Roller derby returns to Chicago on Jan. 26 at the UIC Pavilion as the Windy City Rollers kick off 2013 with their annual pre-season charity tournament. Saturday night will see the each of the league's four teams -- the Double Crossers, The Fury, the Hell's Belles and the Manic Attackers-- skate on behalf of selected local charity groups.
If you've not visited a roller derby bout --or have never taken the time to see the film Whip It!, the seminal Drew Barrymore-directed film about the game-- the snapshot of roller derby is simple.
Derby is a contact sport consisting of two teams of five on five. One player, the jammer, wears a star on her helmet and scores points by passing players on the other team. The other four players, called blockers, protect their jammer while also playing defense against their opponents. Bouts are 60 minutes long, played in two halves, with entertainment at halftime.
As a league, the Windy City Rollers' four teams compete against each other in what's called the "home season". The best players from the four teams also tryout yearly for spots on the two travel teams, the nationally-ranked Windy City All-Stars and B-team called the Second Wind. These teams play against rival clubs from all over the United States starting in March.
During last year's preseason cup, the two time champions The Fury eeked out a win in the tournament final against the Manic Attackers, last year's league champions.
As the sport continues to grow, the Charity Round Robin Tournament gives viewers an early action-packed glimpse, and marks the first skate for rookies in an initial test of each team's new mettle together. Looking ahead, here's a preview of each team and what's in store for Chicago derby at the UIC this season.
Team: Double Crossers
Colors: Black and Silver | Emblem: XX
Last Season: 4th Place regular season, Post-season elimination in the playoffs.
One might think that over the last few seasons that there was some kind of curse put on the Double Crossers. At the start of the 2012 season and throughout, injuries were an issue as the XX lost at least a half dozen players for the season to broken bones and the like. But if there was a curse on the 2007 league champions, it seems to have faded to black.
After a shrewd couple of draft picks at the end of last season, the team's two new captains, Sunshine 'N Painbows and Busty Brabender, have engineered what looks to be the most athletic team of the league and a totally new squad. Returning veterans include jammer Cruel Whip, defensive stalwart Sassy Squatch and Karmageddon, a Windy City All-Stars member; not to mention Reina Chaos, who returned to the league after a stint outside Chicago. Captain Painbows weighed in on her team's progress.
"We've developed solid partnerships and are continuing to grow as a team," she said. "Plus we're working with a deep pool of talent, particularly from our transfer skaters."
The XX have bolstered their squad with new acquisitions of players who have transferred from other derby leagues. To start there's the speedy jammer Killa Nois, who arrived from Angel City, as well as Sara Problem, a coveted and seasoned blocker who was drafted just a week ago after several years with the Rat City Rollergirls in Seattle. Adding to it, the XX also picked up Minerva Damage from the Hell's Belles during the off-season.
For once the Double Crossers have both depth and pace to spare. And if the other teams in the league take them lightly in 2013, it's their battle to lose.
Prediction: A hard fought 2nd Place.
Team: The Fury.
Colors: White, Orange and Black | Emblem: Brass knuckles
Last Season: 3rd Place regular season, Ivy King Cup championship runners-up
For the second year in a row a number of pivotal squad members from The Fury have retired. At the end of the 2011 season key players like Sargentina and Old Drrrty Go-Go left The Fury to focus on All-Star team duties while other hard hitters like Tori Adore, Red Zeppelin and Carnage Wilson left to retire from derby altogether. Likewise, the end of 2012 saw superstar jammer Kola Loka leave the league to pursue roller derby elsewhere, while defenders Tackle Box and Yvette YourMaker also retired from the furiosas, with Yvette leading the All-Star travel team this year as co-captain.
The remaining locals that continue in orange and black this season are some of the league's best players. Longtime Fury jammer Ska Face takes over the reigns as co-captain with KonichiWOW, while two-time league MVP Jackie Daniels returns along with blocker TS Helliot. The Fury also picked up defensive player Dinah Party from the Hell's Belles in an off-season trade, along with experienced newcomer Moby Nipps, who moved from Milwaukee's Brew City. Nipps made a splash right away as a late addition to the All-Star team on the road to regionals last October.
Despite the returning talent, there are a lot of new faces on The Fury's roster, and it is likely that this talented but young team will be an exciting one but a developing team nonetheless.
