Breathe!

Time was ticking down fast and there was just over half an hour to catch the bus downtown to Buffalo from here in Toronto when the puppy decided to make the flight to freedom and dashed out the front door into the neighbourhood. Absolutely the last thing that was needed, but puppy was finally caught after running around the yards. Mother decided to come downtown as well in the van. As soon as she opened the front door of the house, the puppy made a second bolt for freedom.

Once again the chase was on, and ever looming along with the anxiety of the chase was the conviction that time had surely run out. However, the determination to get to Buffalo at all cost had not.

Sleep had not come. The mantra of “breathe!” was not working. As the sun found itself peeking above the horizon, gear was still being packed through the night&emdash;recharging batteries and testing again, and trying to remember little things that we kept on forgetting. The pile of equipment needed for the road trip kept on piling up.  And adding to the worry was the wondering if the powers that be at the American border or even the Greyhound busline would even let everything through. So what was another dog chase or two to compound things?

The drive downtown to the bus station was stop and crawl on a Saturday morning, marked by a wrong turn and speed bumps on side roads. It was 12:02 and the bus was supposed to leave at noon as the final corner to the bus station at Dundas and Bay was reached. Park, say goodbye and run like hell. There was a bus at gate 13 just about to depart. The station worker was asked where was the bus to Buffalo and he pointed. This was the bus to Buffalo. As the good natured driver was placing the luggage into the baggage compartment, he said that if hadn’t been for the other bus on the street blocking the way out, the bus to Buffalo would have been gone already. Phew!

Along the way we beheld the attractions of Saint Catharines, the outskirts of Niagara Falls and the remnants of the War of 1812, then Fort Erie. The foreboding American customs lay ahead. The bus driver gave a brief but humourous lecture about being truthful and the consequences of cavity searches otherwise. The luggage was lugged off the bus, rolled into the building and thrown them into the conveyor belt that sucked the bags into the x-ray machines.

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are you going and why? asked the big lady behind the counter. Then the official glared at the two bags. Why do you need two bags. Roller Derby was the answer, and equipment to shoot. Do you intend to sell anything? What type of camera do you use? A Nikon D90. She sighed, and said “Let’s see it.” Opening up the luggage and the camera bag, the  camera was handed over to her with the battered 35-70 lens taken through the wars of countless Lollapalloza and Edgefest and Sommersault and how many U2 or Smashing Pumpkins or cross-processed Radiohead shows. With a snort she handed it back. “You can go. It’s an expensive hobby you’ve got there.” Tis indeed, more than a hobby.

America at last! Crossing the bridge, the sky was a shade of grey, and abundant American flags were flying everywhere. You could just feel you were a stranger in a stranger land.

The Buffalo bus station was its own little world, with bus hops, vending machines holding Crystal Beach and Cherry Coke! Mello Yello!

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American telephones that required American coins, which we did not have. However, the generosity of a passenger—she handed me two quarters – I offered her a US bill which she declined. It’s only two quarters, she said. The first item on the call of duty roster was to phone Mama Chops.

“We’re here!” “Is that you?” said a familiar voice at the other end of the line. Mama Chops was going to be busy with setting up for the after party, so she said ShockHer was on the way. ShockHer arrived, a great big bundle of zebra with a vigorous handshake. With gear stowed in the ShockHer truck, it was time to get to Derby!

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Rainbow Roller Rink was like entering the promised land. A fairy tale come to life. A genuine skating rink with a floor of real polished wood. Glitzy neon rainbows. Plus the promise of actually seeing Queen City playing on its home court.  Distant thoughts of chasing puppy faded away as the prospect of seeing the blue and the purple lay ahead.

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The key to the atmosphere in the Rainbow Roller Rink that Knockouts skater and league bout photography co-ordinator [aka cat wrangler in photographer’s circles] B-17 said as introductions were made around amongst the media du jour is the the intimacy created by the small size of the arena. Being close to the action is cultivated by QCRG. The crowd drawn right up to the edge of the action, their lives protected only by one layer of padded wall set up right on the referee’s circle. The fans fed on the excitement of the action right before their eyes which in turn fuelled the skaters to play harder and even more furious referee takeouts which riled the fans even more. It is the proverbial circle of life.

The night promised a repeat of the last year’s Queen City Championships featuring the two teams, could the Devil Dollies duplicate their winning form, or would there be payback for the Knockouts?

Coach Busty Pipes with Diamond Crushher was leading a team in reformation. Captain of the Champions Devil Dollies #360 Lip Service was alongside Lake Effect Furies skaters Day TripHer and Brutali-Tease. Other familiar faces had Diamond CrushHer on bench coach duties and HerHeiny Granger last seen at 2 Fresh 2 Furious was an actual Dollies.

