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STL GateKeepers take on the bruising challenge of building male roller derby league

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 18, 2010 - Scott Meyer has a band of brothers on skates.

This roller derby fraternity practices together, plays together and travels together to find competition. Some teammates know each other well outside the rink. You just wouldn't think that from hearing Meyer explain a quirky aspect of team relations.

"Some of these people I've known for a while have no idea what my real name is," Meyer says. He pauses and points to the back of his jersey. "They only know me by my derby name." It's "Magnum, p.i.m.p.," the second word meant to be spelled out to emphasize the television show reference.

Welcome to the world of roller derby, where a nickname becomes your identity and hearing it shouted by teammates and fans during a bout (the preferred word for a derby showdown) is a rite of passage.

Devoted fans of roller derby, a sport that mixes speed skating with strategic blocking, might be familiar with the nicknames of the women who skate in the league Arch Rival Roller Girls, which formed in St. Louis four years ago and has attracted up to 1,000 people to some bouts. 

Now comes a men's squad, the StL GateKeepers, which hopes to be the catalyst for the first organized, flat-track, all-male roller derby league in St. Louis. The team has its first official bout Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Race City Rebels from Indianapolis. The women will face off in the second part of a doubleheader at the All American Sports Mall, 11133 Lindbergh Business Court, in St. Louis. Meyer said he expects a sellout.

A quick primer for the uninitiated: In a roller derby bout, five skaters from each team are on the track. There are four positional blockers and one jammer who tries to score points. He does so by lapping the four blockers on the other team, who are trying to prevent the opposing jammer from breaking through. For each blocker he passes, the jammer earns one point.

"It's kind of like playing hockey and you have the puck the entire time," Meyer explains, though it should be noted that there is no ball or puck in this sport. "You're a live target who can be checked and bumped. There's no time just sitting back watching the action when you're on the track -- there's always adrenaline."

A bout typically consists of two 30-minute halves. A full roster is 14 players, so there is plenty of substituting during the competition. 

Getting a men's team rolling

After refereeing for the Arch Rival Roller Girls for several years, Meyer and his friend known as "Bat Wing" decided they wanted in on the action. So they founded the GateKeepers in November and began recruiting on Facebook and Craigslist for players.

Twenty-five guys have signed up to skate. Some of them, like Meyer, refereed for the women and closely followed their league, which has three local teams. The male players range in both experience and in age (from 17 to 46).

Meyer, 28, is the coach. An avid roller hockey player growing up, he briefly tried ice hockey at De Smet High School before returning to skates with wheels. Another player, Corey Porter, known by the derby name "Debaucherous Prime," said he's been skating since he was a kid and learned to love derby while working in a roller rink in high school.

Alex Baisch, 29, said he enjoys playing the sport because it's "weekend warrior kind of stuff. People on the team are teachers, construction workers and have all types of other jobs. (He's a wholesale florist). It's such a family-oriented group, and that's what drew me."

Still, don't mistake these players as being soft. The hits are furious. The spills are glorious. Though the players wear a helmet and plenty of padding, injuries aren't uncommon. Players pay for their own insurance, as well as rink time and equipment.

Eventually, Meyer said he wants to see several teams in St. Louis that can play against each other. But for now, he describes the current collection of players as the all-star team that is scheduled to face squads from other cities. Already scheduled are trips to Fort Wayne and Evansville, Ind.

Preparing for their debut

On the Tuesday before their first match, the GateKeepers worked on skating skills and prepped for their upcoming debut at a south St. Louis practice facility known as "The Skatium."

Many of the players are still learning derby strategy and moves as they go. "You can't really go home and turn on the TV and watch professional roller derby players, so there's a lot of self-teaching among the players," Baisch said. "It makes it more fun that we get to invent our own style and techniques."

Watching the women compete for years has also rubbed off on the men, Meyer said. He is hoping the growing popularity of their league will help the GateKeepers attract attention.

"We're still discovering who our crowd is going to be," Meyer said. "People go to see the girls' bouts because it's so entertaining and a great sports event. Our selling point is that we'll have that, and the bouts will have harder hitting and be more chaotic."

After all, where else can you find a testosterone-filled arena where it's completely acceptable to scream, "Go get 'em, Jock The Ripper!" or "Finish him off, Wrecking Bill."

Yes, it's all about the derby names, the full index of which you can find here. 

Meyer said each player comes up with his own name and then registers it with the body that oversees roller derby. Think the name "Mickey Dismantle is cute? Sure is, but you're out of luck; someone has already taken that one.

"Otherwise, there'd be 30 people named "The Eliminator," Meyer joked.

Baisch, aka "High Pains Drifter," said he's had a similar experience as Meyer with name recognition.

"I don't think anyone knows me as Alex," he said. "Everyone knows me as Drifter. We talk about a sport that has so much personality, and it's huge that you get to create your own name and you get to create almost a character for yourself."

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