As the Queen City Roller Girls’ new season began, women in hotpants, fishnet stockings and helmets raced around the new roller derby track at RiverWorks sport complex, where the league’s biggest crowd ever watched with enthusiastic curiosity as they soaked up the latest big new thing at the waterfront.
About 1,300 sipped beer and soda, ate popcorn and tried to figure out how the new game works.
“It’s totally different from any other sport,” said Arlene Eberhard, an Amherst resident who came with seven, counting her husband, son, daughters and nieces.
Like many in the crowd Saturday, it was their first time watching roller derby. Fliers posted near Buffalo RiverWorks ice rink where her son plays hockey made the game between the Devil Dollies and Suicidal Saucies sound like a good excuse for a family outing.
The novelty of the fast-paced game seemed to embody Buffalo’s new cool.
“We definitely feel like there’s a resurgence in Buffalo,” said Eberhard, “and we just want to be a part of it.”
The rare female contact sport began locally at the Rainbow Rink in North Tonawanda 10 years ago. From the start, its founder wanted to bring the league to prominence at Buffalo’s downtown waterfront. RiverWorks, with its ice rinks and bar on Ganson Street, by the grain elevators and General Mills plant, included space for the league in its development plan.
Queen City Roller games started there last winter even before heat was turned on. The building was finished by fall, in time for four preseason games.
“It was like a dream,” said Debra Hughes, the nonprofit league’s co-founder, as she watched people file in and settle into seats in the hour before the 2 p.m. game started. “It’s kind of like starting fresh.”
The official season, with 28 games scheduled through June 10, began auspiciously Saturday afternoon.
Instead of the usual RiverWorks crowd of about 350, 400 presale tickets were gone by 10 a.m.
As ice skaters and a curling team slid on RiverWorks’ outdoor ice rinks, the warm inside roller space with exposed ceiling beams filled up with people taking seats in the rows of padded folding seats and low metal bleachers around the black oval track on the concrete floor.
Hughes, a player-turned-referee and usher, explained how the game is played with two half-hour periods and teams sending out five players at a time.
Each has a “jammer” who wears a star on her helmet and shoves and shoulders her way through a line of players called “blockers.” As jammers break through the pack, they win a point for each opposing team player they manage to skate by.
“We don’t really have a ball or a stick or a puck,” said Hughes. “Our jammer, in essence, is a ball.”
When a woman eavesdropping from a bleacher ahead thanked her for the explanation, Hughes smiled broadly. “This is why derby’s great,” she said. “It’s exciting. Especially seeing women get excited about a sport.”
Marietta Andrew appreciated Hughes’ description because this was her first game. Online research led to outdated information.
Even with an incomplete understanding of the sport, she came from Elma with eight friends expecting to have a good time. It was good to see more than a big bar at the city’s newly vital waterfront. “I just thought it would be cool,” said Andrew.
From her place behind a table selling roller derby T-shirts – “Let’s Roll Buffalo” – Amy Goodrich watched impressed as the crowd filled in. She was a new member of the Alley Kats team, which plays next Wednesday at 7 p.m. She has played on teams in other places where she lived, including her hometown of Portland, Ore., and in Wisconsin and even Denmark.
She was used to making do in makeshift warehouse space and on ice rinks without ice. RiverWorks custom-made roller derby was unique. “This is kind of amazing,” she said. “It’s got a great energy. It’s just great to be part of the downtown revitalization.”
Goodrich recently moved back to Buffalo after returning to Portland when the relationship that first brought her to the Queen City ended.
Buffalo drew her back with its working-class roots, restaurant scene and friendly neighborhoods. “It felt like the Portland I grew up in,” she said.
The Queen City Roller Girls has similar qualities. The league with six teams – three home teams, a travel team, a farm team and a junior team – was started in grass-roots fashion by players: “People kind of bonding together and figuring it out,” Goodrich said. “That’s what I love about derby.”
As the game began, the black-shirted Dollies took the lead and kept it with jammers who repeatedly broke through the pack, eventually beating the red-shirted Saucies, 176 to 116.
From her folding chair in the second-row seat, Crista Murphy found herself rooting for players she knew on both teams. A resident of St. Catharines, Ont., she tried out and made the Lake Effect Furies travel team last year.
As the 30-year-old social worker skated for a Canadian derby team for three years before, he aimed for Queen City and its more competitive play.
On Saturday, it was a thrill to see a sellout crowd for the first game of 2016. Buffalo’s interest in the unusual sport is part of what she’s grown to love about this city.
“People seem to show up to really cool things that are happening,” Murphy said. “They’re open to new experiences and that’s one of the things that I really, really love about Buffalo.”
News Staff Reporter Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich contributed to this report. email: email@example.com