Bret Hart: Reopening Old Wounds

Tim SteinContributor IJanuary 28, 2009

I remember clearly watching this all unfold on Raw one night.
Vincent K. McMahon, Jr. stepped through the ropes and into the wrestling ring. Turmoil and backlash was about to erupt in the world of the then WWF, and Vince wanted to address the crowd as Vince McMahon the man—not Mr. McMahon, the heel character.
His intent was to talk to wrestling fans both in attendance and watching on television. (Remember that when this occurred, the wrestling federation hadn't quite gotten the "F" out.) The arguably biggest current star of the WWF had just left the company for several reasons, not the least of which were acrimony, bitterness and no little amount of animosity.
As Vince raised the mic to his mouth to speak, he had to pause for a moment. The crowd in attendance had started "The Chant", which quickly rose in intensity and pitch.
This recently-departed talent is none other than Stone Cold Steve Austin. Yes, Austin. The chanting, however, isn't his one-word catchphrase: "What??" It instead hearkens back almost five years and is continually heard in every single Canadian city visited by the-then WWF, now WWE: "You screwed Bret! You screwed Bret!"
Despite McMahons spin-doctoring, it is not just a few fans in one city clinging to a memory; it is an entire country of Hitman fans letting the man know that we will never forget what happened in Montreal.
An entire country!
Now, not every wrestling fan in Canada is a Bret Hart fan, granted, but those who are almost delight in pointing out that "you did, in fact, screw Bret!"
Vince wasn't the only culprit, of course. Earl Hebner was the referee for that match. And then there was HBK himself, Shawn Michaels.
Shawn finally admitted that he was in fact in on the screw-job. His attitude was rather quite contrary to the tenets of his new-found relationship with his God: A kind of "Yeah, but so what" sentiment that he apparently had no problems admitting. Where's the remorse, the contrition? All that is there, is hypocrisy.
Hebner himself seems to have been the least touched of everyone involved, and I don't really care too much about his role anyway. He was more of a pawn in the whole affair, but he has recently made much light of his role at live shows, going so far as to mimic (read mock) Hart's ring-entrance.
Vince has done the complete circuit, spinning out his own version of events, apparently attempting to convince the public that he and those involved were the good guys. On one Canadian tv show called "Off The Record" on TSN (The Sports Network, Canada's version of ESPN), the host, Mike Landsberg asked who really screwed Bret.
Vince did his best politician's imitation by talking a lot and saying nothing. Landsberg would not let it go, however. He kept probing and cutting the fat off Vince's answers to the point that Vinny Mac actually admitted that, yes he did screw Bret in Montreal.
He did, right after the admission—in fact, during it—do everything possible to point out that his answer was viable from only one point of view.  But what about Bret's role? How guilty is he himself of the mess in Montreal?
Why did it all go down the way it did?
How did it all happen?
Bret has been accused of taking wrestling too seriously.
I disagree.
He always took the business seriously. His family background pretty much assured that.
Face it, wrestling is serious business. Any entertainment industry is. The actual wrestling, however...well, in reality, Mr. Showstopper Shawn wouldn't be able to carry Bret's jock. Remember that next time you hear him yapping about slapping "Canada's hero" all over the ring.
Let's look at the events leading up to Survivor Series '97. Bret was about to leave WWF for WCW and a lot of money.
He didn't want to go.
Vince pushed him in that direction. You've all heard the many reasons for this ad infinitum: Bret would have too much power; his salary demands would bankrupt WWF, etc.
Bret wanted to stay in WWF. He possessed something that is rapidly becoming a rare commodity these days: Loyalty. He was willing to take less money and a lower downside.
Ultimately, Bret's naivete may have precipitated his downfall. What do I mean by this?
Bret is from Western Canada. I live in the same city. In fact, I have more than a passing acquaintance with Canada's first family of wrestling: My family has been involved in local media since the fifties, and as a result, I have had several encounters with the Harts.
My son was named Owen in an indirect tribute to the late Owen Hart. At one point, I created DVDs and provided play-by-play for the last incarnation of Stampede Wrestling. I agree it is somewhat naive, but like Bret seems to believe in also, I embrace what I call "Western Values".
A handshake is a contract, and your word is your bond. He made an agreement with Vince, was prepared to hold up his end of the bargain, and expected Vince to do the same.
Big mistake, huh?
How did the screw-job affect the wrestling world as we know it?
The long and short of it: The killing of the Hitman character in the WWF gave rise to Mr. McMahon, heel promoter of the business, and spawned the new era of "Attitude." Sure, the Austin-McMahon feuds launched "Attitude", but its genesis was that November night in Montreal.
 When all is said and done, Hitman fans all want one thing: An apology to Bret from all those involved. You know who you are.
After all, "You screwed Bret!"