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A stretch limousine rolled up in front of an old warehouse next to the railroad tracks on Missoula's Northside one evening last weekend, and several men emerged.

They disappeared through a loading dock at the Toole Avenue building - where, inside, heavy metal music pounded out of amplifiers at something close to jet-engine decibel level - and joined a rapidly growing crowd of Goth-dressed teens, curious senior citizens, middle-aged folks, parents with tots in tow and the occasional tattooed woman, some in fishnet stockings and most with painted faces, gliding past them.

Move over, Grizzly football. Step aside, Osprey baseball.

Take five, all you marathon runners and softball players and basketball fans.

There's a new sport in town.

It's got women with names like Pippi Broadknockings, Euthanizer Bunny and Scarlett Annihilateher speeding around an oval track on skates, knocking each other, if not to kingdom-come, at least into the first row of spectators while whipping others to the front of the pack, in a fast-paced sport where offense and defense are played simultaneously.

What sports fan couldn't like this?

Welcome to roller derby.

 

***

On this night, it's Missoula's Hellgate Rollergirls vs. Spokane's Toothless Annies.

Yes, they do keep score, and most everyone knows who's going to win. The Hellgate Rollergirls are relatively new to this, and in fact, used to drive to Spokane to practice with the more experienced Toothless Annies before they found this warehouse to rent for their practices and bouts.

"There were rumors, there were dreams, there was much talk," they explain on their website, www.hellgaterollergirls.org. "Finally, a few crazy ladies, with an almost inappropriate amount of determination, got together."

" ‘We'll host a public meeting, and see what kind of response we get,' " they said, "each secretly hoping we could get at least a few ladies" interested in roller derby.

"There were about five of us who got together and talked about how we could do this," says Anneka Ayers, who skates to the name Delicious Demon.

"Or ‘Double-D,' " she notes.

They put up signs saying "Let's bring roller derby to Missoula," and were almost shocked when 80 women showed up for that first meeting at the Missoula Public Library.

And really, that's all they had at the time - a lot of interest. They had no place to skate, no uniforms, no money.

"It's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears since," Ayers says.

But look at what they've wrought.

 

***

It's standing-room-only at the Inferno, which they've named the warehouse for their bouts.

The place is packed with people who have shelled out $13 apiece to get in through the loading dock, and most seem engaged by the relatively new spectacle, save for the many late-arrivers who not only can't get seats, they can't see through the heads of the hundreds of others who can't get seats either.

The bouts are divided into two 30-minute periods, each filled with as many "jams" as possible.

At the start of each jam, which run a maximum of two minutes, five players from each team line up on the track.

Eight of them start at what's called the pivot line: one "pivot" and three "blockers" from each team.

Thirty feet behind them, a "jammer" from each team starts at the jammer line.

The job of the jammers, who score all the points, is to catch up to the pack, muscle their way through, then race up to the herd again.

Then they fight their way through again, scoring a point for each opposing player they pass. The blockers are, sometimes simultaneously, trying to open holes for their jammers and close them for the opponent's.

It's important to be the first jammer through the first time, because that person is then designated the lead jammer, and can call off the jam at any time by repeatedly placing her hands on her hips.

If the lead jammer is racking up points while the other gets stuck in the pack or knocked to the floor, she'll keep going until the two minutes are up. If the other jammer starts cutting into her lead, she can call it off.

Announcers Dale Moore and Tom Schultz explain some of the rules to the packed house and warn people in the front row they are officially in harm's way as part of the crash zone.

Then one of them bellows into the microphone.

"ARE YOU READY FOR THE BEST SHOW ON WHEEEEEEEEEELS?"

And, as they say, the crowd roars.

 

***

Violet Hopkins was one of the 80 people at the original public meeting, but didn't join the Hellgate Rollergirls for several months after the club formed.

"Between hockey and softball and kickball, there wasn't any time," says Hopkins, whose skate name is Montucky Lucky. "There are dues involved, and I just didn't do it."

Last spring she did, and all other sports have taken a backseat since.

"Once I skated through the door I was addicted," Hopkins says.

Part of it is the female bonding that goes on in roller derby.

"I love my boys, but this is something else," she says. "Plus, you can really measure how good you get. You're moving on a fast track, and hitting is fun, too. Where else are you sanctioned to hit other women, and still be best of friends at the end of it?"

The Hellgate Rollergirls are up to 70 dues-paying members, and the bout with the Toothless Annies features their all-star lineup.

Hopkins is on one of the Missoula "B" squads, that go by Brawlin' Mollies and Dirtroad Dolls, and like the others who haven't laced up for the bout, is helping with ticket, beer, T-shirt and souvenir sales.

