Are these Hamilton's toughest cold weather warriors?

The Hammer City Roller Girls trade fishnet for long johns as they are forced to spend the winter months practising in an unheated arena in Caledonia.

The only thing worse than being out in the record-setting frigid temperatures lately would be taking a body check while exposed to the cold. But it's become the norm for Hamilton's women's roller derby league: the Hammer City Roller Girls.

During the warmer months, the teams practice and host bouts in hockey arenas around Hamilton. But towards the end of August, when the rinks get iced, they're left out in the cold. While the girls say the folks at the Caledonia Fairgrounds where they practice have been very accommodating for the league, the unheated, uninsulated arena leaves much to be desired in the dead of winter, especially with bone-chilling cold snaps like we've seen this year.

"We can see our breath when we're skating," says team member Christie Hurlbut — also known as "Biggie Falls.” The building cuts out the chill from the wind, but without any heating or insulation it’s just as cold as it is outside, Hurlbut explains. 

The girls are made of pretty tough stock and have found ways to handle the cold, she says. While typical roller derby attire consists on booty shorts and fishnet stockings, these women practice in long-johns, mittens and balaclavas. They've even invented a new clothing item: they slice open thick wool socks so they can slide them over top of their skates for extra insulation.

“We layer up pretty substantially and we also take ‘warming breaks’ in a little heated area where people can actually feel their extremities," says Hurlbut.

They take it in stride. At this week's Wednesday night practice, one teammate cheerfully declared that the next day's forecast called for "only" minus 16 Celsius. Another teammate: "that's derby bikini weather!"

But the temperatures also increase the risk of injuries: cold muscles and a floor surface that becomes more slippery as the thermometer dips mean they have to take extra precautions in order to keep safety their top priority. And that’s slowing them down.

“We just came off of our best season and we hit this winter wall,” explains Maggie “Typhoid Maggie” Middleton, who is on the team’s training committee.

“We have to spend extra time warming up and making sure exercises don’t exacerbate those winter issues. [...] So that momentum is definitely interrupted.”

The search for a home

The 35-women league has been in the same boat since they started in 2006; every winter they have to practice in the cold and every winter they lose a bit of the momentum they built over the season. It also makes it harder to retain new skaters. Drive 30-minutes to a practice in the freezing cold once, and you’re less likely to want to come back next time.

Other leagues in their division have had better luck. London, Ontario’s Forest City Derby Girls have a heated, indoor facility they practice in year-round. Because of this, when Hamilton’s B Team squares off against them on February 8, they’ll be at a disadvantage Middleton said.

The league started actively looking for a permanent space last year, but haven’t had any luck.

They don’t need anything fancy — insulated walls would be an upgrade — but they do need a lot of space, about 8,000 square feet, would like to be in Hamilton and need the space to be free of obstructions like pillars and columns.

With limited sports facilities big enough in the city, the high demand for hockey practice elbows out the roller derby girls as soon as winter rolls around.

Instead, the league has set their eyes on less obvious spaces like old factories or warehouses, Middleton said, adding they’ve had a few spaces turn up, but the rent is usually higher than the self-funded league can afford.

Still, Middleton said they’re hopeful that if the word gets out, something will finally pop up that meets their needs.

“Maybe there is some angel of a warehouse owner who would take us in and give us a break on rent.”

With files from Julia Chapman