The last final ramblings on the Roller Derby World Cup

My aunt is a heroin addict. It’s not the usual thing to be told. Oh, and she’s been run over by a train as well. It gets more interesting. On another occasion a friend told me that her uncle was a pimp. He hadn’t confessed to being a pimp, but he had a lot of lady friends he’d drive about to houses and then wait outside, while they went about their business. The ladies I had been told were all in their fifties. Suburbia had just taken on another dark twist. All I could think as we walked down the road was could we get these two together?

We are walking down to Jane and Finch. Jane and Finch, which we had found out is possibly the worst neighbourhood in Toronto.

The night I arrived at the Hotel I could tell it wasn’t the best in the world. The wedding party that were just leaving reception in search of liquor would have scored me a fair few points in the Wal-Mart game. I’m pretty sure there was a face raisin and plenty of missing teeth. That was just the bride. The groom was probably called Cletus. I didn’t dare take a second look. Don’t make eye contact with them, there could be trouble, remember, I’m a foreigner. All the vehicles in the car park belonged to contractors. Railroad workers by the looks of the equipment. This was the traditional low cost hotel firms would put their workers up in to save costs.

It was midnight. Although with the time difference it was really 5am for me. I just needed some sleep. I checked in and went to my room. On approaching my door I could hear loud voices coming from within. They’ve doubled booked me with some nutters I thought. I hesitated and then knocked, but no reply. I knocked again, louder. Still no reply. I thought I’d risk it and slipped the key card in to the lock and slowly opened the door.

The room was empty, thank god; however the TV was on full blast, the windows wide open so the room was freezing. The bed linen was thrown all over the room. I half expected to see excrement on the ceiling and obscene words carved in to the wall by last occupants with their Bowie knife. I closed the door; half relieved and wearily made my way down to reception.

The receptionist was apologetic and assigned me another room, a better room. I made my way back upstairs, this time I could hear no voices from within, I opened the door, threw my bags in and dived in to bed. I needed sleep.

I awoke the next day early. Lack of sleep was raising its ugly head but I knew I had to stay awake, work my way through this, otherwise I wouldn’t be prepared for the next few days. If I could stay awake and get an early night and try and re-adjust my body clock I would be ok.

Holly, Rene and Tuesday were flying in later on in the day so I had a bit of time to kill before they arrived. I decided to go for a walk around the local area. Try to get the flavour of the place. See what makes the locals tick. I was erring on alcoholism and knife fights judging from what I’d seen already. I left the hotel. It was sleeting, a chill wind blowing. This is the weather I had expected from Canada. At the end of the drive to the hotel and over the road was a local community college. ESL (ESOL) classes every day, enrol anytime. I knew what that meant. This area has a high proportion of immigrants. Not that immigration is a bad thing. But immigrants are usually drawn to the poorer neighbourhoods in a city. A place they need to work their way up and out from.

As I started my wander I realised how distances represented on the map were much larger than expected. I’m used to walking long distances but this environment seemed much larger. It may have been because the sprawling malls and low-rent housing were spread out. No real reason to build up when you have this much land. However there were also plenty of hi-rise block that seemed to have seen better days. I know estates in Peckham and Camberwell so the territory was familiar. I decided that it was best to keep my camera in my bag. Just wander, not look like a tourist. I had a mental plan in my head. Keep turning right and I should make it back to the hotel alive.

I made it back to the hotel and headed to my room. I booted up my netbook to find a message from Rene. They had made it to the hotel and were just unpacking. I went down to their room to find out the plans for the evening.

They had decided to do some sightseeing and head out to Niagara the next day as the tournament didn’t start until 5pm on the Thursday. I however planned to head down to the venue early, meet up with my contact Ziv, and suss out the venue. As we discussed plans we made an itinerary of what needed to be done. It was decided to get a hire car and head in to Toronto that evening.

We picked up a hire car and headed in to Toronto to find some food. A few wrong turns later found us in a neighbourhood with plenty of restaurants. We had no idea of where we were exactly. Toronto was all we really knew, but there was food and that was all we needed. We pulled up and headed for the closest one. It was bitterly cold outside. The restaurant was run by Vietnamese, and the cuisine was the same. It was a pleasant enough restaurant, tea was constantly served and the food filled a hole that we were all desperate to fill. After finishing the meal we headed outside where Rene spied a Starbucks. We headed over to get a coffee. 2,500 miles for my first experience of a Starbucks. I had refused to frequent them back in England as I had always assumed that they were evil. But hey, when abroad the devil may care.

On getting back to the hotel I said my farewells and agreed to meet them all at the venue the next day.

I decided to take it slow in the morning. Get up, have breakfast, mooch about, have a nap and head out to The Bunker for about one. Buses were not going to be laid on until later so when the time arrived I called a cab and headed over to the venue.

