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Stu Hart leaves lasting legacy
He will be remembered as generous friend, tough trainer, loving husband and dad
By BILL KAUFMANN - Calgary Sun




Calgary\'s King of the grappling canvas may be gone, but his legacy will prove tougher than a wrestling ring turnbuckle, say those who knew Stu Hart best.

Hart made a cowtown into the centre of Canada\'s wrestling scene and put Calgary on the world map as one of the professional sport\'s capitals.

\"He was an institution ... wrestling was his life,\" said son Bret \"Hitman\" Hart, one-time sensation with the World Wrestling Federation. \"He touched so many people, he became an indelible character no one forgot.\"

Said daughter Elizabeth, two hours before her father died: \"He became an international person but was never really aware of it.\"

But Hart had more than an inkling of the impact he had on the wrestling world and vice-versa.

\"Wrestling\'s been the biggest part of my life ... I\'ve seen the world because of wrestling,\" Stu told the Sun in 1996.

When word got out of his family\'s charitable pursuits, responses would come flooding in from across the continent.

Mention Calgary to youths on the beach in Tel Aviv and they\'ll ask about the Harts and the infamous \'dungeon\' with its green monster wrestling mat in the basement of the family\'s Patterson Heights home.

It\'s even been said the Harts are one of Canada\'s first families of sport, alongside hockey\'s Sutters and Conachers, all because of the irresistible efforts of Stu.

And it\'s no big surprise Stu\'s been dubbed \"the dean of North American wrestling.\"

\'LARGER THAN LIFE\'

\"Stu was one of those larger-than-life human beings who come along so seldom,\" said World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon.

He said Hart was hugely influential in a business that\'s mushroomed after the Calgary icon planted the seeds, a sentiment echoed by Bret.

\"The better quality wrestling out there, he was the grass roots of that,\" said Bret.

But that prominence never went to their father\'s head, said his grieving family members.

\"He was a common kind of man who never got a big head, never forgot his roots and was immensely proud to be a Calgarian and Albertan,\" says son Bruce, 47.

The Hitman reminisced about the roots of his own wrestling career that inevitably began in the dungeon.

\"It would start with dodge ball, using a medicine ball, and after that we\'d wrestle for hours then we\'d all shower, watch Bonanza then go to bed,\" says Bret.

In a 1996 interview, the late Owen Hart recalled the sometimes painful introductions to the family craft.

\"As kids, we all learned to wrestle in \'the dungeon.\' Dad would take us down there, stretch us with his big hands and teach us wrestling holds. \"If he got his hands on you, you were done.\"

But daughter Elizabeth, 48, recalls a more tender side to her father.

\"He loved animals -- all of the animals up there (five cats, two dogs) are up at the house waiting for him,\" she said. \"He also liked to curl my mother\'s hair and did all the cooking, even if she wanted to do it.\"

Hart was born in Saskatoon on May 3, 1915 and moved to Edmonton after his father lost possession of the family farm.

It was at Edmonton\'s YMCA that he learned to wrestle and soon went on to become a noted Canadian grappler, winning the Edmonton city championship in 1934.

But he was denied his chance to compete at the Olympics due to the Second World War.

It was in Edmonton in 1948 where he first began promoting wrestling and after doing well in real estate, sank $50,000 into the sport in Calgary.

\"I did whatever I could to put food on the table. I even joined a carnival, taking on all comers,\" Stu said in 1996.

STAMPEDE WRESTLING BORN

He met Helen Smith at New York City\'s Madison Square Garden during an early foray into the business, and in 1947 married the woman who would give him 12 children.

The grappling promotion began as Big Time Wrestling, morphing into Wildcat Wrestling.

Stampede Wrestling, born in 1953, was the final whistle stop for the enterprise -- a canvas of honest sweat and hard knocks, says Bret.

\"The matches down at the old Stampede Pavilion were the most realistic -- you don\'t get that today ... dad brought believability and you had to be pretty tough to get into his ring,\" said Bret.

Stampede was the incubator for a dazzling galaxy of stars who would go on to make it big in the U.S.

\"Even Jesse Ventura spent some time there,\" said son Bruce, who\'s carried on his father\'s work as a promoter.

A legendary storyteller, Hart would endlessly regale listeners of wrestling escapades and those that peopled them.

\"He loved the characters in wrestling,\" said Bret, adding he brought old wrestling programs to his father\'s hospital room even as he was dying.

In 2001, Hart was awarded the Order of Canada -- an honour the icon wasn\'t sure he deserved.

\"It\'s a hell of a thing. I don\'t know if I deserve it. You shouldn\'t get carried away with this\' \" he said at the time.

A \'GENEROUS\' MAN

Stu Hart will always hold a hallowed spot in the heart of Nomi Whalen, said the wife of legendary Calgary broadcaster Ed Whalen, whose career was propelled into international orbit as the emcee of Stampede wrestling.

\"The first word that comes to my mind (about Stu) is generous,\" said Whalen, whose husband died in December, 2001.

His family agrees, saying Stu would feed and shelter those down on their luck at the drop of a hat.

Stu\'s offspring say the deaths of son Owen, wife Helen and finally Ed Whalen had a profound effect on their father.

\"He did everything with passion and feeling but his real passion was for Helen,\" said son Keith, noting his dad\'s love of family life.

A new generation of Hart-related wrestlers are entering the scene, with several of Stu\'s grandchildren showing promise in carrying on the torch.

For now, with his father\'s passing, and with memories of brother Owen and mother Helen\'s deaths still fresh, Bret said he can\'t help but feel the family\'s glory days are past.

But for as long as \"Hitman\" wrestles or grapples with other life opportunities, Bret Hart said the spirit of his father will remain with him.

\"I was always Stu Hart\'s kid, before I was Bret the Hitman,\" he says.