The gym is packed and, over the crowd, the buzz of roller skate wheels is heard.
A player veers suddenly into her opponent. Pak: the sound of colliding skin. She shudders on impact, and then plunges forward. Tangles of fishnet-clad legs whip around in a circle, jostling each other.
That was the scene at Carleton’s Norm Fenn gymnasium on Saturday.
For the first time in Ottawa, the local roller derby team – the Bytown Blackhearts – hosted a bout in its own city, facing off against the Montreal Sexpos.
But the biggest clash of wills in roller derby is happening off the skate court these days.
Although Ottawa Roller Derby is only in its second year, it has already split over disagreements between Blackhearts players and the league’s founder, Kelly McAlear.
“This is not a sisterhood,” McAlear said of the team’s departure from the league in late October.
McAlear – whose derby name is Honey Bee – founded the league in 2007, continuing a derby revival that has been spreading across North America for six years. The sport’s do-it-yourself attitude means the women who play also manage the leagues.
But in Ottawa, McAlear says, “there was a power struggle. The girls couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get a game going,” she said.
So, she started a second team, the Capital Carnage. But other troubles were brewing.
“It just came down to a fundamental difference in how the girls thought the business should go,” said Leila Younis (a.k.a. DDT), the captain of the Bytown Blackhearts, who declined to comment on the specifics of the split.
There were disputes about profits made from skate rentals and merchandise, McAlear said.
“They wanted to manage their own money. Fine. But I did this single-handedly, and I haven’t been able to make that start-up cost back.”
Costs included trips to Montreal to learn the sport, printing calendars and t-shirts, and rental fees on the team’s Hintonburg practice space.
McAlear claims the Blackhearts ignored her request to pay for rights to their logo when the teams parted ways. She has filed legal papers to trademark the Blackhearts name.
“If it comes down to it, she can have the name,” said Younis. With McAlear planning to charge royalties, they may have no choice but to find a new moniker.
North American roller derby has seen its share of politics. Denver’s league split into the Denver Roller Dolls and the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls. The Minneapolis-St. Paul league also broke up.
With so many personalities working together in a tiny community, it’s not surprising leagues split up, says Alyssa Kwasny (a.k.a. Georgia W. Tush), the founder of Montreal’s league. What’s surprising is that it doesn’t happen more often.
“It is possible for two local leagues to tolerate each other,” Kwasny said. But while her travel team still came to Ottawa on Jan. 31 to play the Blackhearts, she says politics can interfere with a league’s success.
“If you hear a lot of rotten things about a league, why would you want to play them?” she said. “But we’re neutral. We just want to play. And we support both teams.”
Younis said she hopes reconciliation is possible.
But the way McAlear tells it, the league was like Mean Girls on wheels. As disputes continued, she felt ostracised by the community she had established.
“I don’t hate them, but I don’t feel welcome. I don’t fit in. It hurts to know they’re having their first game and I don’t get to skate,” she said, her voice breaking.
“I didn’t do this for money. I wanted to bring the sport to Ottawa. But I’ve been raked over the coals. So screw them.”