Roller derby revival

By Cynthia Vukets

Girls wearing fishnet stockings are body-checking each other in a deserted parking lot off Bank Street.

Roller derby has arrived in Ottawa. And Thursday is outdoor practice day.

Team owner Kelly “Honeybee” McAlear started the Bytown Blackhearts this summer. The sport, while not new, is making a slow comeback across Canada and the United States.

Roller girl Allie Hanlon says she first came to derby because her roommate was interested. When her friend dropped out, Hanlon kept practicing with the Blackhearts.

“I enjoy the exercise. It’s rare to have fun while working out,” she says.

“I also like the instant friendship,” she adds. “We’re all different ages and we all have different jobs, but we’re all really friendly people and we love to have fun.”

The team practices twice a week. On Mondays, they have indoor space at the Odawa Friendship Centre on Stirling Avenue. But on Thursdays they have to practice in a vacant lot beside the Queensway.

The girls have no music for their practice; they skate to the sound of cars rushing by on the highway.

McAlear says the outdoor practices are tough.

The first time the team skated in the parking lot, all the girls broke their skate laces. And falling on asphalt hurts more than on concrete, she adds.

Hanlon says she “always sucked” at ice skating, but was not afraid to try out roller skates. She fell down the first time she skated, but picked herself up and is now whizzing around the makeshift track like a pro.

Hanlon is the youngest member on the team, but she says she feels comfortable with her teammates and likes meeting different people.

“I’m 20 and there are people here who are 40 and have children,” she says.

One of those people is Patrice Brennan, also known as Axxident. Brennan, 39, is the mother of two young boys. She works for Health Canada. She says she got into derby after her husband found a video on the Internet and suggested she would like the sport.

“I love that it’s physical,” she says. “They’re all strong women.”

Brennan has no problem flexing some muscle along with her teammates. She says she came into her competitive nature doing tae kwon doe. She is not afraid of a little aggression, she says, and she likes getting exercise at practice.

“I like taking deep breaths again. You spend a lot of your day taking shallow breaths. But after this, your muscles are like nice, sweet,” Brennan says.

McAlear began skating as a child, around her neighbourhood and at the local roller rink. But her first foray onto eight wheels came long after the beginnings of derby.

According to the Gotham Girls Roller Derby League, derby originally became a sport in the 1930s. It began in the United States and became popular in Canada as well, before dropping off the radar in the ‘80s. A girls-only roller derby revival was born in 2002 and the sport has started to pick up speed across North America and Europe.

Austin, Texas was home to the first all-girls roller derby team of the new millennium. They were featured in the documentary film, “Hell on Wheels,” and McAlear says this is how derby took off. She adds the sport is more popular in the US than here in Canada.

USA Roller Sports is a governing body based in Lincoln, Nebraska. The organization is currently responsible for 135 roller derby teams, says marketing officer Ken Hobza. Canada, on the other hand, has about a dozen teams, says McAlear.

“I really don’t know how roller derby came back,” says Hobza.

He attributes the sport’s popularity to the entertaining and exciting bouts. But, he says the challenge and the opportunity for girls to show their personalities is also an asset.

“The teams have real camaraderie. It’s something they’ve adopted and they have real love for it,” he explains.

Derby bouts take place on a track, usually indoors, and are broken down into three twenty-minute periods. Within the periods, the game is reduced to two-minute “jams.”

Each team sends five girls onto the track at a time.

There are three positions within each lineup: jammer, pivot and blocker. The pivots and blockers make up the pack and skate together around the track. The jammers then try to muscle their way through the other skaters after sprinting to lap the group. The jammers score points for their team by passing members on the opposite team.

Body contact is encouraged.

Until starting the Bytown Blackhearts this spring, McAlear had to drive to Laval to practice, which took its toll.

“A couple of times I thought ‘I’m going to die’ in these bad snowstorms,” says McAlear. That sparked her decision to start Ottawa’s own derby team.

“There was that little voice in my head saying ‘do the derby, do the derby, do the derby.’ I couldn’t sleep at night.”

She took out a loan from the bank, got a business license and bought a bunch of roller skates to rent out. Alongside derby, McAlear ran two roller disco nights this summer that she says were fun and successful.

Even her four-year-old son, Liam, came out to the disco. Although he emphatically denies ever skating, McAlear shakes her head. “He’s just shy,” she says. “He wants roller skates.”

This May, McAlear ran two “Roller Derby 101” workshops for women who were interested in learning to roller skate. Then the Bytown Blackhearts were born.

The team practised once a week in June until demand from team members forced McAlear to add a second practice. She says about 20 girls show up for each practice to exercise and socialize with teammates.

“It’s a good way to vent out frustration,” she says. “I’ve made tons of new girlfriends and I’m roller skating . . . I love that!”

Other roller girls agree the chance to get rid of some pent-up aggression is one of the great things about the sport. “I like the competition, I like that it’s an impact sport,” says “LisaVenger” Hurst. “You have to be tough.”

Hurst is one of few roller girls to keep her real name as part of her derby name. An important part of roller derby is the persona a player puts on. Girls choose their names, dress up in character and get to act out their characters as they compete. Even the referees have personas in this sport, where showmanship is almost as important as athleticism.

At bouts, bands play and burlesque dancers perform during halftime. Beer is served, says McAlear, so the sport tends to be adults-only.

As for the fishnet stockings, they do double duty. Apart from being a fun part of a roller girl’s costume, stockings prevent floor-burn if a player falls. The tights are both sexy and practical.

So far, the Bytown Blackhearts have not participated in a competitive bout. McAlear says she wants her team to improve their skills first. She plans to take the team to Montreal for a scrimmage sometime in the fall, for the girls to get a taste of what they will be up against in competition.

She says she sees another Ottawa team in the works sometime soon. With several teams in the Ottawa area, the city could host bouts without having to travel or invite teams from other cities.

“Honeybee” McAlear even daydreams of a day when derby will be popular enough to rival hockey. “I think it would be cool to come out with cards like hockey cards, where the girls would have their persona name, and their number, and a bit about them,” she muses.

McAlear got her nickname years ago, from an old boyfriend. She says he started calling her the “Queen bee” and the name stuck, although she has since switched the “queen” for a less-presumptuous “honey.”

“When a bee is in trouble it releases these pheromones that attract all the other bees to come and help . . . and that’s totally derby!