Every pro wrestling fan has something that they cherish the most, a passion that consumes their time and interest. For me, it's the Hart family. I am fascinated by Stu and Helen Hart, their family, their extended family-anything to do with the Hart family.
Stu Hart was the patriarch of this family, and a legend by the very definition of the word. His contributions to pro wrestling are immeasurable. Very few men have contributed as much or more as did Stu. Some of Stu's biggest contributions to pro wrestling were his promotions in West-Central, Canada. Holding a variety of names throughout their existence, the promotions are known colloquially by their final name: Stampede Wrestling.
Stu was born in 1915. He grew up on the prairie plains of Saskatchewan, Canada. His family was poor, so poor that at one point they lived in a tent on the prairie in Alberta. They lived off the land and any wild game that could be caught. By the late 1920's, Stu started taking wrestling classes at the YMCA. Part of his training included learning the "catch" style of wrestling. He would be subjected to a myriad of submission holds that contorted his body. Of this training he would say his "head would be blue by the time they let go of him." He started amateur wrestling in 1929 and found success winning the gold medal at the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada and the Dominion Amateur Wrestling Championship. He had Olympic hopes, but those were dashed with the start of World War II. With the Olympics canceled, Stu joined the Canadian Navy where he was assigned as the Athletics Director. During his time in the Navy he learned how to wrestle professionally, putting on matches to entertain the troops.
After the war he started his career working for ex-shooter and infamous promoter Toots Mondt in New York. While in New York he met Helen Smith who would go onto become his wife and matriarch of the Hart family. Helen whom he called "Tiger Belle," was the love of his life and despite her small stature was one of the few people he was afraid of. They moved back to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where Stu and Helen would sire a very large family and embark on a business venture that would play a major role in the history of pro wrestling.
Since the beginning of pro wrestling, thousands of promotions have come and gone. Some promotions left a distinct mark, or made significant change in the world of pro wrestling, and some barely left a trace of their existence. In 1948, Stu Hart started Wildcat Wrestling. In what would eventually evolve into the widely-popular Stampede Wrestling by the 1960's, this promotion set a bar of excellence for all other promotions that followed. Stu Hart also became known as a man who would take a chance on new talent, as well as train young hopefuls in his basement, known as the infamous "Hart Dungeon".
Stampede's territory covered four western Canadian provinces and at times parts of Montana, and North Dakota. A member of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), in its first few years Stampede was basically ignored by the organization and prominent wrestlers. The company didn’t have a tremendous financial backing like some of their competing promotions, but they did have Hart’s superior training and promoting skills. Often, this was not enough to keep the promotion from suspending operations, or outright closing altogether, to then open again when Stu had raised sufficient capital to bring back his promotion. Slowly, Stu's promotions began to gain in popularity and in notice within the wrestling world, eventually becoming the backbone of the Canadian wrestling industry.
By the early 1960's the word had spread about Stu Hart and his Stampede Wrestling. Any wrestler who ever worked for Stu would tell you that unlike many other promoters of the day, if Stu gave you his word he always kept his promise. This high and rare praise from his wrestlers brought top names such as Harley Race, Luther Lindsay, Johnny Valentine, and Stan Stasiak to try their hand at performing in front of and pleasing the rabid, enthusiastic fans in the Central and Western Canadian Provinces. With business improving and profits being made, the promotion crowned its first champion in 1962, awarding the Stampede Wrestling North American Heavyweight Title to Archie "The Stomper" Gouldie. The Stampede version of the North American title would become one of the prizes of the wrestling industry. Wrestlers who held this title also held the dual distinction of being tough enough to survive the wrestling style of Calgary, as well as survive the harsh weather conditions that assault the Provinces several months out of each year.
As success continued into the early 1970's, well known wrestlers as Abdullah the Butcher, Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes-as well as then unknown newcomers Don Muraco, Honky Tonk Man, and Junkyard Dog made appearances for Stampede. Despite many top wrestlers appearing for Stampede, the vast size of the territory, combined with the low pay and the harsh weather, kept the tenure of top talent short. Stampede was the most brutal and difficult territory in the businesses when it came to traveling and weather. While other promotions had similarly harsh winters, the spread out geography of Stampede's territory made for much longer road trips which coupled with the harsh winters, made for a devastating schedule. Former Stampede wrestler Johnny Smith tells a story that once during a drive back from Edmonton to Calgary the weather got so bad they could no longer see the road in the snow and they had to take turns walking in front of the van kicking the snow off the yellow center line of the highway so they could see where they were going.
