TORONTO — Finally, WrestleMania has come back to Toronto!

After a twelve year absence WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, will return to Toronto on March 17, 2002 when it attempts to blow the roof off the SkyDome.

Thousands and thousands of rabid wrestling fans descended on sun-drenched Nathan Phillips Square at city hall for the official announcement. Stars like The Rock, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Canada’s own Chris Jericho and a host of other dignitaries, including WWF owner Vince McMahon himself, joined Toronto mayor Mel Lastman and Ontario premier Mike Harris in welcoming the WWF with open arms.

Lastman, who has never attended a live WWF event appeared excited about the prospect of attending RAW is WAR later today.

“I’m going tonight for the first time,” he said. “I’ve never seen wrestling before.”

While he may be surprised by what he witnesses at the Air Canada Centre, Lastman won’t be surprised by the impact WrestleMania will have on the city.

“It’s gonna be great,” he said. “It’ll be great for our economy. There’s so many layoffs and there’s going to be a lot more coming and this is going to bring a lot of money into Toronto. It’s going to bring a lot of tourists in. It’s going to keep our hotel industry growing. It’s going to keep our restaurants going. And it’s going to help the Sick Kids Hospital. This is great for Toronto.”

The most venomous reception of the day was reserved for Harris. Chants of “asshole” and “Harris sucks” were louder than his speech riddled with cliches and incorrect catchphrases to the hostile crowd. Harris didn’t appear to be rattled by the catcalls.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “This is a great event for Toronto. Fans cheer, fans boo… I think we all agree this kind of entertainment is fun, it’s exciting, it’s professional and it’s great for everybody and that’s why we’re happy to be here.”

There was a great deal of speculation as to why the WWF chose Toronto as the site for WrestleMania. One rumoured reason was the weak Canadian dollar, a theory which McMahon refuted.

“That’s not that much of an issue. When you’re putting on an event like WrestleMania, you do it for a lot of reasons, not just financial ones. You’re looking for that enthusiasm, you want that enthusiasm to come across television to a world-wide television audience and that was another reason why we chose Toronto, because of the fans.”

WWF Senior Vice-President of Talent Relations Jim Ross, acting as emcee for the proceedings, also agreed with McMahon and has high hopes for the event drawing a large number of people.

“There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s just one of those issues where it’s just an economic issue,” he said. “We’re going to certainly make up for that in volume because we plan on breaking the attendance record and we’d like to get as close as we can to the 70,000 mark this time which would surpass what we did in the Astrodome this past year.”

Toronto has built a reputation for itself amongst the higher-ups within the WWF, and Ross noted that the dedication of fans enhances it.

“It’s our commitment to the fans of Toronto that the WWF considers Toronto one of our primary cities,” he said. “The fanbase here is extremely enthusiastic and loyal. I think it’s a validation that Toronto in our view is one of the major sports cities in the world.”

Ross also believes fans will flock to Toronto for a variety of reasons to make WrestleMania a truly international event.

“The city itself offers a lot of opportunity for our fans to come from around the world. I think last year we had fans from 20 or 30 countries. The SkyDome is very unique in as much as we can set a lot of folks in there. So we think the facility has some unique characteristics, the city itself does and the fact that we keep it in North America and bring it back after twelve years, we believe it’s the right thing to do.”

McMahon appeared to appreciate the efforts made by both Lastman and Harris to secure WrestleMania, but noted the dedication of Canadian wrestling fans sealed the deal.

“There were so many cities actually clamouring for this event in terms of economic impact. It’s extraordinary for any city, be it in the United States or in Canada. The elected officials here in Toronto and in the province, quite frankly, did everything they possibly could to attract the World Wrestling Federation to Toronto for WrestleMania. But the biggest reason why we were here really is because of the fans in Toronto. They are, as you can tell, pretty souped up about the WWF.”

Souped up they were. Fans were excited, if not ecstatic, about the announcement. Almost as excited the WWF stars themselves.

Dwayne Johnson, otherwise known to millions of wrestling fans as the Rock, spoke candidly about his ties to the city and hinted that he has an idea who his opponent will be at WrestleMania.

