Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Heather McPherson (Mickey Fickey) is photographed after a roller derby game in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, May 14, 2011. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Heather McPherson (Mickey Fickey) is photographed after a roller derby game in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, May 14, 2011. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)


Roller derby rolls on Add to ...

The music stops and the announcer calls the skaters to order. They gather in a standing clot - the tartan tarts of the Thrashin' Lassies, introduced to the 500 or more spectators inside the Triwood Arena by their very own piper, and the Cut Throat Car Hops, bedecked in blue and looking like 1950s car hops with gum-smacking attitude.

When the whistle sounds, the whirling begins. It is a spin-cycle of tattoos, piercings, painted fingernails, fishnet stockings, simmering aggression and enough mascara to satisfy Tammy Faye Bakker. It is the calm before the storm.

Soon shoulders are bumping and bodies thumping. Fans sitting along the side wall watch their feet in case someone runs over their toes. Suddenly there's a crash. Women are flying. It's a three Car Hop pileup. The audience cheers.

"That's roller derby," Lassies captain Scarla Maim says later. The fastest growing indoor sport on four wheels.

They are everywhere throughout the true north, from The Eves of Destruction in Victoria to the Red Rock 'N Roller Derby in Charlottetown - women of mass destruction attacking one another in gangs bearing frightening names. In Edmonton, it's the Slice Girls. In Toronto, it's the Death Track Dolls and Chicks Ahoy. In Montreal, beware Les Contrabanditos, the New Skids on the Block and La Racaille (The Riffraff) with the ever loathsome Wrath Poutine. (Hissssss.) Add them up and there are more than 30 leagues in Canada with multiple teams holding events called bouts, all of them played on flat tracks inside hockey arenas and all of them featuring full-on, real-deal contact.

It's the same story worldwide. You can find female roller derby teams in Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Britain. Enthusiasts are even organizing the first Roller Derby World Cup to be held this December in Toronto. How did this all happen? Blame the Americans. They started it.

Roller derby first hit U.S. television screens in 1948 then Zenithed in the 1970s with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds' Paul (The Bear) Rupert and Skinny Minnie Miller drawing as many as 15 million viewers a week. The sport was part athleticism, part theatre, pure mayhem. When the growth of professional wrestling went through the roof, roller derby was sent sprawling. It soon faded into the background, only to be kept alive by small bands of practitioners until Rollergirls, a 13-episode reality show on A&E, helped capture a new generation of hell raisers.

"Our sport allows for individuality - the names, our presentation [tattoos and makeup] It's got something the other sports are missing, that underground feel," asserts Maim, whose Lassies are the two-time defending Calgary Roller Derby Association champions and well despised for their efforts. "And we're all females. There's not a whole lot of that around."

Roller derby's appeal is sisterhood and demolition. The skaters are women from all sidewalks of life who train together and learn their four-wheeled craft before turning on each other like crazed banshees. The action is non-scripted. When skaters get knocked into the suicide seats - the first-row of customers sitting on metal chairs - both athletes and fans share the experience.

"I'm known as the crowd surfer. I'm a jammer, which means I'm a target for opposing teams," Car Hops captain Lucy Flawless says. "I fell into the crowd once and had a man grope me. I sat on a guy's lap and he was holding me back. I just wanted to get back on to the track."

Tanya Bryden (aka the crowd-surfing Flawless) works for the town of Cochrane, located northwest of Calgary. She's a crew leader in the Parks Department. The first time her grandmother attended a bout she started to cry; all that nastiness going round and round and her little granddaughter in the thick of it. Oh my goodness. These days when Bryden competes, she can always scan the crowd and see Mama Lawless and Grandma Lawless waiving their arms and shouting their support.

"It's something that's exciting and underground," Lawless says of roller derby's hold. "I grew up roller skating. I've always been the aggressor even when I was playing basketball. I put my love of being aggressive and roller skating together, and this is what I got."

Scarla Maim's true name must remain under wraps. In the real world she works with high-risk kids; as many as 175 a year go through her educational program. Several of her students have come to the Lassies-Car Hops showdown to witness what Maim describes as " Braveheart women. We're plaid-clad warriors." What they see is Maim butt-planting a rival with a blind-side hit that pushes the sport's rules two bruises past their breaking point.

The audience cheers again.

"It took us a year of training before we could do anything for public," Maim says. "Once we recruited, we were skating outdoors, going to Lloyd's [Rollerskate Centre] That's when we garnered help from the U.S. A lady from Arizona, Helen Wheels, came up. Her husband is a referee and he's from Calgary. She did a boot camp for us. She really got us going."

With enough women to stock enough teams, and with enough officials to referee the games, the Calgary Association opened for business in 2007. Athletes have to pay to play and must have their own health insurance. There are arenas to rent, events to plan, tickets, posters and programs to print plus updates to file to the CRDA's website, Facebook page and Twitter account. "Amateur sport at its finest," says Maim, who'd prefer a little civic assistance to make things easier.

"The city wants to build new arenas but if we could get an old one, we'd be happy," she adds. "For lacrosse, floor hockey and us, we can't get arena time after August because of hockey. We'd hold a lot more events if we had a facility."

The events they do manage are chock-full of conflict, with jammers trying to pass pivots and blockers before being launched over the suicide seats and into the beer garden at the far end of the arena. It's as chaotic as the competitors' names are clever - Bar Brawl Walters with her number 20/20, Angi Septic (No. 31 ml), Brazilian Whacks, Bettie to Rumble and Slap Chop (No. 19.99). "There's a worldwide register for selecting your name," Flawless says. "A lot of good ones are already taken."

As the second-half pace quickens, the Lassies take to thrashing the Car Hops. The final score ends up 152-105 for the plaid-skirted warriors, who congratulate one another after a Cut Throat player is escorted to the dressing room for doing something bad. Word is the angry Car Hop punched someone in the grill.

Twenty minutes later, standing outside the arena in the cool night air, Maim is beside herself with joy.

"I didn't see the punch, but that's a good way to end the show."

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular