Bruce Hart wrestles his demons in new book
Former Stampede Wrestling star Bruce Hart still loves the ring, despite some bad memories
There’s a line in Bruce Hart’s autobiography, Straight from the Hart, that perfectly sums up the overriding theme of the hardluck tale.
It’s 1997 and the former Stampede Wrestling hero — son of late Calgary wrestling promoter Stu Hart — has just seen his dreams of achieving stardom on the level of his younger brother Bret (Hitman) Hart and other family members dashed for the umpteenth time.
The World Wrestling Federation has strung him along yet again, promising him a shot at the big time only to cruelly shut him out in the end, as it has done repeatedly over the years.
Hurt and embittered, humiliated before his wife and children, Bruce compares himself to “Charlie Brown having the football pulled away by Lucy.”
Reading his book, you can’t blame him for feeling that way.
“I was as hot a face (hero) as there ever was in Stampede Wrestling,” Bruce says defiantly, sipping coffee at a McDonald’s in the suburbs of northwest Calgary.
Although he works as a teacher — always his day job when he wasn’t in the ring — the 60-year-old hasn’t shed the trappings of his pro wrestling glory days. His blond, Prince Valiant hair peeks out from under a baseball cap and he’s sporting a black T-shirt bearing a skull and the phrase School of Hart Knocks. On his feet, an odd pair of hybrid wrestling/cowboy boots.
His baby-blue eyes burn as he rails against the unfair reputation he’s often saddled with, that he’s a mere footnote in the wrestling business, a lesser light in the famed Hart family.
Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling, he notes quite correctly, was highly influential in the evolution of pro wrestling as we know it today. Bruce is not shy about stating the pivotal role he played in the territory.
“I was the linchpin of the whole damn promotion from the late ’70s,” he insists.
And, as head booker — basically the director, guiding the storyline in the ring —Bruce feels he was poised to take Stampede Wrestling to even greater heights. That is, until VinceMcMahon’sWWF(now known as the WWE) mowed down the beloved western Canadian promotion, as it had done to all rivals that stood in its way.
In 1984, an aging Stu Hart sold his territory to McMahon. Positions were offered to Bruce’s brother Bret, along with in-laws Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith, but Bruce, who was older and smaller, never blown up on steroids like so many wrestlers from that era, was left in the cold.
“I went from being a star . . . to all of a sudden putting up posters and calling the newspapers,” Bruce says bitterly.
“They tried to establish me as a flunky.”
That’s a position he was never willing to accept.
Bruce was always a polarizing figure in the wrestling game. I researched the Hart promotional machine extensively for my 2005 book, Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling. Invariably, those in the know viewed Bruce in one of two ways.
To some, he was the genius of Stampede Wrestling, an inspired booker whose twisted vision and eye for talent made the territory so innovative and action-packed in the 1980s.
But, to many others, including a number of his siblings, Bruce was the arrogant promoter’s son whose wacky concepts were hit and miss, who cast himself as a top wrestler when he didn’t have the look or the skills to pull off the role convincingly.
Bruce is a proponent of the first theory, and writing Straight From The Hart is his way of setting the record as he sees it right.
“I know I was depicted from the get-go as a screw-up or a loose cannon, defective in some way,” says Bruce, as to his tumultuous relationship with WWE. “I was portrayed as a threat. Some sort of dissentive person.”
To be sure, given the wealth of offbeat ideas and influential characters that Bruce helped introduce in Stampede, one has to wonder why he never found some sort of creative position in McMahon’s organization.
Instrumental in developing the early careers of such light heavyweight stars as Dynamite Kid, Brian Pillman and Chris Benoit, Bruce helped usher in the fast-paced, high flying style that is a staple of modern wrestling. He also may have been the first booker who had wrestlers coming to the ring accompanied by theme music — an integral part of the WWE’s presentation today.
He even goes so far as to suggest he had a hand in his brother Bret’s image. The Hit man’s signature dark shades and pink-and-black ring duds? Bruce says he adopted a similar look first.
“If you look thoroughly, I think you’ll find that’s highly unlikely,” says Bret. “I didn’t get it from him.” The Hitman questions the truth of many stories in his brothers book, which he dismisses as “sour grapes.”
“I feel bad for Bruce,” he says, “but if he had all this genius, I’m sure someone would have tapped into it.”
Whatever the case may be, watching one Stampede Wrestling star after another rise to international fame in the WWE was a tough pill for Bruce to swallow. “I nurtured and kind of spoon fed all those guys,” he argues. And yet, while his old crew got rich, buying mansions and fancy cars, Bruce struggled.
WhenStampedewentdownhewas left nearly destitute. His hardships were compounded when his son nearly died at birth in 1991, leaving the child severely handicapped.
The entire Hart family suffered over the years.
Foremost among the calamities was the death of Bruce’s youngest sibling, Owen. He died at a 1999 WWE pay-per-view event in Kansas City, crashing into the ring while being lowered from the arena rafters. The incident resulted in a lawsuit against the WWE by Owen’s widow, which was eventually settled for $18 million US.
Rather than uniting the Hart family, the case ripped the clan apart, creating familial rifts that linger today.
“It’s kind of like a Greek tragedy,” says Bruce, his eyes tearing up when he recalls the hellish toll such events took on his parents in their final years.
Capping it off, his marriage weathered a tremendous strain when his wife left him for his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith (the British Bulldog), who was married to Bruce’s sister Diana. It was a public humiliation that ended horribly when Smith died of a heart attack, yet another steroid-related casualty of the wrestling business. Somehow Bruce and his wife managed to patch things up and they remain together today.
Shockingly, Bruce still loves the game that has treated him so harshly.
In many respects, Straight from The Hart reads as a lament for what wrestling has become.
“I disapprove and abhor the way (McMahon) has treated the business,” Bruce says. “But I give him props for bringing the (Hart family) in and maybe trying to affect some closure. I think he has some desire to atone for things.”
Bruce is talking about last year’s WrestleMania where Bret returned to the ring for a match with McMahon with the rest of the Hart family looking on. Bruce was guest referee.
As he describes in his book, he had no qualms about interjecting his opinions before the match, letting McMahon and his brother know why, in his eyes, the storyline they concocted was flawed.
Ultimately, his gripes fell on deaf ears.
Bruce’s critics would say this is precisely how he shot himself in the foot in the wrestling business. That he was always so determined to be the puppet master that he would never accept directions.
Stubborn to the end, Bruce says he’s serving up the straight goods. “That’s exactly what the hell Vince needs . . . .”
That said, Bruce admits he thoroughly enjoyed that last bask in the glow of the spotlight, losing himself in the script.
As Bret hammered away at Vince in the ring, Bruce fondly recalls: “I felt like my own pain was being eased . . . and maybe my family’s pain.”
The spotlights have long left Stampede Wrestling, but a shrine still exists in Bruce Hart’s Calgary backyard. Hart is about to release a tell-all book.
One of Bruce Hart’s championship belts rests in the original Stampede Wrestling ring in Bruce’s Calgary backyard.
Bruce Hart says he can take much of the credit for a number of the former Stampede Wrestling stars who made it big in the former WWF, which he says spoiled the sport he loved. “I disapprove and abhor the way (WWE promoter Vince McMahon) has treated the...
Bret (The Hitman) Hart dismisses many of brother Bruce’s gripes as nothing more than “sour grapes.”