FOCUS: Surrey’s roller derby league rolls toward a renaissance

It’s minus two. It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Monday in early December and bunch of athletic women, and a few men, are lacing up their roller skates, strapping on kneepads and sipping Tim Horton’s coffee on the cold, concrete floor of Cloverdale Rodeo Fairgrounds’ Alice McKay Room.

This is the first of three practices in the week that members of the Mainland Misfits – the Fraser Valley’s roller derby league – will gather to skate, scrimmage and learn to take hits until 10 p.m. The big, open cement track is lined by 10 cement beams. In a sport that’s main mandate is to knock over or be knocked over, the terrain looks rather unforgiving.

"The league has been in existence since 2010, with three teams going for the past three years," explains Katie Becker, the Mainland Misfits’ former president and derby player.

"The Murder is the one men’s team in all of B.C. Then there’s two female teams: the Anarchy Angels, and the house team is Doomsday Bunnies."

Becker is part of the Anarchy Angels, the league’s All-Star team that’s chosen to travel to tournaments and represent the Mainland Misfits. The young Surreyite, who grew up taking hits as a rugby player, started playing derby a few years back after moving to Salmon Arm.

"There was no rugby there for women, but there was a roller derby league 30 minutes away, so I started like that," she said.

Since foraying into the world of competitive derby playing, she’s suffered a separated shoulder, a rolled ankle and, most recently, a concussion.

To an outsider, injuries stemming from the sport seem to come part and parcel. But Becker says it’s not a completely typical experience, and not all players come for the rough stuff.

"I don’t think anyone comes in here thinking they’re going to get injured, and I’d say a lot of the people don’t get injured. The majority don’t get injured, but its just a few things that happen accidentally. Those are so rare," she said.

"It’s one of the top 10 best forms of exercise, which is what I use it for right now. For some people, they’re using it as their form of exercise, or some people are using it for their incentive to exercise."

mainland misfits derby block
Player Lisa Turina breaks through a wall of blockers at a weeknight practice for the Mainland Misfits. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)

With players in the league ranging in age from 18 to 50, some are fresh out of high school and others are dedicated mothers or fathers.

Still, while the aim of derby may not be to intentionally rough one another up, it doesn’t stop the girls – and guys – from adopting tough alter-egos, with names like Flatten ’em Blonde and Dainty Butt Deadly. Becker’s chosen derby name is Deck ‘er and like many of the players’ aliases, it’s a play on her last name.

Where did all the wacky stuff that characterizes the identity of derby girls – the striped tights, the rainbow-coloured hair, the names, the simultaneous explosions of glitter and gore come from?

Well, here’s a little history lesson. The game of roller derby began in the mid 1930s and was broadcast over the radio. After years of rising and falling in popularity, along with the phenomenon of rollerskating itself, derby once again took a fortuitous turn in the mid-’60s when it became televised as sports entertainment – much like modern wrestling by WWE. There were theatrics, there were rivalries, there were egos.

Spectators could attend live roller derby matches – called bouts – or watch the athletic, scripted sport on television. Notable personalities included Gwen "Skinny Minnie" Miller and Liz "Baby" Hernandez, and, of course, Jerry Seltzer, commissioner of the National Roller Derby League, who could be likened to the WWE’s Vince McMahon.

At its mid-century peak, the National Roller Derby League had 83 skaters between six different teams, according to Seltzer, who spoke at the 2007 RollerCon, an annual roller derby convention based in Las Vegas, Nevada.

According to Derbyroster.com, today there are 820 roller derby leagues across the U.S. today, while there are only 126 leagues in Canada.

And all those theatrics? That might soon be a thing of the past.

"Within the last 10 years, it’s re-taken off into more of a sport rather than a theatrical event," Becker told the Now.

"Depending on where you are in derby, even four years ago, it was a bit more show-y. You’d see a lot more girls in tights and fishnets and skirts and things like that, but now it’s turning into more of a sport, particularly for the higher-level teams where you’ll just see them in sportswear."

