It’s ‘a labour of love’ on and off the rink as Ontario roller derby team preps for playoffs in U.S.

For Hamilton resident Jane Hutton, getting to roller derby practice in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., is “an ordeal,” but worth it. 

“I love playing. I love the community,” Hutton said.

Hutton played for the local Hammer City Roller Derby team for three years before switching to the more competitive Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., team, Tri-City Thunder, in 2015.

Playing the sport lets the normally shy Hutton show a different side of herself, and it’s connected her to a close-knit group of players and volunteers.

Hutton’s teammate Christie Henderson likens the team to a family. For Hutton, that’s literally true. She met her partner and current teammate Emily Ashfield on the team and now the two have a baby.

So now, every week, they make the one-hour trek down Highway 6, drop their child and dogs off with Ashfield’s parents and hit the rink.

This season, the team wants all the practice it can get. Tri-City Thunder recently ranked 12th in the North America Northeast Region of the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association. The top 12 teams in that division of 136 include Montreal Sexpo and Montreal Skids, as well as nine U.S. teams.

Those teams will compete in regional playoffs at State College in Pennsylvania on the May long weekend.  

Team fundraising for stateside playoffs

Tri-City Thunder is fundraising with a GoFundMe campaign, and a bottle and can drive to cover travel costs. Theirs, like many derby leagues, is volunteer-run, with players coaching, setting up, scheduling and doing paperwork.

The team has players from around southern Ontario, including the Bruce Peninsula and Toronto. Nine players are from the Hamilton and Niagara area, as well as one coach. 

“We’re doing everything from tracking attendance to making sure that our rosters are ready to go,” Burlington, Ont., skater Henderson tells CBC Hamilton. 

“It’s a labour of love,” the Tri-City Thunder co-captain said. “We all love our team. … So putting in the other work is just what you’ve got to do to be there.”

This is the highest Tri-City Thunder has ranked since Hutton’s been on it, and they’re hyped, she said.

Sitting in 12th for a while, they weren’t sure if they’d make the playoffs until other teams ranked below them.

‘I love getting to hit people’: Hutton

To prepare for playoffs, the team is studying game-play videos to learn about their opponents and determine how best to match them. The first game will be against the Boston Roller Derby A team, ranked fifth. 

Henderson, centre, and Hutton, right, during a game. (PDV Photography)

Facing some of these teams in the playoffs this year would have only been a dream a few years ago, Henderson said. “Everybody’s really amazing there.”

“We have to practice full-out,” Hutton said. “We’re all crossing our fingers that no one gets hurt in the next couple weeks.” 

For those less familiar, roller derby is played by two teams who skate around a ring. Teams score points when a player called a jammer passes opponents. Opposing team’s blockers attempt to stop them, and their teammates attempt to clear a path. It’s a rough and tumble game, which Hutton enjoys. 

“I love getting to hit people. And people hit me really hard. I don’t know. It’s just really fun.”

WATCH | Henderson shares why she loves the sport

Christie “Biggie Falls” Henderson on why she loves roller derby

Christie Henderson is one of several Hamilton-area skaters who play for Tri-City Thunder, a roller derby team fundraising to attend playoffs in May.

The “strong and steady” blocker says she’s generally pretty quiet and shy. But when she straps on roller skates, her aggressive side comes out.

Derby players have nicknames and Hutton’s is “JANEgerous,” bestowed upon her by a teammate several years ago. In addition to being a blocker, Hutton pivots to play jammer. She also does some coaching.

Henderson, or “Biggie Falls,” is also a blocker. Her role is to communicate with other blockers and brace against them to hold firm. It requires a lot of backwards skating, one of her specialties. 

Playing on the same team as her partner is fun, Hutton says, but it can be frustrating, too. 

“At practice we’re on different lines so we’re up against each other a lot and I’m like, ‘Why are you so good? [Why are you] hitting me all the time?’ It’s fun.” 

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