PORTLAND, Maine — One of the city’s dearest sports teams may soon find themselves without a permanent home.
In the past 13 years, Maine Roller Derby typically played half its season at Happy Wheels, the family-friendly roller-skating rink on Warren Avenue. But after the venue was sold to a developer last month, the question of where the year-round sport can continue hasn’t been answered.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” said Heather Steeves, a member of the league since 2013. “The community has been really kind to us, but we don’t have a space to land yet.”
The demise of Happy Wheels registered to part of the city as yet another pillar of “old Portland” toppled. But the situation is different than when a longtime bar or restaurant closes. The players and fans of Maine’s premier independent roller derby league can’t just go somewhere else in town.
“Maine Roller Derby is an amazingly unique adult experience where you can make friends and have a community in a healthy way three nights a week,” Steeves said. “To have that be in jeopardy is so terrifying for all of us.”
Steeves, better known by her derby name Hard Dash (or simply Dash), started her derby career nine years ago. She’s an all-star jammer — a derby position similar to a forward in hockey — who joined Maine Roller Derby in 2013 after founding the midcoast-based league Rock Coast Rollers in 2011.
She’s one of the league’s more competitive players, and said the influence that derby has had on her adult life goes well beyond the final score.
“Roller derby has provided me a community wherever I go, and it’s provided me all of my best friends,” Steeves said. “It feels like an immense support network.”
Maine Roller Derby was formed in Portland in 2006 as the first women’s flat-track roller derby league in Maine. A year later, it was one of the first few dozen teams to join the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, an international roller derby network formed in 2005 that now represents 465 teams.
An international registry of roller derby skaters listed by their derby names reached 40,542 at its last count in September 2014.
Portland’s nonprofit league comprises three teams — the Calamity Janes, R.I.P. Tides and an all-star team called the Port Authorities, which competes against derby teams in state, national and international competitions.
Here, it’s an institution of 100 members including referees and volunteers. About 70 of them skate in the games, called bouts. Maine Roller Derby had 21 home bouts in 2018.
The rental agreement with Happy Wheels, where they practice three nights a week, can cost a good chunk of change. That partly prompted Maine Roller Derby to become a nonprofit in 2015. Today, the league raises money through a combination of ticket revenue, donations, grants and member dues — $40 a month per skater.
“Women don’t make money playing sports, generally,” said Molly Sullivan (aka Bea Nimble), a member since 2011. “We pay to play.”
The league has an inclusive gender policy. It is mostly female identified. The predominantly male Casco Bay Roller Derby, a smaller co-ed league founded in 2011, also practices at Happy Wheels. In addition to Rockland’s team, which rebranded last month as Rock Coast Roller Derby, other leagues were later founded in Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor and Aroostook County.
Successful fundraising or not, the sport is only possible within a large enough space to play it. As roller-skating rinks around the country die off, seen as generational vestiges, roller derby is losing critical space.
The search for a new spot
As Maine Roller Derby practices in the final weeks ahead of Happy Wheels’ closing — a “Coming Out Bout” is set for Dec. 14 — the search for a new location is on.
It’s looking for a space large enough to house at least one track, ideally 75-by-108 feet of clear space and about 8,100 square feet. YMCA spaces or airplane hangars might be appropriate.
“But the board will consider all viable options,” Director Bobbi Brewer said.
She said people with leads on such a space can email email@example.com.
In the meantime, Maine Roller Derby expect to continue playing at the Portland Expo “as long as the city will have us.” The team has played bouts there when the Maine Red Claws, an independent basketball team, is not in its season.
In addition to derby players, Steeves notes that the venue’s closing creates a void for people who want an activity outside the food and drink scene, and where teenagers have taken dates for decades. If that kind of place can’t survive in Portland’s increasingly upscale climate, it represents a bigger loss than we recognize.
“Portland’s real estate market is so hot that it’s a scary situation,” Steeves said.
Happy Wheels first opened in 1973. At its peak, the chain comprised seven roller-skating rinks in Maine and one in New Hampshire. Owners said business at Portland, the last standing rink, had been strong.
Sonya Theriault, a legal assistant by day, joined the ranks just last year, caving to a couple friends in the league.
“One is a barista and the other is nurse, so it was interesting to learn their alter-egos,” said Theriault, who skates under the moniker Slayonce.
Theriault thought the game would be like hockey, she said. But it was nothing like hockey.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Theriault said.
Roller derby is a contact sport played roller-skating counter-clockwise on a track, lapping and hip-checking your opponents.
“It’s very interesting to be an adult and come to something and be brand new and have to learn everything from the ground up,” Theriault said.
And, yes, it’s also good for stress relief.
“It’s easier to pay dues and hit your friends than to see a therapist,” she said.
In the year since she joined, Theriault has met “a lot of close friends” in the league, and is struck by how hard her teammates are working to keep things going.
“They have to worry about finding practice spaces and a new facility and keeping the league together,” Theriault said.
But with these kind of numbers, there’s hope.
“It’s a struggle, but that’s roller derby,” Theriault said. “It’s a fringe sport that attracts a bunch of scrappy people who are going to fight and make it happen.”