Stu knew that bringing in top talent alone wasn't enough to keep Stampede as a thriving, healthy promotion. He started using his "Dungeon" more frequently to train students to become Stampede's stars. Stu was a legitimate shooter who instilled discipline and respect for the business in his students. Stu was respected, loved, and feared by them as well. He was known to stretch anyone he could get in his "Dungeon." He could be heard asking anyone who visited the Hart house in his unique drawl, "Eh, why don't you try me?" All of his students and many of the veteran wrestlers who came to Stampede were stretched at the hand of the master, the screams of anyone "lucky" enough to be put in Stu's holds, could be heard all day long in the house. The only known wrestlers who gave Stu a battle in the Dungeon were Luther Lindsay and Robert Marella. Lindsay was an outstanding hooker from the Pacific Northwest, while Marella (later known as Gorilla Monsoon) had been a standout amateur wrestler at Ithaca College.
While business often fluctuated between boom years and lean years heading into the 1980's, Stampede gained a reputation as a place where wrestlers could go to hone their craft. Under the tutelage of Stu and fellow trainers Mr. Hito, and Mr. Sakurada the "Dungeon" produced top wrestlers such as Superstar Billy Graham, Bret Hart, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, Chris Benoit, Dynamite Kid, Bad News Allen, Brian Pillman, and Jim Neidhart to name a few. Stampede wrestling had a distinct style. It was a mixture of the American show style of pro wrestling, the high flying style of Mexican Lucha Libre, and the more realistic Japanese style.
Stampede had a direct connection to New Japan Pro Wrestling, thanks to having the original Tokyo Joe as a liaison between the two companies. As a result, Stampede fans became the first fans in North American to witness Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Hiroshi Hase, George Takada, and many other stars make their debut on Occidental soil. These imported and homegrown stars led Stampede to the top of the weekly television ratings, as well as worldwide fame (many bootlegged tapes of Stampede Wrestling proved very popular in African and Asian nations, as well as in the Caribbean. These tapes reportedly are still being broadcast worldwide today). In 1981, Stu decided to withdraw from the NWA, making Stampede a fully independent promotion, and breaking a decades-long tradition of having the reigning NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion come to Calgary during the annual Calgary Stampede to defend his title.
Stampede was successful enough for WWF owner Vince McMahon to be interested in its acquisition for his ever-expanding wrestling empire. Vince greatly liked and respected Stu Hart, so unlike his normal modus operandi of taking away arenas and television stations from his competition, Vince instead made an offer to Stu that (he hoped) he could not refuse. In 1984, Vince made an generous financial offer for Stampede, as well as a verbal promise to "use Stu's boys" in the WWF. While Stu loved the business he was nearly 70, and at the urging of his beloved Helen, he sold the business.
The WWF shut down the actual promotion, but kept Stu, Bruce and other members of the Hart family employed as their Western Canadian representatives. By the following year McMahon, unable to fulfill his financial agreement, returned the right of use of the Stampede name to the Hart family. With the roster depleted of all its stars, and without a major network television contract-it was an uphill battle to revive Stampede Wrestling. Ross Hart, who was now running the promotion, closed it in 1989. The legacy of Stu Hart and Stampede Wrestling is undeniable. Stampede Wrestling was arguably Canada’s best promotion for nearly forty years. It trained and started the careers of some of the greatest wrestlers in WWE history. Its illustrious alumni are a testament to Stu and Stampede's place in pro wrestling's history.
Stampede was revived several times-the first revival occurring in 1999. Since then, it has gone through three incarnations with rumors of another starting up. These new incarnations have taken after the original promotion's philosophy by training some of today's superstars. A list that includes Davey Boy Smith Jr.(Harry Smith), TJ Wilson, Nattie Neidhart, and Teddy Hart. Stu Hart passed away from a stroke on October 16, 2003 at the age of 88. His death was major news, especially in Canada where he was one of their most famous citizens. In honor of his accomplishments he was invested into the Order of Canada on November 15, 2000, and posthumously into the WWE Hall of Fame (2010) and the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame(2014).
By John Volino
As unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society