The Bell Centre has played host to countless memorable events in its existence, but few have proved as enduring as WWE (then WWF)’s 1997 Survivor Series, the show that featured the now-infamous “Montreal Screw Job” (Google it for details). The man at the middle of the controversy heard ‘round the wrestling world, Bret “The Hitman” Hart has had an impact that extends far beyond the squared circle over his three-decade career. We caught up with the 55-year-old former wrestler during his first trip back to the Bell Centre since 1997 to find out more about his legendary career and his ties to the hockey world.
It’s been more than 30 years since you made your in-ring debut. Are you surprised or blown away by how much fans still seem to love “The Hitman”?
BRET HART: I am, but I know if it means anything, it’s that I worked hard every night. When there was a camera on, I always thought that somebody’s filming this and they will be watching it some day. I worked really hard every time the bell rang. I used to love going to the ring every night; that was the best part of the job. I always loved walking out. I really believe that I was a true artist when it came to professional wrestling. I love the passion of it; the whole medium itself is such a unique profession.
We have to admit, we were pretty excited to have you back in our city. Was it hard to convince you to make your first appearance at the Bell Centre since the infamous “Montreal Screw Job” in 1997?
BH: You know, it’s one of those things that I had kind of secretly been hoping for. I didn’t expect it, but at the same time, I knew that Monday Night RAW was going to be in Montreal and that it would make sense for them to call me. I didn’t really know what to expect beforehand, but just going back to Montreal and getting the opportunity to address my Montreal fans again and leave things on a better note was special for me. I take great pride in the fact that the Montreal fans were there with me that night in ’97; I think they shared the heartbreak of the moment. It will always mean something to me.
Montreal fans will forever yell “You screwed Bret” or boo Shawn Michaels and/or Vince McMahon whenever they’re in town. Is there a part of you that delights in that?
BH: It always meant something to me. Over the years, I’ve been back to Montreal many times. I had to go there for some brain testing after my concussion. Every time I got back, I was stopped by fans that were there or knew what happened in 97, it was a moment that we shared together. It’s always meant something to me. To get the opportunity to go back, to share it with my fans, it meant as much to me as anything as I’ve done with the WWE in the last 15 years. It was a big moment for me, I believe it was a big moment for my Montreal fans who followed me all these years, and it was a big moment for Canadians and wrestling fans around the world that understands that’s it’s the full cycle for the whole Montreal Screw Job. I’m glad we’re on good terms now and that we’ve made peace with everything. Peace is a better thing.
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You got to beat up Vince at Wrestlemania 26. Did that scripted payback help in any way ease some of the true bitterness of what was a very real betrayal?
BH: I had a lot of fun going back. You’ve got to look at it from my perspective: being a guy who suffered a stroke, that was in a wheel-chair and thinks that he was going to be in it for the rest of his life, but it’s all in the past now. It couldn’t get much darker than this. If someone would’ve said that in a couple years I would go back to the WWE, things would be on better terms and that I would whack the hell out of Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania, I would’ve thought it would only be a pipe dream like it never going to happen. When people ask me why I went back, I really did go back because it was time to have some fun. I enjoyed walking out in Phoenix in front of 80,000 wrestling fans. For me it was a nice little magical moment and I’ll take it. I’ll take those kinds of moments. And going back to Montreal was another one. I didn’t necessarily need to go down there, but at the same time, I felt this deep compelling reason to go just because of the love I had for the fans there that supported me. For WWE to call me and ask me to come back to Montreal, it was a very welcoming invite.
What’s your best memory of Montreal?
BH: I remember the Hart Foundation and the Rougeau Brothers having some great tag matches at the Montreal Forum. It was packed every time. I remember once, the Rougeaus won the belts from us and we carried them out of the ring while the fans were all celebrating. We had such a great match and it was a great moment for the Rougeau brothers because they finally got to be champions. Of course, there was a technicality and they had to reverse the decision, but it was such a magic moment for anyone who was there that night. I remember Dick Irvin, who was a big fan of the Hart Foundation, charging into my dressing room and he couldn’t believe that they cheated us out of the title. He was pretty livid! (laughs)
You’re from Calgary, so should we assume you grew up a Flames fan?
