by Mary Bouchard AKA Smash Register

Montreal is a city cut from European fabric, a city that can make you feel like you’re in some nameless Paris wannabe city – it’s too modern to be Paris — but it has an international flair and flavor all its own.  There’s the language.  They REALLY speak French in Montreal.  It’s not like when you go through customs into Canada, and they say, “Hello, Bonjour.”  Sure, you may find some bilingual signs, but the English translation is in tiny little letters, like an afterthought, like a bone thrown to the Anglos, like an “OK, if you insist…”

And Montreal is cool.  Cool like Jazz – the Musee de Beaux Arts is hosting a multimedia exhibit on Miles Davis, and the Montreal International Jazz Festival is right around the corner, and there are a whole host of prominent jazz musicians who came out Canada’s second largest city.  That gravel-voiced Zen folkie poet Leonard Cohen hails from Montreal.  True, Celine Dion is from Montreal as well, but the local press hates her, that’s how cool the city is.  Montreal is a rail thin young man with shoulder length hair wearing skin tight black jeans and Converse sneakers who used to smoke Gauloises before it became unfashionable to do so.

So when I was planning to go to Montreal for a few days, I decided to check out the schedule for Montreal Roller Derby (MTLRD) and see if there were any bouts scheduled.  As a non-skating roller derby official with the Ithaca League of Women Rollers (ILWR), I wanted to see just what roller derby would be like in such a cool place.  I was in luck, for on the evening of my arrival in the city, there was an intra-league bout, and Les Filles du Roi would be facing off against the Contrabanditas.  Our own ILWR head ref, Elvis Refley, had refereed a tournament in Montreal, and when I told him I was going to a MTLRD bout, he said I could probably officiate if I wanted to.  Since I was going with a friend, I decided I’d rather sit in the stands with her than be down in the middle of the action as an official.  I bought a couple of advance tickets, and looked forward to my first foreign derby experience.

Plans change, though, and an expired passport prevented my friend from accompanying me on my trip.  Standing in line alone to pick up my ticket outside the bout venue, I watched the girls in front of me chat in French.  A young woman appeared at the head of the ticket line and announced, “Anybody want to officiate the bout?  You get in for free.”  For a second I thought, hmm… stands, or middle of the action?  My action brain kicked in, and I stepped forward.

“I’m actually a non-skating official with the SufferJets, in Ithaca.  I’m experienced,” I said, even though the chances of her knowing the location of Ithaca were slim.

“Great!”  she said, and she welcomed me with kisses on both cheeks.  “Did you buy a ticket already?”

“Yes… but that doesn’t matter.”

“We’ll refund your money, then.  What’s your name?”

“My derby name, or my real name?”

“The name that you bought the tickets under.”

We walked to the ticket office, where she found my name on the list, and gave me a crisp $10 bill.  We walked downstairs where the referees and officials were gathering before the game start.  With a “Hi, I’m Smash Register,” I introduced myself to the head ref, a piercing artist whose nom de derby is Pat Pierce, and he informed me that the official I was replacing actually did show up, so my services would not be needed.  He offered his apologies, and invited me to come some other time and officiate, and told me to enjoy the bout.

I took my seat in the stands, and the announcers warmed up the crowd.   One wore a blue speedo under a loose, see-through blue net garment completely open in the back, showing off the Celtic knot tattoo that covered his entire back.  He sported a blond Prince Valiant haircut, along with silver stiletto-heeled knee-high boots.  He announced in French.  The other announcer, in shorts and tee shirt, covered the action in English.

As luck would have it, I sat next to a derby virgin, a woman who was attending her first bout.  She’d been living in the rural South, in Georgia for a few years, was spending the summer in Montreal teaching, and would be moving to Albany, NY in the fall.  I pointed at the fishnet-draped announcer.  “You’re not in Georgia anymore, that’s for sure.”

“Actually,” she said, “I’ve been thinking about getting involved in roller derby.  I used to roller skate when I was a kid, and I played hockey.  I found out that Albany has a roller derby league. ”

“Do it, do it, do it.  It’s great, so much fun.  And there’s a role in derby for everyone who wants to get involved,” I told her.

The bout started, and I explained the finer points of the sport to my new friend in the stands.  But I found that watching roller derby can be confusing, even when you know the rules.  Do you watch the jammer?  Do you watch the pack, the pivot, or the referees?  As an official, your duties are fairly narrowly defined, so that while you may not see everything that happens, you don’t need to make a decision about what to watch.  Without that definition, your eyes snap back and forth, from one skater to another.  You hear a single whistle and look to see who’s committed a major penalty.  You hear a roar from the crowd and look to see the jam ref indicating the underdogs just scored five points.

MTLRD is rough-and-tumble.  Their logos are replete with skulls, black eyes and bloody noses.  One team’s name is “La Racaille”, which loosely translates to “riff-raff”.  And despite the sophistication of the city in which this team makes its home, the grassroots, all-volunteer nature of the sport made itself evident in the makeshift merchandise table, the casual friendliness of the referee staff, the twelve-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon the fans purchase from the refreshment stand and bring to their seats.

The match was a squeaker, but the Ditas prevailed, 104 to 103. At the end of the bout, I turned to my new friend and said, “Well, if our league has a bout in Albany, I’ll expect to see you there.”

“Sure thing.  Nice meeting you.  And thanks for explaining it to me.”

The crowd thinned out into the clear night.  I walked back to the Metro that would take me to my hotel, thinking about roller derby, about Montreal, and about that rail thin young man in tight jeans and Converse sneakers, thinking that perhaps tucked into those jeans, just above a studded belt, might just be a Contrabanditas tee shirt.

Mary Bouchard (a/k/a Smash Register) is of French-Canadian extraction, lives in Trumansburg, and discovered roller derby in late 2009.  She is currently a bout official with the Ithaca League of Women Rollers, but is finding herself more and more in the role as derby evangelist.  Recently, she recruited her son (Neill “Cray-Z” Bower) into the ranks of bout officiants.