Roller Derby: The Sport You Didn't Know You Loved

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Ponné Thrift
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
The differences between Roller Derby and Hockey are a lot closer than you may think.
Each position on the track is distinguishable via the helmet covering on that derby athlete.
The WFTDA, MRDA, and JRDA are the highest authorities for Women's, Men's, and Junior roller derby.

What Is Roller Derby?

If somebody were to summarize hockey into a single sentence, one might use the following: a sixty-minute contact sport played on skates with the potential of extra person advantages. That same sentence can describe the sport of flat-track roller derby.

Today, we look at the latter as we learn how roller derby is played compared to the sport we all love, hockey.

Looking at the core of both sports, the most glaring similarity is that they are played on skates. The major difference is the type of skate used. While hockey is played with inline skates, roller derby prohibits the use of inline skates and instead opts for traditional roller skates.

Breaking down the core, we look at things such as roster size and positional play. For roller derby, a roster consists of 15 skaters. This is three fewer skaters than the typical 18 that will dress in the majority of hockey leagues.

Much like hockey, roller derby players fill different offensive and defensive positions within their clubs. For roller derby, a team will have up to five skaters on the track at any given time and those skaters will be broken into three different positions: the jammer, blockers, and pivot. Each of these positions is discernible to the audience via their helmet decals while on the track.

Photo by Katie Callan
Audience onlooks live roller derby match - Photo by Katie Callan

The Positions

The jammer is arguably the most important position as they are the primary skater in charge of scoring points, and they can be distinguished via the star on their helmet.

It is the jammers’ job to lap the opposing team's blockers as much as possible within a limited time window. For each blocker they pass, a point is awarded to their club. Jammers also contain the unique ability to end a session early, but we will address that later.

Blockers contain no insignia on their helmets and work as a unit to prevent jammers from pushing past them while also maneuvering in a way that will strategically assist their jammer in getting ahead.

Blockers are required to stay in a tight-knit group, only allowed to be a maximum of 10 feet away from each other at any given time. Because of this, the grouping of blockers that form is known as the pack. For each session, a team will have four blockers on the track, but a team may name one of those blockers as our final position in the pivot.

A pivot can be either a blocker or jammer and is distinguishable by the stripe running down their helmet. A pivot is only able to become a jammer upon completion of a maneuver known as the star pass in which the jammer passes off their star helmet cover to the pivot.

The pivot also controls the pace and communication between their team’s blockers to best benefit their squad.

"Skull Candi," Midnight Terror jammer, waits for a jam to begin during her team's bout against the Tucson Roller Derby Saddletramps March 24.

The Play

Similar to hockey, a roller derby has a 60-minute match time. The difference is how that match time is broken up: for roller derby, they split their 60 minutes into two 30-minute periods.

These 30-minute periods are broken down even further into multiple shifts known as jams.

Every jam is a maximum of two minutes, but any jam can be called short via the lead jammer initiating the jam-ending sequence.

How this works is when the first jammer for a team breaks out from the pack they are signaled by the officials as the lead jammer. The positive side of being the lead jammer is that it allows that player full control of the point swing in a specific jam.

Their goal becomes maximizing their own team’s points while looking for the perfect time to end the jam which would minimize any points their opposition could achieve in that jam. To end the jam, the lead jammer signals to the officials by consistently tapping their hips in consecutive order.

Roller derby is a contact sport. Much like hockey, contact comes with limits and if you perform an illegal check, such as a hit to the head area, a player will be assessed a penalty.

Penalties result in a trip to the box for a maximum of 30 seconds for a given player. If that player is a blocker or pivot, the opposing jammer will gain an extra point each time they lap the other team’s first blocker.

If the penalized player is a jammer, then the non-penalized team will go on what is known as a power jam.

A power jam allows only one team to score which can swing a bout in a given team’s favor. Jammers must still be careful in this situation as only one jammer is allowed in the penalty box at a given time. If the active jammer was assessed a penalty during a power jam it would release the penalized jammer, and result in the other team going on a power jam.

Any skater in a bout is allowed to be penalized up to six times. On a seventh penalty, that player will be removed for the remainder of the match.

With the off-season for most hockey leagues in full swing, the similarities between roller derby and hockey could be just what the doctor ordered for fans looking to find a summer sport they can enjoy in their local area.

Whether you are looking to play or watch, the roller derby associations have a plethora of resources and information for either women’s, men’s, or junior derby on their respective association's websites.

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