BH: I’ve always tried to be a Flames fan, but I’ve found myself being more of an Oilers fan. I’ve been more of a Flames fan the last 15 years because I’m a season ticketholder. But mostly I love hockey. I’m not as happy with the Flames team as I’d like to be. I’m a big supporter of all the Canadian teams and Canadian hockey in general. I’d like to see the Flames step up a little bit, but I’m also a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens.
Even though you spent the majority of your time training in your dad’s “dungeon” back in the day, did you manage to find time to practice your skills on a hockey rink?
BH: I dreamed about being a hockey player, but where I lived in relation to other hockey rinks and being in a family of 12, it was much easier to throw me a pair of wrestling boots and tell me to go down to the basement instead of driving me to the rink and buying all the equipment. It wasn’t going to happen in my family. I wish I could have been a hockey player and I wish I could have maybe grown up in a situation with parents who could have driven me to hockey practice. Hockey parents are such dedicated people; you really need some special parents to do that for you. My parents were the greatest, but they just had so many kids! (laughs)
Were you the “Excellence of Execution” on the ice as well?
BH: No, if you’d seen me skate, you’d tell me to go get my wrestling boots!
|Bret back in his Calgary Hitmen ownership days in the WHL. |
You were one of the original owners of the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL; how awesome is it to have a hockey team named in your honor?
BH: It’s a big honor for me. I have a great relationship with the Hitmen hockey club. I always have and will probably always behind them. I’ll always have a special relationship with the team and their fans. I really take great pride in being part of the group of people who brought junior hockey back to Calgary. The Flames have done a great job putting a team together over the years. We’ve always had a really competitive team; we’ve had a winner most of the years. We’ve gone thru ups and downs, but we have a storied history and some great players played here like Ryan Getzlaf and so many others who are playing in the NHL today. I’m lucky to have been allowed to be part of the hockey world. Growing up in the wrestling world, there was a lot of comparisons between my dad’s Stampede Wrestling and the WWE and junior hockey with the NHL. There are some comparisons. One thing I learned through my experience with hockey was that you’d meet the nicest and most decent people there. From the parents to the players and even the fans, it’s a great thing to be part of.
When it comes to hockey players, who would you consider to be the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be?
BH: I still think that Wayne Gretzky was the best, but Sidney Crosby does so many amazing things that sometimes when I watch him, I tell myself: ‘I don’t know if Gretzky could do that.’ I’ll stick with Gretzky, but Sidney is a close second.
Speaking of “bests”, in your opinion, what’s the best match you’ve had in your career?
BH: Probably my match at Wembley Stadium against the British Bulldog at Summerslam in 1992, just maybe because of the times, the experience and the crowd. It was two good guys wrestling, which is kind of rare. If you’d watch it now, you’d see that every fan, all 82,000 of them were riveted to every single move, from start to finish. It was epic drama and the fans were really into it. When I watch it now, I look at the fans and I tell myself that we don’t see fans like that anymore. It’s everything that’s good about pro wrestling. All the great things that movies like The Wrestler never captured, it’s the opposite reflection. To me, it’s when wrestling doesn’t get any better. I remember one time I was in a sports bar in Cleveland with some sports writers. They were talking to me about wrestling, so I asked the bartender to put Summerslam on TV. I don’t remember who was on, but it was a masterpiece of a wrestling match. I’ve had quite a few matches that I think were kind of sort of masterpieces in that sense. Like the one I had with Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13 was everything you can get in a UFC fight. We switched positions and the type of fight that we had and the way we fought it out. He was so nasty and I was so vicious. It was perfectly done and people still talk about it today. That one is up there as one of my great, great moments. Even my Iron man match against Shawn Michaels was as hard a match as I’ve ever had. I don’t know if anybody could top it. Shawn Michaels was a great wrestler in his own right that night and I think we delivered in a lot of ways the greatest match of all-time.
Who was the toughest opponent you’ve ever faced in the ring?
BH: Probably Undertaker. It’s hard to say. Andre the Giant maybe. I fought Andre in Italy one time. I didn’t beat him, but I put up a gallant struggle! (laughs) I remember him standing on my stomach; he put one foot on my stomach while I was lying on the mat. I saw him standing on the top rope and I knew it was coming since I’ve seen him do it to a million wrestlers. So I remember taking a big breath, trying to suck it up and to show him how tough I was. You might as well have an elephant sit on my chest, I couldn’t believe it. He stood on my chest for two seconds and I was telling myself that if he doesn’t step off right away I’m going to die here. The truth is that he was a great athlete and a great wrestler and he was a real pro to work with. He was one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time.