The Bunker I found out was bomb proof. A relic from the cold war. Attached to Downsview, an airfield that now housed the national aviation museum of Canada. It had been as far as I could see a bomber base, designed to combat the Soviet threat. Get that Bear in the air. The Bunker was just one of the buildings. I guessed that it was an ammunition store that housed the iron slicks that were to be dropped by B52s or whatever bombers the Canadian Air force operated. It was industrial, utilitarian, design awards were not made for this type of building but the aesthetics suited Roller Derby perfectly.

I wandered in thinking that finding my contact could be difficult. But after enquiring with someone that looked as they knew the score, they pointed me in the right direction. I walked up to the desk and introduced myself. Ziv was cordial. Sorted a pass out for me and explained the situation. It was a little less organised than I expected but nothing I hadn’t experienced and got used to in the UK. The electrical sockets had seen better days and judging by the guy standing next to the wireless router, holding his laptop at bizarre angles in order to get a signal, probably non-existent. It reminded me of the good old days of trying to get a reception on a television by bending a wire coat hanger in to a variety of modern art shapes in order to see through the snow. Or the time, several years back when myself and four friends attached a 5” black and white television to a shovel in a desperate attempt to see the first England match of the World Cup. Driving randomly around the field helped, but seeing anything through the snow was wishful thinking. To this day I still don’t know who won.

I recognised some of the England squad, Hustle’Her from CCR and Violet Attack from BBD so I went over to talk to them. I had had limited contact with the London clubs and so didn’t know most of the Team England skaters but at least I recognised some friendly faces. They had arrived a couple of days before and were down at The Bunker for a final training session. Team England were not playing the first day which allowed them to have a last practice and then head back to the hotel to prepare themselves for the next day.

I knew that my workload for the next four days would be heavy. I had prepared my gear back in England. Making sure I had enough memory cards to get through a day without having to fiddle with a laptop mid-bout to back files up. Even so, I would still have to take it steady. I was expecting some good Derby, so hammering it to get that ‘shot’ was still likely to happen.

I had mapped out which games I wanted to cover and so grabbed myself a bite to eat and settled down for the action to start.

The first couple of days would be trial and error. Get some test shots in, suss out the action, decide where the best shots would come from. On that first day all I knew was that I wanted to cover the US versus US exhibition match. That should be a good one.

I wasn’t disappointed. The skill level was high and the score close, which kept it exciting. In the end there was just one point in it.

That was end of the first day. We made our way back to the hotel and while everyone else went to bed to refresh themselves for the following day I went back and backed up the files from that days shoot. At 3am I went to bed.

Six thirty dawned and it was time to get up. Get ready for the second day. This was going to be a test. 9.30 am to 10.30pm. Dave, the photographer who had come out with Team Scotland had flown in to Toronto the day before and headed direct to the Bunker. I had an extra day to recover. He was looking the worse for wear.

Adrenalin and stupid self-belief in what we were doing would see us through. Lunchtime had come and gone and I was still going. By late afternoon the adrenalin was still pumping but I needed a drink. I took a wander around the venue. The food stalls were running low on food but I could see the urn at the back of one stall and headed over to grab a coffee.  No coffee. No electricity. When will it be back on? They weren’t sure. The situation was getting dire. I headed back to the track. That’s when I bumped back in to Dave. He had found the beer stall. Trust Team Scotland to have found the alcohol.

Over a beer we discussed how it was going. The atmosphere and the crowd were really making this a fun event. While there were some mismatched bouts most of the Derby was good.

The rest of the day was more of the same. Another late night. I returned to the hotel for 11pm and went to work. Finishing about 2.30am. Another 3 hours sleep then start again.

Holly, Tuesday, Rene and I had decided to cut the Saturday short. Head back a bit early and go out to a restaurant. There was an after party that night in Toronto and we all needed a bit of rest before heading to it. I had planned to cover all the England games on the Saturday and so went over to the venue a bit later than planned to get a bit more rest and then went back once they had finished.

I think it was on this day that Team Scotland played the USA. It may have been the day before, things became a bit of a blur, but I’m sure it was the Saturday. I was covering a bout on track one and so didn’t see it, but at half time I stuck my head around the curtains to look at the score. Team USA 225, Team Scotland 0. I never like to see a whitewash and especially against a home nation. I just prayed that Scotland could pull it off.

I got back to the bout I was covering, keeping an ear out for any news from track two. Time was pressing and nothing I heard had given me any hope that Scotland had scored. Suddenly a huge cheer went up. Wild Oates had scored for Scotland. Everyone was rooting for the underdogs. It was a major defeat for Scotland but at least they had scored.

After covering the last England game of the day which saw them seeded to play Canada early on Sunday morning I headed off to get some rest before heading off to the party.

