Hurtcha), nasty (Defecaitlin), or just badass (Grim Avenger). The whole alter-ego thing tenuously connects roller derby to other, decidedly less-legit sports, like pro wrestling or monster trucking, which leads to suggestions that the sport is pure spectacle.
The other factor is that roller derby is indisputably sexy. This has less to do with the base heterosexist flutters that swell up at the sight of women shoving each other, and more to do with the palpable sense of confidence its players exude and the level of sheer athleticism on display. The dress code, which calls for campy hot pants, fish nets, and other skimpy attire, doesn’t hurt either. “Come for the porn, stay for the plot,” says Greco. It might as well be the league’s—and the sport’s—unofficial motto.
Top: CN Power’s coaches rally the troops. Bottom: For the record, the league’s more official motto is “Real Women. Real Hits. Real Heart.” Here, you can see why.
ToRD bubbled up from the underground in 2006, established to govern play between five local teams. As more players emerged and interest grew, they established an all-star team (CN Power) and a farm team designed to groom skaters for the big leagues. The league includes about a hundred active competitors, and bouts take place at The Hangar, a refurbished aircraft hangar at Downsview Park. It’s hard-hitting, intensely strategic, and a lot of fun.
Amie Sergas—who skates for Toronto’s Death Track Dolls under the excellent alias Speedin’ Hawking (her jersey number is the constant for the speed of light, 3e8m/s)—joined ToRD in 2009. “I wanted to get involved in a team sport,” she says. “I’d been following derby for a while and thought it was the right time to try and join. But I’d never seen a game before. I had no idea what I was getting into. I just knew that I wanted to do it.”
Considering that the roller derby revival in North America only dates back about a decade, when grassroots teams started remodelling the sexy “sports-entertainment” of the ’60s and ’70s into a real sport, Sergas’s path reflects that of many in the league. “We’re athletic misfits,” says Greco, and the designation is more than just another marker of roller derby’s self-conscious punk influence. The attitude is further reflected in the evening’s soundtrack, stacked with Slayer, Black Flag, that song from Kill Bill, Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz” (appropriately), and so on.
Due to the physical intensity, roller derby is heavily officiated. Seven referrers are on duty during the bouts, while paramedics are also on site in case of serious injury.
The ToRD’s misfit ethos is evident in more than just a well-curated soundtrack, though. The league attracts skaters from all walks of life. Sergas told us that the age range of players runs from nineteen to fifty-one. The passion the skaters have for the sport is infectious, spilling over into the nearly one thousand fans that packed the Hangar on February 26 for double-bill that saw Toronto’s D-VAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) face off against Sudbury’s Sister Slag and, in the main event, CN Power make short work of Michigan’s Killamazoo Derby Darlins.
It’ll probably take the newcomer about one full period (each bout is split into two twenty- or thirty-minute periods) to figure out how the game is played. And at least another to understand how scoring works. (Like anything that moves ’round and ’round in a circle, the action is undeniably hypnotic.) Unlike most sports, roller derby sees both teams attempting to score at the same time. Points are scored when a team’s “jammer” laps the opposing team’s blockers (players whose job is to impede the opposing team’s jammer while assisting their own) and pivots (versatile players who work to call plays).
A good jammer needs to be nimble, able to deftly bob and weave through the pack of blockers. A worthwhile blocker needs to be stout, fearless, and capable of handling offensive and defensive roles at the same time. And a pivot needs to be swift not just on her feet, but also in her ability to hew some order out of the combustive fray, mobilizing her teammates as if by telepathy. There’s a lot going on. And all of it unfolds through a series of two-minute “jams,” which kind of work like plays in football.
Top: Defecaitlin, jersey number 2 (get it?), for CN Power was remarkable: able to navigate walls of blockers with ease, while ripping speedily around the track. Bottom: Toronto’s D-VAS (in black) and Sudbury’s Sister Slag brushed shoulders last Saturday.
It can be a bit tricky to follow at first, but all the bumping, shoving, and the quick getaways make roller derby instantly compelling. What’s most apparent about the sport (besides how cool it is) is the emphasis on fun. Athleticism, strategy, and all that stuff are on display, sure. But above all that, everyone seems to be having a generally swell time. The skaters jibe each other playfully between matches. The play-by-play announcer, known to fans as Crankypants, calls the action with gusto. The fans on the sidelines stack their empty Bud Light cans into multi-level “beeramids,” an added obstacle for any skaters who find themselves spinning off course. And everyone working there—the skaters, the coaches, the referees, the PR and merch people, everyone except for the security and the people who sell the booze and reheated Pizza Pizza—are volunteers, literally running on enthusiasm for the sport.
Given the fan base, the number of teams, and the attention women’s roller derby has been attracting since its revival, it may be a bit disingenuous to categorize it as an “obscure” local sports team. But it is a handy model for how sports—real-deal officiated sports with teams and leagues and sanctioning bodies and big fat binders of rules—can spring from the ground up, nudged along by the eagerness and interest of those determined to see it grow.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.
The Gore-Gore Rollergirls will be hosting a fundraiser at Hard Luck (812 Dundas Street West) this Saturday, March 5 at 9 p.m. (cover is $10, which goes right back to the team). The next ToRD bout goes down Saturday, March 12 at The Hangar (75 Carl Hall Road) between home teams Chicks Ahoy! and the Smoke City Betties. For more info, tickets, and a complete schedule, head to the league’s website.