Mad Smax has a little blue Ford Focus that chugs its way up the 400 and 69 and leaves the smoggy haze of urban Toronto skies for destinations where the trees space out and fade in and out of species, and the rocks push out in sweet, rusty sheets against the highway. Smax is among the blocking corps of Toronto Roller Derby’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, though when she picks me up downtown, we start from the point of not knowing each other all that well. Conversation ranges from family to work to the D-VAS and the entire great sport. And the fun has already started.
Smax is spending Friday night with family near our destination. She drops me off at the Ambassador Hotel, and soon enough I’m in the attached nightclub – a place called Ten – for a little cool-down time with D-VAS captain Skinned-Knee Crosby and blocker Laya Beaton. Everyone is upbeat; country music blares blindingly over the dance floor, and out on the patio a couple of young guys and an older man have a serious discussion about Brooks and Dunn.
This is Sudbury. And Sudbury is awesome.
Back in February, Nickel City Roller Derby’s travelling band in red, Sister Slag, came down to The Hangar to take on the D-VAS in what was the second bout for both squads. That night – in a bout that was prelude to CN Power’s convincing victory over Killamazoo – the D-VAS pulled off a dominating 71-38 victory, but the spirit was high amongst both squads, and Sister Slag was already looking forward that night to the expected summer rematch.
Arriving at Azilda Arena, about 25 minutes or so outside Sudbury’s city centre, a lot of reminders of the early days of ToRD come flooding back: Skaters and volunteers are busy taping down the track and arranging chairs along the outside of Turns 2, 3 and 4. Executive Bomber, Sister Slag’s coach, is among the earliest welcoming presences – he is halfway through an exhausting day, with his son Adam celebrating his 10th birthday. Executive Bomber’s fiancée, Madam Von Carnage, is normally a big gun on the Slag; recovering from a very recent appendectomy, she will be taking a spot on a barebones referee team of five, led by the big man with the tartan helmet, Celtic Raider. As minutes close in to start time, Executive Bomber is busy on the phone, frantically trying to track down emergency medical personnel who haven’t arrived; meanwhile, both teams are clustering together and talking confidently of victory.
And it is time. When I ask the crowd how many are making their first trip to flat-track women’s roller derby, an overwhelming number of the hands amongst men, women and children go up. Like those first two ToRD seasons at George Bell Arena, I think. Tonight, then, is one to introduce them to fun and excitement, the new presence in their community – for the D-VAS to try and maintain dominance, and for Sister Slag (in an emerging north that will soon have them battling fresh teams from Timmins and Thunder Bay) to exact revenge.
From the opening whistle, the changes from February are readily apparent. Wheels of Miss Fortune, Smashley, Low Ride-Her and Violent Fembot are so much faster and trickier off the jammer line now. While the D-VAS had been locked in practice and scrimmage mode since the winter, Sister Slag had managed to put another four bouts into their schedule, and any of the disconnection that showed down here in February has melted away with the ice and snow that coated the forbidding highways on their trip down.
There are huge swings to the outside on the turns, particularly Turn #2. The hits are coming in hard, and bodies are laid low: By the end of the bout, D-VAS’ Bridget Bones – an extraordinarily positive player who has helped put her team and this league further on to the map by writing about her experiences in the Toronto Star – and Sister Slag’s Li’l Miss Daredevil will be helped off with very serious leg-ankle wounds; G-Force!! of Chicks Ahoy! had made the trip up with her camera-toting man, the always enjoyable Mr. Force, and all of the D-VAS and Toronto Roller Derby are grateful they are there in the absence of medical professionals to make sure Bridget is taken to the hospital and given a proper look-over and treatment.
Frustration sets in for the D-VAS that first half. Their jammers in black are ridiculously fast: Hellbat, Keri Daway and Scrappy Skinz all have huge futures in flat-track derby ahead of them, but for the first 30 minutes they have to fight for every inch against a Sister Slag blocking crew that includes Merry Death, Pinky ’n’ da Pain (who, along with D-VAS’ Skinned-Knee Crosby, gets familiar with the penalty box throughout the bout) and Dirt Devil. By halftime, there is a fair bit of rancor on the D-VAS’ bench, and a spread of 40 or so points to make up after the intermission.