The party was nothing to write home about. There were few, if any skaters there as there was still one full day of skating to go. The highlight for me was the bus ride out and back to the night club. I’m not a bus spotter but heading across an unknown city in a big yellow school bus was a great adventure.

The bus driver on our return made it clear as we boarded that no-one was to vomit on her bus. I wasn’t in the mood for vomiting which made me feel safe. We did however persuade her to take a slight detour and drive us all to Montreal. As we arrived back at the hotel to drop off those that didn’t want to make the extended trip it was clear that none of our bladders would make it that far. Oh well, maybe next time.  I think she’d be still game.

The final day would prove to be a good one. There were many reasons to expect so. I had been impressed by the performance of England, especially against France, who I thought would have proved to be tougher opposition. I was expecting England versus Canada to be a close match and had expected England to take it. However, in the end Canada proved to be too tough an opposition. Edging ahead early on and slowly increasing their lead as the game progressed. This set up a showdown between the USA, who had just beaten Australia, against Canada, and a play off between England and Australia for third and fourth place.

The venue was packed; photographers and press were out in force with TV cameras ready to roll.

First up, England versus Australia. The game started well for Australia. They came out fast and stunned England. Racking up some early points. I began to worry that England would Choke. A power jam by Kamikaze Kitten pulled some points back, and while Australia continued to put points on the board when England scored, they scored heavily. England had nudged ahead by half time and in the second dominated, their greater skill and fitness levels showing. Australia however had put up a brave fight.

Third and fourth place had been decided, now it was time for the final. The USA were clear favourites, and on their warm up showed their fitness and agility. I, like most of the crowd were cheering for Canada. Hoping that they could pull it off. If they could keep the score close there was always a chance.

The teams settled down. The crowd sat in expectation and then the whistle blew to get the first World Cup final underway. The USA exploded out of the blocks accumulating points on virtually every jam. It looked as though this could be a whitewash. Canada not to be thwarted started to score. The satisfaction and relief on their jammers faces clear for all to see. However for every one point Canada scored, the USA scored ten.

By half-time it was clear as to the outcome, but Canada fought to the last. And so ended the first Roller Derby world cup. The favourites had won. It wasn’t a surprise. But at the end of the day the real winner was Roller Derby. The experience had given so much to all the skaters who had taken part and the media exposure had opened the sport up to a wider audience.

And so there was nothing left to do but to get drunk at the after party.

Sometimes things are a little two surreal. It wouldn’t have surprised me that during the after party, Salvador Dali, riding a unicorn, singing the hits from HMS Pinafore had crossed the dance floor.

Team Finland were out in force, dressed as animals. Don’t ask me why. It was never fully explained to me. Team England were trying to recreate the tower of babel in human form. Synchronised dancing that embraced every nation that had taken part broke out. Limbo dancing and leg wrestling.

I remembered the requests I had been given before I left England.

1. Kidnap Suzy Hotrod.
2. T-Shirts.
3. Anything pink and sparkly.
4. Stickers.

I had failed at numbers three and four. The only things pink and sparkly I could find were hot pants and they were not cheap. I didn’t feel right about buying hot pants for people. But as people pointed out to me, buying trousers, especially brown nylon ones was even weirder. Although luckily I didn’t see any for sale.
I could have picked up some stickers but time was against me and in the end I forgot about them until the event was over.

Number two had been easy. I had a list and a job lot on the first day was on my agenda.
Now as I stood around at the after party, red cup full of beer in hand, I saw my chance to accomplish number one.

I sidled up to Suzy and introduced myself and explained my intention. ‘May I kidnap you?’ was my opening line. She looked perplexed. Ok take a step backward. I tried to explain my mission. I replaced the word kidnap with steal. She looked even more confused. Ok, back to the kidnapping. I knew if this was to work I’d need her to come along voluntarily. Bundling someone into the back of a car, gaffer tape firmly over their mouth, hands and legs bound is traditional, but my mission was slightly more difficult. I’d need to get her through customs and on to a plane. I thought trying to get a bound and gagged Suzy Hotrod through security would arouse suspicion. And I’d probably have to buy a seat. Trying to explain that she was hand baggage just wouldn’t wash.

She explained to me that she had to work the next day and so was unavailable to be kidnapped. Fair play I thought, I’ll settle on a photograph. Which she was more than happy to pose for.

Later on that evening I saw the opportunity to leg wrestle her. An opportunity I couldn’t pass up. How often do you find yourself in Toronto with that opportunity? I knew I’d lose but that wasn’t the plan. Sometimes it’s better to lose and have the experience than to not try. I was just hoping she’d not rip my leg out of its socket.

The evening wore on. Bizarre was replaced by strange and then to odd. I left about 1am slightly squiffy, happy in the knowledge that I had come to Canada and fulfilled my mission. Well, to the best of my abilities anyway.

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