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Saskatoon roller derby keeps on jammin’

By in Features/Sports & Health
A jammer for the Killa’ Bees breaks free from the pack.
A jammer for the Killa’ Bees breaks free from the pack.

Roller derby faded from the public view after the height of its popularity in the 1970’s but, since its grassroots all-female revival in 2001, roller derby leagues have sprung up all across the globe — including Saskatoon.

The Saskatoon Roller Derby League began in 2007 and has since expanded to six teams. Two SRDL teams, the Killa’ Bees and the Mindfox — the Roller Derby Association of Canada’s 2012 national championship winning team — took to the track on Oct. 5 at Prairieland Park to battle teams from Red Deer, Alta. Although both teams lost, roller derby continues to win over new fans and players.

When roller derby made its comeback, it also shed it’s former image. Pre-revival roller derby was something like a World Wrestling Entertainment match — all style and no substance. But now the action is all real.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s not a real sport, that it’s just a bunch of girls dressing up and being drama queens on the track,” said Kristen “Mirage” Loberg, a skater for the Mindfox. “It’s not all theatrics; it’s a real hard-hitting sport. It’s high impact, it’s fast, it’s very entertaining.”

The only thing fake about roller derby is the names players go by. Players choose their names to show their roller derby personality and can also act as a quasi alter ego.

Skaters showed no mercy during Saturday’s bout, displaying all-out agression on the track.
Skaters showed no mercy during Saturday’s bout, displaying all-out agression on the track.

Loberg, who intends to study education at the University of Saskatchewan, has been with the league since its inception and has been crucial to the success of the Mindfox despite not intending to join the team in the beginning.

“I didn’t really plan on sticking around. I was just going with a friend to check out what it was all about,” she said. “I was pretty much the only person that had any kind of skating experience so I stuck around to help teach everyone how to skate and just fell in love with the game.”

Morgan “Shifty McShovin” Bzowy, a linguistics major at the U of S, also became involved with the sport by accident. After her coworkers started playing she came along to see what it was. Not long after, she  began skating for the Killa’ Bees.

“I watched a few bouts and I thought, ‘wow this is pretty cool and I totally want to be involved,’” she said.

One of the reasons derby keeps generating interest and attracting new athletes is because it’s so unique.

“Roller derby is so different from any other sport,” said Bzowy.

At first roller derby may seem confusing, but the rules don’t take long to pick up and are quite simple.

Roller derby athletes participate in a bout, which is divided into two 30-minute periods and each period is broken up into jams. Jams can last up to two minutes and there is a 30 second break in between each one. A jam starts when the whistle blows and all players take off at once and ends when the referee blows his whistle four times.

Members of the Killa’ Bees cheer on their teammates during a bout against the Nightshades.
Members of the Killa’ Bees cheer on their teammates during a bout against the Nightshades.

There are three positions in roller derby: jammers, blockers and pivots which are put out in lines similar to those in hockey. A line consists of four blockers, which makes up the pack, and one jammer. Fans can tell who is playing what position by looking at their helmets. Jammers wear a helmet cover with stars, blockers don’t wear a helmet cover and pivots wear a helmet cover with stripes.

Jammers score points for the team by passing opposing blockers. No points are awarded on the initial pass but from the second pass on. During the first lap jammers fight to work their way through the pack of blockers and become the lead jammer. Being lead jammer is incredibly important because they can call off the jam at any time by repeatedly putting their hands on their hips.

“Jammers get all the glory because they score the points but the blockers are vital to a jammer being successful,” said Loberg.

Blockers try to stop the opposing jammer from getting through the pack while clearing the way for their own jammer.

A pivot is a blocker who can take over the roll of jammer during a jam.

To stop opposing jammers from passing or to get other blockers out of the way, players get physical using a variety of different blocks. There is a booty block, which is when a player uses their “booty” to stop an opposing jammer from passing; a J-block, where a player uses their full body to slam shoulder first into the opposing player; a hip check, where a player thrusts their hip into their opponent to knock them off balance and a can opener, where a player springs upward from a crouching position to ram their shoulders into their foe’s sternum.

The bout is monitored by referees who keep track of the score and watch for penalties. During a bout there are seven referees — two score the jammer, two watch for penalties from the inside of the track and three watch for penalties from the outside.

Players are given penalties for any illegal contact. Penalties last for one minute and if a player accrues seven penalties they are kicked out of the game.

Cody “Kurz So Good” Kurz, a U of S graduate, is the head referee and vice president of the SRDL. Kurz compares what kind of hits are and aren’t acceptable in roller derby to those in hockey.

“Pretty much any hit that is legal in hockey is legal in roller derby,” he said. “Shoulder checks, hip checks are all good but hitting from behind is not. Hitting with your elbows is not. Using your forearms to push someone down is not.”

Kurz first learned there was roller derby in Saskatoon two years ago and was immediately intrigued by the sport. After watching a bout, he knew he wanted to get involved.

“I just thought it was something crazy and cool,” he said. “It looked like it was a lot of fun because it’s got all the action of hockey but it’s indoors, it’s not as cold [and] there’s lots of drinking. The culture around it is a lot of fun; it’s very inclusive and a good time.”

He didn’t plan on refereeing but his previous skating experience made him a perfect fit for the job.

“They found out I used to play hockey so they got me to try skating. I ended up starting to ref and the rest is pretty much history,” he said.

Due to the physical nature of the sport, athletes take many hits during a bout.

“One of the best ways to slow someone down is to put them on their butt. That’s often what a lot of people attempt to do,” Kurz said.

To prevent as many injuries as possible every player is required to wear protective equipment during the bout. Players wear a helmet, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads and a mouth guard.

Kurz is one of the few males in the female-dominated world of Saskatoon roller derby.

“I think technically we have five guys — maybe six — out of probably 60 or so active members,” he said. “It’s a very female dominated sport all across the world right now.”

The strong female presence is something that sets roller derby apart from the largely male-dominated realm of mainstream sports.

“I think one of the main reasons it stays so female dominated is because men still have other options for an aggressive sport,” Kurz said. “This was kind of something that was unique and their own. They could say ‘look we’re not just trying to be like the guys we’re doing our own thing, playing our own game.’ Now the guys are copying them.”

The sport gives women an arena to show their physical prowess, which the athletes relish.

“I think initially why it was a female based sport was to empower women, to prove that we can [play] a contact sport just as well as any man can,” Loberg said.

A roller derby athlete is also not required to fill a certain female athlete archetype.

“Women of all shapes and sizes can play. You can be any kind of woman … it’s less based on body type than other sports. It’s more inclusive,” Bzowy said.

The inclusive, community-oriented aspect of roller derby is something Bzowy, Kurz and Loberg all love. Whereas some sports seek to exclude, roller derby tries to do the opposite.

“Everybody is welcome,” Bzowy said.

Kurz invites everyone who hasn’t seen roller derby first-hand to come and watch a bout to truly appreciate the sport.

“I think [you] just have to come see,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to actually get a feel for what it’s like until you actually see it in action and see the big hits, see the people really putting all their effort in and leaving everything on the track.”

Interested in trying roller derby? The league is holding “Freshmeat” tryouts in February. Visit saskatoonrollerderby.ca to find out more.


Photos: Andrew Mareschal

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