In addition to the bouts, the marketing-savvy Hellgate team also runs promotions. On this night, once the bout is over, the audience can stick around for live music by the Koffin Kats, the Budgets and the Hollow Points.

"We did a pin-up contest earlier, had a swimsuit competition, boudoir and car show," Hopkins says. "The next time I think we're going to have some kind of pro-wrestling thing."

A mostly younger crowd will stick around for the music, but the majority of people have come for the roller derby.

Rageen Lucy of Arlee grew up watching roller derby in Southern California, and has brought her 3-year-old daughter Lendynn to her first bout after learning of the Hellgate Rollergirls just a few days earlier.

"I do hair," says Lucy, whose Arlee salon - Curl Up and Dye - might make a good skate name. "One of my clients came in as another one was leaving and said, ‘Hey, that guy's one of the roller derby referees.' "

"I've known him forever, and he never mentioned anything about it," she goes on. "I chased him out to his car to ask him, and as soon as he told me about this, I said, ‘I'm there!' "

***

That client, 62-year-old St. Ignatius chiropractor Jim Thornton, started roller skating in 1968 when he lived in Venice Beach, Calif.

"It was the mecca of skating," Thornton says. "People don't understand, it was like the whole city was on roller skates. You never took them off. People roller skated at the supermarket, at the post office."

But after moving to Montana and getting married, Thornton says he put his skates away.

He took it back up in 1995, but never encountered anyone else on the old-school quad skates.

"If you even saw another roller skater, they were on in-line skates," Thornton says. "For 15 years, I was the only one. It was lonely. I almost quit again."

Then he saw a Missoulian story on the Hellgate Rollergirls' attempts to get roller derby going - and more importantly, a picture of some of them.

"There were four girls standing there, and they were all on these kind of skates," says Thornton, pointing to his quads. I said, ‘I've got to find these people. I'll do anything - manage, help coach, serve as trainer, referee, anything.' "

Well, of those possibilities, refs are the ones who skate.

"And so reffing it was," Thornton says.

"I have to admit, I thought, how hard can it be?" he adds. "You probably can't throw elbows, and what else is there?"

Since then, Thornton - even the refs have skate names; his is "Bones" - has learned there are 43 major rules to roller derby, many open to multiple interpretations.

"It is illegal to elbow another player," he explains, "but if it doesn't affect their skating, then it's legal. If it makes them stumble it's a minor penalty, but if they fall it's a major one. Every time you see an elbow you have to decide, did it affect their skating? Was it legal or illegal, and if it was illegal, how illegal was it?"

Thornton says he's one of three local men who volunteer as referees for the Hellgate Rollergirls. The rest of the seven who officiated at the bout were imported from Spokane.

 

***

The first jam against the Toothless Annies is one of the most exciting, mostly because the Hellgate Rollergirls come out of it in a 4-4 tie, thanks to the daring work of jammer Darby Smash and her blockers.

Off her skates, Darby Smash would be Jennifer Hendrickson, who loves both the sport and the workout it provides.

"You don't have to go to the gym anymore," Hendrickson says. "Once you get going and know the rules, it's absolutely the best game there is."

It takes a combination of brains and brawn, she says, "although I think I do better if I shut my brain off - you know, don't overthink it, just do it."

It does go downhill for the locals after the first jam. The Rollergirls are behind 14-4 after the second. By the 9:26 mark of the first period they trail 45-12.

The more experienced Toothless Annies are well on their way to a 146-81 victory.

But the crowd sticks to the end and keeps cheering, and you get a sense of how exciting it will be when Missoula's largely rookie skaters can challenge an opponent to the final jam.

Roller derby takes a lot of commitment on the part of the women. There are four practices a week. They all are assigned chores at the warehouse and bouts. They all pay $26 a month in dues, a figure that will soon grow to $40 because of the rising rent on the warehouse.

"A lot of landlords wouldn't give us a chance, but this one did," Hendrickson says. The rental agreement started the fledgling team - which initially practiced in parking lots around town, or drove to Spokane to do so - out at $1,500 a month, with the understanding that the rent would gradually increase to the $4,000 a month a space this size can command.

That time is fast approaching, but the Rollergirls' roster keeps multiplying - newcomers get their first taste of roller derby in workouts christened "fresh meat" practices - and the crowds at their once-a-month-or-so bouts keep getting larger.

They're constantly searching for a warehouse better suited to hosting bouts.

With or without it, there's still a new game in town, and those who get close enough to see it, seem to get a kick out of it.

"Missoula is loving it," Hendrickson says, "and we can tell."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186

or by e-mail at vdevlin@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at (406) 523-5244 or by e-mail at kwilson@missoulian.com.

 

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