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We’ve looked at a few pro wrestling personalities since the introduction of this column, but they’ve all been fairly well known – I mean, say what you want about Vince McMahon, but he’s hardly cloaked in obscurity.
There was a time, though, that wrestling was full of entrepreneurs who successfully promoted wrestling events in local or regional markets. A few of them also ran training camps for aspiring wrestlers to learn the craft. Stu Hart, father of Bret “the Hitman” Hart, was one of those few; he owned and operated Stampede Wrestling, a Canadian promotion based out of Calgary, Alberta, and also trained wrestlers in the basement of his house, which was nicknamed “the Dungeon” because of Stu’s rigorous, demanding training regimen.
First and foremost, Stu was tougher than hell. He had to be – his family was so poor that they lived in a canvas tent in one of the coldest parts of Canada, which is cold enough to hurt your feelings during the winter, anyway. Stu had to brave the elements to hunt food for his family, sometimes with a slingshot, and he brought that tenacity to every other aspect of his life.
He discovered amateur wrestling via the time-honored method of older, stronger boys beating the crap out of him all the time at his local YMCA. Stu ended up being a natural athlete and joined the Canadian Football League in the 1940s, while also winning amateur wrestling championships right and left. Unfortunately, he reached Olympic eligibility just as it was canceled due to World War II, which killed that particular dream of his. Bummer.
Stu rallied by traveling to New York to try his hand at pro wrestling, where he worked for promoter Toots Mondt (who’s right up there with Elon Musk in my unofficial Goofiest Name Ever sweepstakes). Stu also met his wife Helen during his time in the States, and they returned to Canada after getting married so Stu could open up his own wrestling promotion, Stampede Wrestling.
Stampede opened in 1948, and ran wrestling events throughout western Canada and the Canadian Prairies, where he and many of the wrestlers in his employ would drive upwards of 3,000 km a week (reminder: Canada uses the metric system) making towns in brutal, uncompromising weather. Stu’s son Bret, who broke into wrestling with his father’s promotion, remembers being able to push his van across the black ice with his finger.
Stampede stayed in business until 1984, with brief revivals thereafter, and was regarded as a strong territory where young wrestlers could learn a lot and established stars could make money – world champions Ric Flair, Terry Funk, and Harley Race made frequent stops in Calgary, and guys like the British Bulldog, Dynamite Kid, Bret and Owen Hart, Andre the Giant, the Honky Tonk Man, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts were mainstays there at one time or another. Like any other business, Stampede had good years and lean ones, but Stu’s dedication and work ethic
Stu also, as mentioned earlier, trained a lot of wrestlers in his basement, and many of them became stars and world champions. In addition to his sons, Stu also prepared Superstar Billy Graham, Greg Valentine, Brian Pillman, Ken Shamrock, and numerous others for careers in pro wrestling. It wasn’t necessarily a pleasant experience getting trained by Stu (the Dungeon got its name because of the screams of agony one often heard down there), but his students are among the best in their profession.
And like many (but still not enough) successful businessmen, there was more to Stu’s life than work. He was a prominent citizen of Calgary who gave generously to over thirty charitable and civic organizations, including the Shriners’ Hospital for Crippled Children and the Alberta Firefighters Toy Fund. For this and countless other acts of public service, Stu was named to the Order of Canada in 2001, two years before his death. Since then, his house has been become a historic landmark in Canada, and his legacy as a successful businessman and mentor is set in stone around Calgary.
To close, here’s a funny story from Bret Hart about his brother Owen playing a phone prank on their dad.