As the year 1999 got rolling, Bret Hart was dealing with some lingering injuries and would take some time off after the angle in Toronto with Goldberg. Things were about to get much worse not only for him, but his entire family.
They were still tearful, and then one of them cracked a tentative smile and said, “Why are we crying? It’s not like somebody died.”
Bret’s Western Hockey League Junior team the Calgary Hitmen had lost in the Memorial Cup in overtime to the Ottawa 67s on Sunday, May 23, 1999. This happened to be the same day that Owen Hart died from the fall in Kansas City. The Calgary players (16-20 year olds) were still upset when one of them had said the above, but nobody in the group knew of Owen’s death at this point. Bret was trying to get to Los Angeles to appear on The Tonight Show.
“Owen’s dead. He got killed doing some kind of stunt in the ring.”
Bret found out about his brother’s death from Carl “Carlo” DeMarco while on an airplane phone en route to Los Angeles. The word stunt is striking here given that Bret would later have complaints about being asked to do “stunts” instead of wrestling, the type of things you would see in hardcore matches.
A union for wrestlers was long overdue, I said. At least if we had one, there’d be guidelines to distinguish between wrestling and stunt work, and there would be protection when someone got hurt.
A union would only work if the very top guys were on board. Hulk Hogan infamously squashed a movement in the mid-1980s by ratting out Jesse Ventura’s efforts to Vince McMahon. If there were to be a union, much of the organizing would have to come from the outside and I don’t think the Teamsters or anyone else are interested in getting into the wrestling business.
I said a more fitting tribute to Owen would have been to celebrate his career by showing his matches.
The Owen Hart tribute RAW on 05/24/1999 was the most emotional television that WWF ever put out. Instead of showing Owen’s greatest matches (which no doubt would include Bret and perhaps others now with WCW), the WWF gave guys the option of having matches with storylines suspended. Others sat down and told stories in tribute to Owen. Mark Henry broke down while reading a heartfelt poem.
The next thing I remember clearly is the heartfelt vow with which Martha closed her eulogy: “There will be a day of reckoning. This is my final promise to Owen. I won’t let him down!”
Owen’s wife Martha never much cared for wrestling; she would have preferred it if Owen had quit in the early 90s and become a firefighter in Calgary. This made her an odd fit in the Hart family, a place where the men were wrestlers and the women married wrestlers. She would go after the WWF in a lawsuit that would eventually end in a settlement, but not before the Hart family was torn apart by this and her relationship with Bret was strained, even if the Hitman was on her side.
Then Ellie was suddenly on the extension, and I shouldn’t have been so hurt or surprised when she coldly fired back, “You know, Bret, I’ve hated your guts since the day you were born and I’m glad to tell you that.”
Ellie (Jim Neidhart’s wife) was not on Martha’s side, in part because she wanted the door to stay open for her husband to maybe return to the WWF at some point. She also failed out of diplomacy school.
I had heard that he was supposed to do the stunt with the same Mexican midget they paraded out as me after Montreal scissored between his legs, and was shocked when the cops confirmed it. The midget had only been nixed that afternoon.
This was something I never knew until reading this book. To me, it seems the WWF got off very easily on Owen Hart’s death; if it happened today it would be a complete shitstorm on Twitter and other social media within seconds. If TWO people had died because of this things would have been very different.
The blame can be put squarely on the WWF and the guy responsible for setting up Owen’s harness. The WWF failed on due diligence to check qualifications of the guy leading the crew, who had claimed to have worked with WCW when Sting did a similar “rappel from the ceiling” stunt. He did, but was something of a 3rd assistant and didn’t have the expertise.
If Montreal never happened, I thought, and I had still been in the WWF, I would’ve stopped this from ever happening to Owen!
Yep, there is a straight line from Montreal to this. Owen’s fellow Hart Foundation members were gone and nobody was there to stand up for him. Owen was more of a “go along to get along” kind of guy even as he expressed reservations privately about things he was being asked to do. It’s so sad and was so unnecessary which makes it even more tragic.
On July 27, Vince coolly stated on Off The Record: “Out of respect for Owen, I met with Bret. Bret carried the entire conversation. I really thought he wanted to talk about Owen. . . . It was looking into the eyes of a skeleton, in some respects. It seemed like he wasn’t human. It was a very weird experience.”
In a shitty move by Vince, he went on Canadian television and misrepresented his conversation that he had with Bret in a Calgary public park. It was cordial enough and not as Vince describes, and even if it was, Bret was talking to a guy partly responsible for the death of his brother. How should he feel?
Amusing side note on that meeting: Vince was paranoid that he might be attacked, so he wore a wire to meet Bret in the park. Reminds me very much of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko at the end of Wall Street. Except of course, Vince always seemed to escape his legal entanglements unlike Fox and Gekko.
Coming up next time: More random WCW craziness, the Hitman faces off with Goldberg with terrible results, and Bret’s ring jackets keep disappearing.