“I’m really excited obviously, I’ve got a lot of ties here in Canada, especially in Toronto. My dad’s from Toronto, and I can’t wait… The last WrestleMania I think was WrestleMania VI. I think Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, now it’s going to be the Rock and whoever. It’s going to be fantastic no matter who I work in the ring against. I’ve got a feeling who it might be.”

Austin, the current WWF Champion, stayed in character when asked about how he feels about the annual pay-per-view event coming to Toronto.

“I don’t feel too good about it. I’d just as soon see it in the United States,” he said. “But we’re here tonight, we’re here tomorrow and we’re going to be here at WrestleMania. I go wherever they send me. I don’t really like Canada, I’ll tell you that much.”

However, he briefly stepped out of character to reflect upon what the WrestleMania experience means to him.

“I’m looking forward to it. Last year in Houston, Texas in the Astrodome we had the biggest gate in the history of that building. As far as being in the ring it was the best night of my career and I got to go against the Rock and it was a hell of a match. It was a great atmosphere. I’ve wrestled in the SkyDome many times and it’s a great building. We’ve had some great events there and we’ve had a lot of people but it hasn’t be sold out. I anticipate it’ll be 100 per cent sold out. I want it to be better than the Astrodome. If the people show up on fire and we do a hell of a job in the ring, it’s going to be an experience not to miss. I’m looking forward to wrestling in a sold-out SkyDome.”

McMahon, Austin’s perennial nemesis, believes the SkyDome will not only sell out but also set a new attendance record for the stadium.

“I believe so,” he said. “We probably can. It depends upon the size of our set and things of that nature. Whatever capacity we can possibly put in there, I’m sure we’ll fill it.”

Winnipeg native Chris Jericho offered his thoughts on how much he is looking forward to appearing at a Canadian-based WrestleMania after seeing two of the largest events in WWF history on video several years ago.

“When I was a kid I watched WrestleMania in 1990 and I watched the Big Event at the CNE,” he said. “I always wanted to be a part of WrestleMania, I always wanted to be part of the WWF and I always wanted to do it in Canada. It’s going to be a great kind of homecoming.”

Toronto resident Trish Stratus is looking forward to the opportunity of performing in front of her hometown crowd.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I think it’s a great chance to show everyone what I do and they get to see me strut my stuff. It’s wonderful. I love it.”

When asked if she was nervous about the possibility of being seen by friends and family at the largest event of the year, Stratus remained cool.

“I always try to deliver my best stuff out there but it’s extra special. Mom’ll be out there and you want to do your best. It’s exciting.”

Olympic gold medallist Kurt Angle believes the 18th edition of WrestleMania will be the best yet for several reasons.

“I predict that it will probably be one of the best WrestleManias of all time, not because it’s in Toronto, and not because we’re guaranteeing this great WrestleMania, but because we have the most blessed, and gifted athletes in the history of the World Wrestling Federation right now.”

Even though he has never appeared in the ring at WrestleMania, WCW mainstay Booker T believes Toronto wrestling fans are in for a treat.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “The fans right now are very happy. Everybody is excited, not only about (WrestleMania) but about the big show coming up tonight and Smackdown tomorrow. So it’s going to be great. It’s a lovely time right now.”

Toronto has had a long-standing appreciation for professional wrestling dating back to the ’30s. Whether the event was in Maple Leaf Gardens, SkyDome or the Air Canada Centre, fans have attended the events in large numbers. The Rock appreciates the dedication that the fans have shown over the years.

“I’m not just saying this because I’m here in Toronto,” he said. “I can honestly say that not only in Toronto but all across Canada because we’re not here every single week. In Canada they (the fans) always give so much passion and energy, especially in the ACC where acoustically it sounds fantastic. I can’t wait, it’s going to be great.”

“That live audience vibe, I feed off that, so that’s something I look forward to tonight, that’s something I look forward to tomorrow for Smackdown, and definitely for SkyDome for WrestleMania.”

Angle also has an appreciation for the warm reception of the WWF superstars by Toronto fans.

“Every single time we come here, it seems to be sold out,” he said. “The Toronto fans really enjoy the show. I don’t think we’re here enough. Three times a year might sound like a lot to most cities but in Toronto, Canada, they’re very loyal to the World Wrestling Federation.”

— with files from John Molinaro, Greg Oliver and Jon Waldman