Jess Bandit takes on the "roll" of captain

Carmen Marie Fabio
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Kirkland resident crowned head of Team Canada's women's roller-derby team

Jessica Paternostro decided one day that she needed a hobby. What she didn't know at the time was that the decision would require a helmet, along with knee, wrist, elbow, and mouth guards, and culminate with her being named captain of Team Canada, leading her motley crew to compete at the Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto, Dec. 2 to 4.

"My friend Georgia W. Tush (Alyssa Kwasny) is the founder of the Montreal Roller Derby League," said Paternostro, "I just joined in not really knowing what it was."

When she's not studying Physical and Health Education at McGill University or undergoing daily cardio and resistance training, the Kirkland resident's alter-ego 'Jess Bandit' can be found circling a track with her teammates, doing their best to block their opponent team's "jammer" from out-lapping them, while at the same time, forming gaps to allow their own jammer to advance. Each "jam", or round, is two minutes long and a match consists of an hour of total play.

"It's a race, but at the same time, you don't want to tire out your jammer," said Paternostro. "That's where it's really strategic."

In the five years since her initial foray into the sport, the Montreal league has grown to include six teams with dappled monikers including The Smash Squad, Les Contrabanditas, and Paternostro's team, the New Skids on the Block.

"At first it was just something different," said Paternostro "It's only in the last two years that it started getting really competitive. Now we want to be looked at as a serious contact sport."

Team Canada will be competing against teams from 13 countries, taking on opponents from as far afield as Argentina, New Zealand, and Finland when they meet at Toronto's Downsview Park. No monetary award will accompany the win but Paternostro said the bragging rights, for now, are reward enough.

The Team Canada roster of 14 players and six back-up members who range in age from 18 to mid-30s include, besides Paternostro and Kwasny, four other Montrealers; Bone Machine, Iron Wench, Lil Mama, and Beaconsfield's Smack Daddy, a.k.a. Val Desjardins.

"Most players in the league have a story or two to tell. Limbs are flying when someone's falling."

"I grew up playing mostly soccer, but also hockey," said Desjardins, 32, who was forced to drop the latter when she entered Concordia. "Roller derby kind of crept into my life the last few years," she said. "It's that unfinished hockey business for me."

Desjardins obtained a master's degree in visual arts from New York University and was an art director at an Old Port gallery, a position which temporarily kept her from joining the league. "It was a pretty fancy place," she said. "I couldn't really come to work limping or with a black eye."

Both Desjardins and Paternostro agree that the potential for injury is very real. Split lips along with knee and ankle injuries are regular occurrences among the participants. "Most players in the league have a story or two to tell," said Desjardins. "Limbs are flying when someone's falling."

Roller derby originated in the depression era as a month-long endurance race between teams of skaters. By the late 1930s, the rules evolved to increase participant competition and interaction. The American league bouts were televised in the 1950s but by interest slowly declined over the next two decades, despite story lines and over-the-top personalities akin to staged wrestling matches.  

Paternostro said there's no comparing today's roller derby to the days of the infamous American skater 'Skinny Minnie Miller', saying it's akin to comparing World Wrestling Federation to Olympic wrestling. "We're out there to play really great and win the game," she said. "We're not out there to put on a show." 

Organizations: Team Canada, Montreal Roller Derby League, McGill University New York University World Wrestling Federation

Geographic location: Kirkland, Montreal, Canada Argentina New Zealand Finland Toronto Downsview Park Old Port

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