Bruce Hart wres­tles his demons in new book

For­mer Stam­pede Wrestling star Bruce Hart still loves the ring, de­spite some bad mem­o­ries

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - HEATH MCCOY

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.”

Gavin Young, Cal­gary Her­ald

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.

Gavin Young, Cal­gary Her­ald

One of Bruce Hart’s cham­pi­onship belts rests in the orig­i­nal Stam­pede Wrestling ring in Bruce’s Cal­gary back­yard.

Gavin Young, Cal­gary Her­ald

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...

Cal­gary Her­ald Archive

Bret (The Hit­man) Hart dis­misses many of brother Bruce’s gripes as noth­ing more than “sour grapes.”

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