Survivor Series 1997 carries the distinct, if dubious, honor of being the most controversial day in the history of the wrestling business. The setting was the Molson Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the main event would see a shocking finale never before, and never again, rivaled by any match conclusion.
Later, that night would be christened the Montreal Screwjob, but in the moment the bell was rung, there were no thoughts of how to adequately encapsulate the seemingly inexplicable events. Pandemonium erupted throughout the live crowd and confusion reigned for the viewers at home. The chaos would not be contained in the ring, or the arena, but would follow the wrestlers to the streets.
Several accounts exist, chronicling the events leading up to November 9, 1997. Opinions have been formed and trenches have been fortified with each passing year. Many claim to have the indisputable truth. Philosophers, however, have been debating the nature of “truth” for centuries with no definitive outcome.
What is the truth behind that fateful night in Montreal? Who was right? Who was wrong?
There are always two sides to every story. The goal of this series will be to examine each perspective, beginning with Bret “Hitman” Hart.
A comprehensive time line, compiled by Dave Meltzer, is available here.
Directly following the famed Wrestlemania XII Iron Man Match between incumbent champion Bret Hart and the impassioned challenger Shawn Michaels, the Hitman took an eight month absence while filming multiple episodes for the Lonesome Dove and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years. According to Hart’s autobiography, he spent that time exploring his viability and options as a Hollywood star.
It was during that time off that World Championship Wrestling, the biggest rivals to the World Wrestling Federation, would begin courting the most renowned son of the legendary Stu Hart.
Hart has repeatedly stated that he did not want to leave the WWF, as he felt loyalty to the company that catapulted him to stardom. Eric Bischoff made several offers that involved an astronomical amount of money and the lighter schedule of WCW.
McMahon countered with an unprecedented 20-year deal that exceeded the amount paid to any other star in the WWF, and provided job security following his active, in-ring career.
Contract negotiations aside, the once cordial relations between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart had begun to deteriorate as early as Wrestlemania XII. Hart’s absence did nothing to alleviate the growing tension, and several heated arguments occurred backstage and on-screen once Hart returned to the WWF.
Wrestlemania XIII was supposed to see a rematch between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, with the latter walking away from the encounter as a four-time champion. However, on February 13, 1997, Michaels vacated the WWF Title due to a knee injury. Hart believed that Michaels faked the injury to get out of losing, or doing the job, to him.
In Hart’s mind, Michaels not only refused to do the job for him, but refused to lose to anyone but a select group. This was just one symptom of the unprofessionalism that Hart felt Michaels displayed. Further, the advent of DeGeneration X was symbolic of a creative direction that the Hitman felt was destroying the fundamental aspect of the wrestling business that he loved.
While Hart preferred to think of the Hitman character as a hero, ethically sound and morally right, McMahon had changed direction. Due to the quality of opponents Hart could face as a heel, he turned at Wrestlemana XIII in a classic match with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Of his own design, Hart remained a babyface internationally.
That was not the only variation on what Hart thought would be his course when he inked his contract with the WWF six months prior. McMahon felt financial pressure to alleviate expenses. He asked Hart to defer a portion of his weekly guarantee to later on in his contract.
Hart declined; concerned that he would not receive the promised amount once he was not active in the ring.
Eventually, with urging from McMahon, Hart signed an astronomical deal with WCW. It was not merely the $3 million per year that sold Hart on reluctantly leaving the WWF. Hart felt that McMahon had given the top heel spot to Michaels and the top face spot to Austin.
Hart also believed that the wrestling business, the WWF specifically, had deviated from the traditional hero versus villain storylines. The product was, in his opinion, not geared towards heroes like the Hitman.
Despite his negative feelings on the creative direction of the WWF, Hart took a great deal of precautions to keep the news of his departure from leaking to the dirt sheets and the media. Unfortunately, rumors began circulating as early as November 4, just three days after Hart signed the contract for WCW. News of the leaks and rumors reached the Titan Towers.
A conundrum was created. It was beginning to circulate that the WWF Champion was leaving for the competition.
Reasonable creative control gave Hart the ability to protect himself and his marketability. Each time McMahon asked Hart to drop the strap to Michaels, Hart balked. The main reason he gave was his claim that Michaels refused to do the job for him. Hart wanted to drop the strap some time following November 12.
McMahon felt that the title had to change hands before Monday, November 10, so Bischoff could not go on Nitro and boast about signing the WWF Champion. Hart exercised his reasonable creative control clause, claiming that he could convince Bischoff to remain quiet so he did not have to lose in Canada.
On November 7, at a house show, Hart had been asked to take a Stone Cold Stunner in a six-man tag match. Hart used his creative control clause, as he was the only true Canadian in a match that was billed as USA vs Canada. Neidhart took the Stunner and the pin instead.
Going into Survivor Series, just two days later, Hart and McMahon had come to an arrangement that would see a DQ finish. Hart wanted to trust in McMahon. Yet, he took a few precautions.
First, in his PPV day discussion with McMahon he wore a wire used in the filming of Wrestling With Shadows. Second, he secured Earl Hebner as the referee. Hart and Hebner were long time friends. Hart extracted a promise from Hebner. He would not allow Hart to be screwed, swearing on his children.
In order to alleviate McMahon’s concerns about Bischoff on Nitro, Hart agreed to a DQ finish for Survivor Series and would come out on Raw the next night and vacate the title. He felt that would preserve his marketability and stature in the eyes of the fans.
Despite his precautions, the bell was called for by Earl Hebner, and Vince McMahon, while Michaels had Hart in his signature move, the Sharpshooter. Hebner split, leaving the arena within seconds, and Michaels, appearing angry, was ushered to the back with the belt.
McMahon, on the other hand, stood at ringside. Hart spit in his face and proceeded to legitimately destroy monitors and other studio equipment. Once in the back, Hart punched McMahon.
Hart believes that the Montreal Screwjob was the assassination of the Hitman. A genuine hero, brought low by the ruthless business tycoon in the midst of the Monday Night Wars.
To this day, Hart defends his actions before, during, and after Survivor Series. He truly believes that he behaved with professionalism, dignity, and righteousness.
(Just like a coin, there is another side to this story that will be addressed in the second segment.)