April 30, 2003
Memories of a legend
By TY PILSON -- CALGARY SUN
Stu Hart, who was born in Saskatoon, got his start in wrestling as an amateur in 1929 and won the Edmonton city championship in 1934. Later that year, he won the Alberta Championship held in Calgary.
Three years later, Stu claimed the Dominion of Canada middleweight amateur title.
An all-around athlete, Stu also spent some time on the gridiron as a lineman with the Edmonton Eskimos from 1937-39.
He had planned to wrestle in the Olympics but the Second World War dashed those dreams.
After being discharged following the end of the war, Stu went to New York where he began his foray into professional wrestling at the fabled Madison Square Garden. It was in the Big Apple he met and married American Helen Smith on New Year's Eve in 1948. Smith was the daughter of Harry Smith, who competed in the mile run at the 1912 Olympics.
In 1951, Stu returned to Calgary and bought the wrestling territory here for a then whopping $50,000.
From there, he built Stampede Wrestling into a mecca of the sport that produced some of the best professional wrestlers in the world.
The man known as 'The Dean of Wrestling in North America' was honoured in 1991 when he was presented with the country's highest honour, the Order of Canada from Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson.
Like most who know him, Bret Hart has millions of stories about his legendary dad but one came to mind after pausing for a few minutes.
"I remember one time when I was wrestling at Mount Royal College, it was a clinic or something," said The Hitman. "My dad was there with me and there was this high school wrestling coach there who made a couple of smart ass remarks to my dad and was making some jokes. That was always tough for me. Most of the people in amateur wrestling didn't like pro wrestling, had no respect for it. Anyways, my dad was kind of taken back by the ignorant, disrespectful attitude towards him by this guy. The guy was laughing and kind of making fun of my dad right there and I remember my dad kicking off his shoes and taking the guy by the arm kind of gently and the next thing you knew, my dad took him down on the mat and started wrestling him, putting all these holds on him.
"Next thing you knew, he had this poor wrestling coach screaming and fighting for his life, in front of all the people there at the clinic, all his students, kicking his feet and screaming like a girl. The guy was beat red when it was finished. It was a redemption of sorts for me to see him twist this little coach up into a pretzel.
"It's little things like that that stand out most for me," laughed Bret. "My dad was never afraid to politely put someone in his place, if that's the right way to say it."
While Stu retired from the wrestling business in 1990, Hart House -- a 20-room mansion overlooking Sarcee Trail that he and Helen bought for $25,000 in 1951 -- is is still a popular stop for wrestlers, both young and old, when they come to town.
"Not so much the actual wrestling and learning part anymore," said Bret. "But a lot of guys will stop by the house to see him when they're in town. They just like to visit with him. They still have a lot of respect for Stu and what he's done for wrestling."
One such visitor is WWE superstar Chris Jericho, one of the last 'graduates' of the Dungeon to make it to the big time. Along with Edmonton's Chris Benoit and Calgary's Lance Storm, the trio spent time honing their craft with the Hart family.
When asked for his favourite memory of Stu, Y2J quickly recounted a visit he made to the Stampede City two years ago.
Following the last match of the night, Jericho and Benoit stood in the centre of the ring and toasted Stu -- who was seated in the front row.
"It wasn't really a good story or anything," said Jericho. "But it was just a cool moment.
"It was great for me and Benoit to be able to say thank you to Stu in front of 18,000 of the greatest wrestling fans in the world in Calgary. I was really glad I got the chance to do that. It meant a lot to me."
There's no doubt Stu means a lot to many wrestlers and to the business itself.
"I think it's safe to say the wrestling business wouldn't be the business it is if it wasn't for my dad," said Bret. "What my dad brought to the business was credibility and I don't think it would have gotten to where it is without that credibility."
Credibility that was born out of respect for a man who gave everything to his chosen profession that was first and foremost his passion. A love that was infectious to generations of wrestlers and fans alike.
"Make sure you put this in," said Jericho before hanging up. "Make sure you put in there I said happy birthday Stu, I have nothing but respect for you. Nothing but the utmost respect."