’Nuff Said, a local rock band, pounds out the tunes during intermission. In talking with adults in the crowd during the break – kids are out all over the track and arena swinging and tossing hula hoops – they are all thrilled to be a part of something new in Sudbury. With five years under the league belt here at Toronto Roller Derby, sometimes it’s easy to forget how much work goes into starting something new in the community, and how long it takes to attract a steady crowd and win people over. But the winning has begun: A lot of people in the crowd took a chance on coming out after reading about Sister Slag in Northern Life, a community newspaper, and they are all smiles. They are loving what they are now a part of.
Flyin’ Bryan Killman – normally the bench coach of one of this year’s ToRD Championship finalists, Chicks Ahoy! – made the trip up to work the D-VAS bench with Raunchy Hextall. I’ll room with him on the Saturday night, and I can tell you that Flyin’ Bryan is a young man of principle and calm; the D-VAS were singing his praises all weekend, and they’re well deserved. This is a guy who cares about ToRD and its teams as much as the players do.
And here comes the second half: The depleted referee ranks trying to keep an eye on action that is even more furious than in the first 30 minutes; as time goes on, blocker Corey Maim starts finding her confidence, and Renny Rumble and Laya Beaton are reaching out at impossible angles and hitting everything in sight. This, now, is war. In the crossfire, D-VAS blocker La Jukeacabra goes down; she will be, typically, smiling later that night. Though limping quite noticeably, La Jukeacabra is, fortunately, not as seriously hurt as Bridget Bones and Li’l Miss Daredevil would turn out to be.
The D-VAS try. And they try. They work every angle to pour it all out. Their jammers are finding more success in slicing through Sister Slag’s wall of blockers, but time is working against them. In the end, they can’t make up the ground. Final score: Sister Slag 157, D-VAS 36. And, so, the post-mortem begins: Disappointment and anger among the D-VAS; bruises on the legs, torsos and egos. And a desire to get back out there and prove this first loss of their careers – and second victory in Sister Slag’s short history – something that will not happen soon again.
Back in Smax’s car for the drive to the hotel – Judas Priest double-shot on the radio! WICKED!!! – some pizza and the afterparty at Ten. The ear-splitting country music of the night before has given way, largely, to ’90s dance; some players hit the floor while others drift to the patio, where Celtic Raider happily hands out cigars to anyone who will smoke ’em. Gradually, everyone re-engages out there, signing posters, talking of their lives, the night and the future. Blocker Tammunition of the D-VAS runs into an old school friend and spends the night reminiscing. Laya Beaton manages to talk her way into the hotel pool at 3 a.m. for a soothing swim. The troops of Toronto – and that includes a wealth of Toronto Roller Derby supporters who also trekked north to show their D-VAS pride – split back into hotel rooms, where discussions of the bout range from positive to heated, and where one thing is obvious: Tomorrow is something worth working toward.
Come Sunday, we are all back in our convoy of cars headed south, stopping at the French River Trading Post – at Smax’s inspiration – for a late shot at the breakfast buffet and a photo shoot with the Hungry Bear and Blueberry Hound. And though the team is still full of questions from the bout night before, there returns an optimism – a knowledge that the D-VAS will fight hard another day, and for many more afterward.
And four last things:
1) The D-VAS need to see bout action more often. I can’t wait to see what ToRD’s newest, mega-talented players have up their sleeves the rest of this year.
2) The skaters on Sister Slag are totally awesome people.
3) Watching communities come together and take a chance where ToRD had to go through the exact same thing through 2006 and 2007 is incredibly uplifting to be a part of. The rough edges will be sanded down quickly. The lessons will be learned through trial. And the great sport of women’s flat-track roller derby will grow there, branch out even further than it already has, and become a permanent part of the civic culture.
4) Sudbury and the people there are totally cool. I’m hankering for a return.
Oh, and a fifth thing:
5) Deadly Viper Assassination Squad: You’re a killer bunch. Great bouts and great days are ahead.