Some teams are even sponsored by sportswear companies, including Team Canada, which is sponsored by Pivotstar Apparel and Uniforms.

"It’s biggest in the States, but leagues are just popping up everywhere now," she said. So far, there are 21 leagues in British Columbia, with the Mainland Misfits and Terminal City Rollergirls being the primary Lower Mainland leagues.

Even with 126 leagues across the country, Becker isn’t sure that derby is as prevalent as it could be.

"I still think a lot of it is under the radar, and it’s not a hugely wide-known thing that is occurring," she said. "Most people are

like, ‘Is it similar to Whip It?’ We’re not on a bank track and we have way more players on a team because teams are made up of 14 to 20 players. You can roster 14 so it’s a bit different."

Whip It is the 2009 directorial debut of Drew Barrymore about roller derby girls, starring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis as derby rivals. The flick portrays a derby league that uses a bank track – a track that rises at an angle to allow increased speed – rather than the flat tracks that are easier to skate and more common in most derby leagues.

And, in most derby leagues, the best thing, Becker says, is that it attracts all kinds. In its young stage, all body types and fitness levels can join as long as you can achieve basic skills.

"It draws everybody," the former president said confidently. "We have strong skaters from hockey backgrounds, you can get figure skaters and then you can get people that are runners or have never ever played on a sports team at all, and everyone can play."

The aim of the game is to score more points than the opposite team in two-minute "jams."

"You are wearing quad skates, on a flat track, it’s actually bigger than this one normally," Becker explained, pointing to the cold concrete track of the Alice McKay room.

"One person is wearing a star on their helmet, and they’re called the jammer and there are four blockers from each team and they make up the pack… they are basically trying to stop the opposite team’s jammer from getting through. When the jammer gets through the pack, their next trip around, they score points."

The whole event is called a bout, like wrestling, and they’re broken into two 30-minute halves.

Like in hockey or other contact sports, no one is immune to penalties. In derby, penalties last for 30 seconds, and can be called for hockey-type fouls like throwing elbows, hitting with forearms, hits to the face and tripping.

"There can be some pretty good hits out there sometimes," Becker admitted.

"You exhaust the other team if you’re hitting harder, but you might exhaust yourself as well. It might be more entertaining for the crowd if there are bigger hits but a lot more of it is getting positional and being in front of the person."

Alotta Fuhry takes a hit
Chantelle Fuhr (aka Alotta Fuhry) tries to dodge a hit on the track. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)

For the Mainland Misfits, to keep the league in shape, there’s equal parts technique and effort.

"Everyone does everything to make this work and we do it for fun and we put in all the work to make it happen," Becker said of her league.

"There’s really no big association that sets it up the way it is with soccer."

The six members on the board of directors ensure that venues are insured and have liquor lisences for derby events. In the league, there’s always room to move up and put in more time.

"Everyone always has something to work for if they want to. If they just want to use it as exercise, that’s OK, too," she said.

Within the next year, the Mainland Misfits will be adding another team to its roster, with some players joining Team Canada.

Also coming up this year is a derby tournament called Flattrack Fever in Calgary, as well as West Showdown in Oklahoma, which the travel teams will be attending. Coming up in 2016 will be the World Cup for men, which will be held in Calgary.

"Really good derby is right around the corner in the next couple years," Becker told the Now assuredly, just as she’s about to strap on her helmet and stick an opaque, bright red mouth-guard over her teeth.

If the Mainland Misfits keep it up – putting in three hours a day, three times per week, sometimes in the freezing cold – it would be a hard point to argue.

kalexandra@thenownewspaper.com

Want to try?

Tryouts to join the Mainland Misfits’ new team take place tonight (Jan. 22) and Monday (Jan. 26) at Cloverdale Fairgrounds’ Alice McKay Building (6050A 176th St., Surrey). Registration begins at 7 p.m. with tryouts going until 9:45 p.m.

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