Grateful men riding the roller wave

Jonathan Rockey, who will represent Team USA at the first Men's Roller Derby World Cup this weekend, credits women like former New York Shock Exchange coach Celtic Thunder for paving the way for men. Courtesy Sean Hale

Four-time world champion Suzy Hotrod remembers when Jonathan Rockey first dipped his toe into roller derby.

It was 2007, and Rockey -- who had spent his childhood as a competitive figure skater and had moved to New York for grad school -- was still in love with the technical and physical aspects of skating when he took a few of his friends to watch a Gotham Girls Roller Derby game.

"At first I was skeptical about roller derby because of the [level of] skating," he said. "But it was exciting."

Soon after, a Gotham player persuaded Rockey to get involved. He started as a volunteer referee in Gotham's league and eventually became a team manager for Hotrod's team, the Queens of Pain.

"He just had really good skating skills," said Hotrod, whose real name is Jean Schwarzwalder. "This was at a time when all of us players were blown away by someone who could skate that well."

While his skating skill was admired by the players, it was Rockey who found himself wanting to be more like them. Well into their roller derby careers, players like Hotrod, her Gotham teammate Bonnie Thunders, and Demanda Riot of San Francisco's B.ay A.rea D.erby had become feared rivals to women in the sport and idols to men who wanted in.

"I grew to love roller derby as much as any sport, probably more," said Rockey, who set out to set up a men's team called the New York Shock Exchange. "I started recruiting every skater I could, posting on boards, visiting leagues, talking to their [male] referees."

Today, Rockey, 31, is a star jammer for Team USA men's roller derby, which is set to play in the first Men's Roller Derby World Cup starting Friday in England. Rockey and Team USA open against Finland.

Credit for the rapid expansion of men's roller derby to national and international stages goes largely to women. By the time the Men's Roller Derby Coalition became the Men's Roller Derby Association in 2011, women had already established a roller derby championship and would play their first World Cup in Toronto later that year. Unlike many sports, it is women who blazed the trail for men.

"A lot of the motivation to play came from the women we admired in roller derby," Rockey said.

Men got their first chance to play a major bout, abiding by Women's Flat Track Derby Association rules, in 2008 outside Chicago. Rockey's Shock Exchange played the Monsters of the Midwest during a 10-minute halftime intermission of a women's game. That bout became the springboard for national men's competitions.

But early on, men's derby wasn't exactly embraced by all.

"In the beginning, there was a pretty large, vocal contingent who felt that men would try to take over the sport," said Kristine Phillips, a referee and an early advocate for men's derby.

Phillips started officiating women's bouts in Philadelphia in 2005 and now serves as head of officiating for MRDA. Phillips is also one of the lead organizers of this weekend's men's World Cup.

"The men I knew were less of the stereotyped male who would take over," said Phillips, pointing out that most of the male players had grown up in roller derby as referees and coaches admiring the way the women play. "But I think it was also important for men to earn the respect of the roller derby community, work hard and show they had something to contribute."

Because just as men's derby was finding its feet, the women were upping the ante.

The entertaining old roller derby that Rockey and other men had become fans of had matured into a serious sport that demanded more than excellent skating. Top-level fitness and defensive tactics have become as important as picking a derby name. And roller derby's players have, out of necessity, transformed into elite athletes in a truly international sport.

As much as ever, men were looking to the top women's players and trying to emulate their innovations.

"I remember watching Amanda Jamitinya do a 'soul crush,' " Team USA's Scott Meyer said of the maneuver in which a player hits an opponent out of bounds, then skates clockwise on the track. "I saw her taking over jams and thought, 'If I had a whole team that could do that, we would be dominant.' "

Val Capone, a longtime skater who helps coach Team USA's men, always thought men's derby would be a natural development. Capone, whose real name is Laura Shaw, also likes what men have brought to derby.

"I am excited to see the athleticism and finesse of the men's game brought to a World Cup level," Capone said. "After 10-years plus, we know the game demands a lot from its players, both men and women. Derby is not just some passing trend."

Mark Weber, a power blocker for Team USA, has gained much from watching women play roller derby and coach. He hopes men can continue to learn from women.

"Val has a great understanding of the game," Weber said of Capone. "Having someone with years of knowledge about derby -- someone who you really respect as a coach -- that's huge."