The most impressive thing about The Fury, traditionally, is their ability to surprise their competitors, playing a smash-and-grab style of roller derby in which the team --when playing as a team-- can take risks and recoup from major point deficits, or build up large leads that hold. It's also possible that The Fury could stage an April surprise and log another playoff upset after the season's conclusion.
However, the brass knuckle babes are probably at least a year away from becoming a power house again. In the meantime, they will be a fun team to watch.
Prediction: 4th Place
Team: Hell's Belles
Colors: Red and Black | Emblem: Horns & Tail
Last Season: 2nd Place regular season, Post-season elimination in the playoffs.
Sometimes it seems a misprint that the Hell's Belles wear red and not black and yellow, because when the Belles get their defensive game going, they swarm on the opposition like bees.
A lot of the defensive mindset of the Belles emanates from the leadership and smart play of captain Deb Autry, a former Windy City All-Star member who brings strength and hustle to compliment the work of her co-captain Zombea Arthur, a pint-sized jammer with a sharp sting of her own.
While the Belles have some other good point-scorers such as Unicoroner and Phoebe Fi Fo Fum, the Belles' strength lies in defense, with their young blockers, such as Abita! Down and Tay Q Down (aka the "Down Sisters") doing a lot of the gritty hip work alongside the battering strides of athletic players like Mya Ssault, Trouble Helix and Val Capone.
Also, to round out the set, the Belles picked up Bloody Elle (a transfer from The Chicago Outfit) and Baberaham Lincoln (from Brew City). Better yet, the Belles' former captain Hermione Danger, who came back after a year layoff from injury, returns to the fold to add even more experience and defensive savvy on skates.
Last season showed us that when the Hell's Belles block well and free their jammers to score points, everything clicks. And when the Belles play as a team, they are able to read their opponents, adjust to the flow of tough bouts, and win games.
All in all, it will be fascinating to see whether the Belles can step up further as an offensive threat to challenge the other teams in what looks to be a very competitive league this year.
Prediction: 3rd Place.
Team: Manic Attackers
Colors: Blue and Yellow | Emblem: Lightning bolt
Last Season: 1st Place regular season, Ivy King Cup champions.
I’ve joked about it but it’s true. One of the best parts of writing about derby is being at the sideline, between benches, when you hear the chatter from coaches and players to their teammates on the track. The Manic Attackers are the talkers of Windy City, and the loud crescendo that comes from their bench is something of a mix of chirps from a little league dugout and Duke basketball fans during March Madness. But buzz aside, the Manic Attackers' vocal pitch is as much a part of their game as is their versatility.
As longtime Manic Attacker, Wreck N Shrew, put it in an interview last fall, "For our team both our intensity and our honesty with each other go a long, long way."
On the whole, the Manics have everything going for them in 2013. And no one should expect either their intensity or vocal nature to be suppressed easily.
Mostly untouched by injuries the Manics’ 2012 championship roster remains intact. Longtime troopers Mo Vengeance and Tamikaze return with their Windy City All-Star teammates Ruth Enasia and Bork Bork Bork as the Manics' co-captains. There are also plenty of offensive options thanks to the return of jammers Zoe Trocious and Thievin’ Tyler, not to mention some very talented multi-position players like Wreck as well as Rose Feratu, who in 2012 transformed from a role player to a reliable point scorer and game changer.
They’ve have also bettered their position by filling open slots with experience. New addition Ghoulita brings a limber set of skates along with long-time veteran Norma Lee Wright, a former Double Crosser. Both players add to the defensive power, along with blocker AliSin Chains and the Manics’ charismatic dynamo, Ying O’Fire.
In total, the Manic Attackers are a well-oiled machine and a team that have built on their strengths. While a lot of roller derby teams across the country train their players for one position, the Manics seem keen to make every player play every position. In one game last year, for example, 14 different players wore the jammer cap in the bout's 2nd half alone. Strategy like this not only smooths out a team's comfort level, but here also allows the Manics to add spikes and deploy their best players to function in different roles, both on offense and defense.
As a result, the Windy City Rollers' league is looks to be made up of the Manics and everybody else. If the Manics don't dominate the league it's only because they haven't brought their game face. But I think they'll bring it.
Prediction: 2013 Champions.
You can get tickets to this weekend's bout here or at the UIC Pavilion box office on Saturday. You can also kick it with your favorite derby athletes at the Windy City Rollers after party.
Photo courtesy of Travis Taylor.