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  June 26, 1999



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Pals on ice

NHL stars open hearts to grieving family

By BRET "The Hitman" HART -- For The Calgary Sun
  I was honoured when I was asked to be a presenter at the NHL awards.

 I just thought it was the coolest thing! That was a couple of months ago.

 But now, it was hard for me to get on the plane to Toronto on Thursday. I don't feel up to making public appearances yet.

 I'd taken it as a compliment that the NHL considered me worthy to present an award for courage and conviction. Isn't it ironic that I had to dig down deep to find the courage to show up.

 I found courage in gratitude.

 The NHL guys have been so great to me and my family during our time of sorrow. Did you know the Colorado Avalanche had a moment of silence for Owen? Or that Bret Hull wore O.H. on his skates? I got emotional phone messages from my good buddies in hockey as well as from guys I don't know that well. I've been deeply touched by their genuine kindness. I was going to tell you who called but now I think since their expressions of sympathy were said in a private way, that I should respect that -- especially since the toughest guys on ice were touched to tears. But guys, you know who you are and I want you to know I was, and I am, moved by your support.

 In the forest of flowers at my parents' house, this one arrangement stood out -- even before I knew it was from Wayne Gretzky and family! What class. It was a high point at a low time. When everyone felt so bad, it gave you a little place inside that felt good.

 So, as much as I didn't feel ready, I wanted to be at the NHL awards as my way of saying thank you. Thank you for being there when tragedy struck. Thank you for accepting me into your world. Thank you for keeping it a world where kids still can find heroes.

 When I was a kid, in a family of 12, it was easier for my dad to buy me wrestling boots than hockey skates. I don't know how much that played a part in determining my destiny but it's an interesting thought. I wanted skates. Then again, the boots took me further then I ever dreamed I'd go. My sons have boots and skates.

 In my family, three generations gathered around the TV to watch wrestling. And when you weren't watching it, you were learning how to do it, married to someone who was doing it, teaching people how to do it, talking about it -- or listening to Stu talk about it. My family has lived for wrestling. And died for wrestling.

 For a while now, a lot of the kids and grandkids have turned off wrestling and turned on hockey. My youngest son, Blade, 9, tells me that they don't understand what's going on in wrestling anymore and they get frustrated. Me, too!

 Hulk Hogan was on Larry King the other day, talking about how the guys that know better -- like he and Randy Savage and myself -- should lead a campaign to clean up wrestling. While it's encouraging to see that Hogan agrees with what I've been saying for the last couple of years, I've learned the hard way that it's doubtful there's enough camaraderie left in wrestling to support the kind of team effort that would be needed to set things right. I'd like to be wrong about that.

 I don't think just a few of the top guys can turn things around alone. At least not without the support of the fans, so really, it's up to you. Team spirit has a lot to do with what's drawn me even closer to hockey.

 When my kids were little and I had the heart-wrenching task of explaining to them why dad goes away a lot, I told them they needed to share me with kids who need to have a hero. They watched me on TV and I'd like to think they were proud of me and I think they were. I wonder now, how do some wrestlers explain it to their kids when they're packing their bags to leave again? I know Wayne Gretzky never had a problem looking his kids in the eye and I'm sure Dominik Hasek doesn't, either.

 I felt that just being there was my own little, unofficial award from the NHL but when they introduced me as a great believer in hockey, well, I felt proud that my support and love for the game was acknowledged.

 I do have one gripe with the NHL, though. Why did I have to be the guy to come out after Gretzky? (Thanks for the compliment.) Wayne and I had a great talk and it turns out that he's a bigger wrestling fan than I'd thought. By the way, Jaromir Jagr asked me if I'd teach him to wrestle and I told him only if he doesn't put Cujo in the sharpshooter. Curtis Joseph and Tie Domi came up to me and said some pretty special things about Owen.

 Well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then, along with this column, I submit to you three pictures that tell the story better than I could. My nephew Marek, 11, is the son of Dynamite Kid, one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. My son, Blade, you know. And then there's Owen's son, Oje, 7. All third-generation wrestlers and all in hockey gear. It would be a very sad thing to see the Hart Family wrestling legacy begin to fade away with this generation. They still wrestle and so do other kids in the family, but many of them play other sports more than they're in the ring.

 I think wrestling will come full circle and swing back, like a pendulum, to where sportsmanship and technical ability are prized again. The thing is, if it comes too late for these kids, then the thread will be broken. At the same time, I'm proud of them for turning to hockey as a sport that hasn't lost its dignity. They're just kids and it's not like they sat down and analyzed it. It's just easy to understand that hockey is a class act.

 Hockey gives me faith that people still believe in heroes and hope that wrestling can be like that again. Maybe in hope I can find the charity of forgiveness.

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