The phrase “Never meet your heroes” has been around for a long time. It implies that meeting them might be a letdown when you realize that they’re just a normal person. I understand the logic behind that concept, but I don’t agree with it. I met one of my childhood heroes, if only for a brief second, and it only made me admire him more. I got to take a picture with Bret Hart, shake his hand, look him right in the eye, and say, “thank you.” I know that’s hardly a meeting, but sometimes that small exchange is enough to make a person lose the admiration they once had for someone. Not me though. On that day, Bret “The Hitman” Hart met and surpassed all my expectations. It was a surreal moment for sure. While standing there, I realized how much I respected this man, and how strong he had to have been to endure through the ordeals the end of his career came with. Bret Hart doesn’t know who I am. He probably doesn’t even remember being in my small town, but for me, it’s a moment I’ll always remember. The day I met my hero.
I’ve always believed that a true hero is someone who manages to stay strong in the face adversity. The end of Bret Hart’s career was filled with both adversity and tragedy. The fact that he managed to keep it together, and tried to pick up the pieces, is admirable. Part 1 of my story ended right before the main event of Survivor Series 1997. Unbeknownst to Bret, the fans, and most of his employees, Vince McMahon had orchestrated a plan to ensure that Hart, who had just signed a deal with WCW, would not leave the ring as WWF Champion. There have been two schools of thinking ever since the incident took place. On one side, you have the people who say McMahon had no choice but to protect his company and all his employees. That Vince would’ve done that to anyone. On the other side, you have people who say that Vince McMahon is an evil individual. An individual who stabbed his most loyal employee in the back, after he was the one who asked him to sign with WCW to relieve some of the “financial stress” the WWF was under. Obviously, I fall into the latter category. Regardless of which side you’re on, we can all agree that the Montreal Screw Job was the turning point for both the WWF and Bret Hart.
Before the match started, Bret was on top of the world. He was defending the WWF Championship one last time, in his home country, and he wasn’t scheduled to lose it. In a sense, Bret was going to have the perfect ending to his WWF career. Then, he’d move on to WCW and start collecting a huge pay day. Sadly, not everything went according to plan. We’ll never know how the match was supposed to end, but what transpired is an incident that still gets talked about today, 20 years later. We all know the story. If you don’t, long story short, Shawn Michaels locks Bret Hart in the Sharpshooter submission, Vince McMahon comes down to ringside and calls for the bell. Your new WWF Champion, Shawn Michaels. The live audience couldn’t believe it, the fans at home couldn’t believe it, and most of all, Bret Hart couldn’t believe it. A man, and a company, that he had shed blood, sweat, and tears for had double crossed him. There would be no fairy tale ending. In fact, Bret Hart’s life and career would begin to spiral downward after this match.
Not only had Bret basically been exiled to WCW, but it seemed as though his departure sparked a shift in momentum between the two promotions. Before the Screw Job, WCW was positioned atop the wrestling world. They had the hottest entity in all of pro wrestling, the NWO, and after the way, Bret’s WWF run ended many believed his arrival in WCW would mean big business for the company. Unfortunately, it didn’t play out that way. Almost immediately after Bret walks out of the WWF, the pendulum begins swinging the other way. Seemingly over night, the NWO gets too big and too stale, Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Mr. McMahon becomes the hottest rivalry in all of pro wrestling, and oh yeah, we find out that “Bret screwed Bret.” When you take everything into consideration, Bret Hart gets a raw deal here (no pun intended). When WCW was beating WWF in the ratings, it was viewed as Bret’s fault because he was WWF’s top star. When Bret decides to leave for WCW (as a favor to McMahon) he’s looked at as a traitor. Ultimately, he’s the one who gets betrayed. The betrayal somehow does nothing for him, but leads to the creation of the Mr. McMahon character, which in turn leads to the full blown start of the “Attitude Era.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Attitude Era wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Bret Hart. Whether it was making Steve Austin a star, or inadvertently creating the evil Mr. McMahon, Bret was crucial. If only he could’ve had the same effect on WCW.
Immediately after the Screw Job, I felt confused. The next day, confusion turned into hope. Hope that somehow Bret would show up on Monday Night Raw and confront both Shawn Michales and Vince McMahon. I couldn’t wait for 9 o’clock to roll around. When it finally did, I was disappointed. Not only would Bret not be there, but Shawn Michaels and DX would proceed to make a mockery of the whole situation. By the end of the show, it became quite apparent, even to an 8-year-old me, that Bret Hart would not be returning to the WWF. I honestly can’t recall how I found out the details of the Screw Job, or that Bret was headed to WCW. That kind of information wasn’t as available back then, and especially to a kid. When I learned that Bret would be arriving in WCW though, I was ecstatic. I felt like Bret would pick up right where he’d left off in WWF. Unfortunately for everyone, that wasn’t the case. Whether it was WCW’s fault or Bret’s fault, the whole ordeal seemed doomed from the start.
Before his WCW run was abruptly ended by injury, Bret had managed to win the U.S. Title and World Heavyweight Title, but his character was struggling. His love for pro wrestling was gone, and it showed on screen. I tried to stay loyal to my favorite of all time. I bought a WCW Bret Hart action figure, I started watching Nitro and WCW pay-per-views, but it wasn’t the same anymore. WCW clearly didn’t know what they had on their hands. They never knew what to do with Bret Hart. As bad as his professional life had become, the real blow to Bret and the rest of the Hart Family came on May 23rd, 1999, when Owen Hart tragically fell to his death during his entrance at the WWF pay-per-view, Over The Edge. I remember not believing it when Jim Ross broke the news. It seemed impossible to fathom. Just a couple of years ago, the Hart Foundation was on top of the WWF world. Now Bret, Jim Neidhart, and The British Bulldog were all gone. While Brian Pillman, and Owen Hart, were both dead. A horrible day for all wrestling fans, especially any fans of the Hart Family.
After Owen’s death, things just got worse for Bret. He was forced to retire from wrestling in late 2000, after suffering a severe concussion, caused by a reckless kick to the head by Bill Goldberg. I remember not understanding why Bret wasn’t wrestling. I remember being frustrated with him and WCW for that. When the news finally came that he wouldn’t wrestle again, I was heart broken, but I was just a fan. Bret had to deal with the abrupt retirement head on. One minute you’re a star athlete, the next you’re not allowed to compete anymore. What an unceremonious end to one of the greatest careers ever. In 2002, Bret began taking losses in his personal life. He and first wife Julie, officially divorced that year. He lost his brother-in-law, and one of his closest friends, the “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, to a heart attack. He also suffered a stroke in 2002.
Then, in early 2003, Bret lost another close friend suddenly, when “Mr. Perfect” Kurt Henning, died of a drug overdose. I can’t imagine dealing with just one of those situations, let alone dealing with them occurring that close proximity. That’s where my current respect for Bret Hart comes from. Sure, when I was a child, I admired Bret Hart the wrestler, but as an adult, I admire Bret Hart the man. I admire the ability to keep picking yourself up after every blow life throws at you. I admire the courage it took to stand alone against WWE for so many years. I understood when he finally buried the hatchet with Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels, and WWE. He couldn’t let them, or that one incident dictate the way he lived the rest of his life. Bret gets a little older every year and resembles my childhood hero a bit less every year too. None of that matters though. The memories will never fade. Every time I see the color pink, I can’t help but think of “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Forever my hero, my hero in pink.