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You opened a Twitter account a little while ago. What’s been the most memorable exchange you’ve had on there thus far?
BH: Fans talk to me all the time, on the street or on Twitter. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of people that were fans of mine as kids grew up to be pretty good people. They stop and tell me today that they were the biggest Bret Hart fan and they’re now a doctor or a lawyer. They always seem to be very productive people. Whenever I go to signings or wrestling shows and I see fans again, they’re always really polite and patient. My fans are a little different. I’ve had people telling me that they could handle my crowds as opposed to some other guys who showed up at the same place a couple months earlier. What I like when I meet fans is that they tell me stories on how I changed their lives and made up for absent fathers or I got them through an illness. It’s always heartwarming stuff, I never forsake any fan that supported me and appreciated anything I did. I remember meeting some people in the military and telling me the way I carried the Canadian flag the way I did really inspired the troops. I’m glad I was a positive model for kids. I’m grateful for the fact that the WWE gave me the chance to become a wrestling hero.
The rise of the Internet in the mid-‘90s had a major impact on wrestling, essentially “lifting the curtain” to reveal storylines, rumors and the real situations behind what fans saw on TV. If what is now called “sports entertainment” could return to the more innocent days predating the Web and social media, do you think it would be better off?
BH: I love it the way it was. If I could go back and freeze a period, it would be like right there in 1997 when I was in Montreal. I wish I could change the whole Screw Job part of it, but it was a very fun time. Being a Canadian hero and a villain in the United States. It was a very delicate balance. It was unique to be in Halifax one day and to be cheered through the roof by Canadian fans so passionate. It was so powerful. And the next day you were in San Antonio and it was the complete opposite. They wanted to lynch you and kill you. It was like that back and forth between the two countries. It was a really unique time and I don’t know if I would duplicate it. When I look back at the characters at that time, if you loved Steve Austin and everything he was doing with Vince McMahon after I was gone, it was all great stuff but it was at his very beginnings that Steve was the coolest and the baddest. He became the anti-hero, which was great for him and I was always really proud of him. I’m a big fan of Steve. When I look back at those days, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, my brother Owen and even Bulldog, we were all in our prime. It was a magical time. When I think back at that Hart Foundation period, with Brian Pillman, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, we’d all grown up in Calgary, started our careers here and became big stars in the States. Fans in Calgary followed us for so many years and here we are on this big stage and they got behind us and the whole country got behind us. In its own way, it kind of revived the whole Hart family. My dad got the chance to become the patriarch wrestling legend that he was. I remember that pay-per-view event they had in Calgary and when I look back on it and see how happy everyone was, it’s hard to think that five months later, wrestling would be hit by the Screw Job in Montreal and it would be such a dark time and things would really go south the way they did. Looking back at this today, I guess things worked out well for the WWE but I know I would change a lot of things.
That shrieking guitar riff in your walk-out music is iconic. Outside of your own, what other wrestling themes are your favorites?
BH: I remember just hearing the gong from Undertaker’s music, it brings back good memories. I’ve always been fond of Undertaker; we’ve always been close friends. Steve Austin always had a good one in a way. I don’t know if it was actually music, but his intro with the glass breaking was good. And just for sentimental reasons, I would love to hear my brother Owen’s. He always had a funny one.
Are pink and black still staples in your wardrobe?
BH: It’s funny in its own little way because pink is a color that has been prejudice because some people thought that this color stands for something. But pink is just a good color. When I look back, it was a big part of my success. People must’ve been wondering why I was wearing pink, but the whole reason was to make people mad. I remember the first time that The Anvil and I put it on; we used to think it was so silly to wear and we looked funny in it. I remember during a Saturday Night Main Event episode, Vince McMahon walked around us about three times and he told us: “Don’t ever change it, that’s what you guys were missing. You needed some color”. From that moment, he started looking at us differently and our careers changed. I’ll never say that pink was my favourite color, but I always thought that it was my lucky color for sure.
Who had the better mustache at the peak of their career: Hulk Hogan or Lanny McDonald?
BH: (laughs) Lanny’s was a little thicker. But I think they’d both have a handful if they tried to have a beard like Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. The Anvil really took it a step further.
For more on what the Hitman is up to these days, check out his official Web site or follow him on Twitter.
This article, written by Hugo Fontaine, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 27 No. 2.