The battle cry for the night for the Knockouts was straight out of Storage Wars as they warmed up, responding to the barking of the coach with their rendition of Dave Hester’s “yuuuuuuuup!” Leading the tight squad of blue shirts was captain Lamb Chops flanked by BJ Harmstrong and somewhere under that mask was Crazy Legs. She was wearing the protective gear due to the blow to the nose suffered at the hands of a flying elbow at World Cup in Toronto back in December where she captained the mighty Team Argentina.

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The next two hours and beyond was akin to being in Disneyland, filled with magic and fantasy and rainbows and unicorns. Watching a dream come true. The Knockouts staked themselves to the lead and never looked back. More like looking out for #1.

From the casual viewpoint of non-partisan QCRGer Mama Chops, were the Knockouts looking for revenge? “Yes indeed. The Knockouts came out serious and ready to do business. They were lucky in that they had the most returning players of any team.” Their KOs cohesiveness and having more experienced members on their roster than their opposition was decisive as they sought to even the score from last season.

However, the Devil Dollies were not about to give up. There’s nothing Derby ladies enjoy more than a good spat amongst themselves to rekindle the competitive juices. Taking out the refs was just par for the course.

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Blocker and pivot of the Devil Dollies Val du Morte (2010 rookie of the year with QCRG): “I thought the KO’s really tightened up their game, they were super disciplined. I felt like we were playing us at the end of last season.”


The Championships of last year had the til then undefeated Knockouts with their main jammer rotation of Addy Rawl, BJ Harmstrong along with  Crazy Legs rolling up the lead. Bit by bit though the Devil Dollies had climbed back, finding a counter to Addy’s move and walling up, and as was described it came down to the last jam. With Addy and BJ out of gas, on the line for  the line for the Knockouts was Crazy Legs who took her subsequent penalty. Consequently, Devil Dollies secured their first ever championship.

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So this new 2012 season rolled in, and the Knockouts were out to even the score on this, the night of nights, no more rehearsing and nursing a part, they knew their role and every roll on the track by heart. This was opening night Derby, baby! Eyes were burning bright on both sides. The air was festive, with the QCRG junior team Ice Ice Babies and moms fundraising behind a table of baked goods and the future of QCRG walking around the track with plates of cupcakes for sale. Americans love their cupcakes. The merch table had the very blue Knockouts shirt we had been coveting [and now in our possession], and the new QCRG 2012 yearbook available for a mere five bucks. The two anthems played— Knockouts coach SuperNova hailing from Crystal Beach, Ontario, provided the Canadian element on the bench. This was not the night for slow Derby. QCRG is built for speed. From an inside the track perspective, Knockouts seemed to know what to do in the pack,  prying holes for their killer jam rotation. Things did not look good for the Devil Dollies as the KOS reached the century mark before the first half concluded.

Halftime was quel bizarre with the tossing of palettes filled with loves of the Al Cohen rye bread into the awaiting arms of the crowd. “Give the audience bread and they shall be fed for a night.” The first bite of the arena hot dog with mustard and relish—real Americana. And three dollar Labatt’s Blue dispensed in cups. Toronto had nothing quite like this.

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Val du Morte continues: “The KOs didn’t go for the big hard hits, they played together. The Devil Dollies started to come together at the end but ran out of time. Our new girls played really well, but we still have some work to do…” Tearing through the second half, the Devil Dollies tried to make a game out of it but the zeroes on the scoreboard came around with the Knockouts on the winning side of a 200-137 score.

Captain Lamb Chops looked back on the night. “The KO’s suffered very few roster changes over the off season, but we went into that bout knowing that we had to earn every. single. point. 007 Supernova (our fearless Canadian coach) has really been pushing the bar with our training so the confidence level was there. All we needed was to execute! And execute we did—I would never say that we played flawlessly, but the KO’s did a lot of really wonderful things on the track and I’m very proud of my team.”

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The afterparty was its own affair with Mama Chops and all the social crew providing a Breakfast for Dinner theme repast for skaters and crew, complete with breakfast pizza, blueberry pancakes, do we remember bacon? and so much more. And QCRG proved they knew how to win their own afterparty downstairs on the dance floor.  They really do drink Molson Canadian down there and they love their Blue at $2 a bottle. Two dollars!

One more note: on the search for the Cherry Coke and little American only things after the bout, I was introduced to Walgreens. Looking through shelves of American chocolate and coolers of liquids, it was a double take glare at the presence of  actual beer. Shelf upon shelf of beer. Imagine that! Beer in a drugstore! The American was amused.

As the clock on the VCR glowed 4:00 in the darkness, with head on pillow, we fell asleep in the land of the free. And so ended our first night in Queen City, wrapped in a dream and some assurance that yes, Buffalo, there is a Derby god-desss.  It is with tribute of heart  to Queen City that we say we may have been a stranger in this strange land but now it feels like home.

Next chapter: The Return of Stranger in a Stranger Land – part 3. 

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