Why would Bret Hart return to wrestling?

To anybody that has followed his Hall of Fame career, his reemergence with the World Wrestling Entertainment, with which he worked and became a global star back when it was known as the World Wrestling Federation, smacked of hypocrisy.

Bret Hart at the press conference prior to WrestleMania 26. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

He has often said he wouldn’t return to the Federation for the way it ended his stay with the company back in November 1997 in the infamous Screwjob in Montreal at the Survivor Series, during which WWF chairman Vince McMahon stripped Hart of his championship belt by double crossing him. That led to Hart spitting in McMahon’s face and later punching him in a locker room incident.

And in 1999, Hart became bitter when his brother, Owen, died in a stunt that went terribly wrong while working for McMahon’s company.

Add in the fact, Hart suffered a career-ending injury with a concussion in 2000, followed by a debilitating stroke in 2002 which still affects him and it seemed as the Excellence of Execution, as he became known, had ended his days as the king of the ring.

But as Hart said so bluntly upon his much-publicized return in January, “I guess hell has frozen over.”

It’s been several months since Hart uttered those words, but he hasn’t explained why exactly he returned, particularly when he seemed so defiant about it happening.

In an exclusive interview leading up to his appearance Sunday at SummerSlam as part of Team WWE’s team that will battle the upstart Nexus, Hart opened up his return, what it’s been like mentally and physically and the various roles he has played.

“I just woke up one day and realized I would be carrying a tag with (the Screwjob) forever. If I leave it the way it is, it will always be an open wound,” he said. “Even though we had bridged most of the issues we had and were at least copacetic with each other, I thought if I was ever going to do something like this, I would have start to do it now.”

Indeed, Hart and McMahon had bridged some of their differences that culminated in Hart’s induction into the WWE’s Hall of Fame on April 1, 2006. Hart accepted the induction only on his own terms. He would not appear in any televised WWE shows in which the class of 2006 would be honoured.

The crowd pops for the Hitman. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

“Nobody is more surprised and more amazed to be here than I am, but this is a big night for me,” he began in his Hall of Fame speech. “Despite what anyone else thinks, many years ago when I had my fallout with Vince McMahon and the Survivor Series, I made a promise to myself that day that if they ever asked me to (go into) the Hall of Fame I would be here. I’ll never forget what the WWE took away from me. I also want to say I’ll never forget all the great things they gave to me.

“I want to thank the McMahons, especially Vince, for letting me work on his canvas. I want everyone to know I came here to celebrate my career, not to mourn over it.”

The fans repeatedly shouted, “One more match,” but an emotional Hart replied, “I wish I could have one more match.”

Because of a combination of many concussions and the stroke that required extensive rehabilitation from which he has mostly recovered, his days in the squared circle as an active participant giving and taking bumps had come to an end. He could be The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be, but without showing the technical skills that helped to make him an all-round performer, combined with his showmanship. His signature finishing move, the Sharpshooter, along with his pink tights were seemingly retired.

But something changed in Hart’s personal life to create the comeback. His girlfriend Stephanie who is from San Francisco, had moved to Calgary to study for a second degree, which meant Hart couldn’t go away in the winter to his second home in Hawaii. (They married in July.) He wondered how he would occupy his time aside from some book projects he had in mind, and more and more his thoughts returned to wrestling and McMahon.

“Vince is getting older, I’m getting older and the whole story line, the whole angle and the whole issue with me and Vince and the screwjob in Montreal is fading from memory a little bit and the only thing that people remember is that I was kind of bitter about it,” he said. “I decided this is the time to at least open the door and say let’s work something out that would be good for all of us and give me something to do for the next little while.

“I knew there was some money attached to the whole thing and wrestling fans would maybe clamour to get closure to this thing would be a big deal,” he added.

The Hitman plays to the Toronto audience. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

Hart called McMahon’s right-hand man, Kevin Dunn, in January 2009 and explained the reasons for wanting to return. Months passed without a reply, and Hart figured the WWE’s interest in him had waned and he moved on to other projects.

“I wasn’t looking for a handout. I thought it would be good for everybody,” he said. “I think they had trouble believing I was serious. I think they thought I was pulling their leg.”

But six months after his call to the WWE, he received a reply from Dunn, who became aware that Hart was indeed serious. The two parties worked out a contract and details of how the Hitman character would come back, but it took several months.

“We wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything where I was humiliated or made to look bad or worse than what had happened before,” he said. “I didn’t want people saying, ‘What an idiot. I can’t believe he went back and bothered to (have McMahon) do that to him again.'”

Word started to circulate in the wrestling industry of Hart’s possible return and the WWE played out a story line to create hype and interest with McMahon and Hart’s onetime foe, Shawn Michaels, who had knowingly participated in the Screwjob but denied at the time that he had anything to do with it.

“If you bring Bret Hart back, good things will happen,” Michaels said to McMahon in the ring as part of the buildup.

It was all designed to lead up to Wrestlemania, in April. And on January 4 2010, on the same night Total Nonstop Action would go head-to-head with McMahon’s Monday Night RAW, Bret Hart made his return.

The fans in attendance, many carrying signs welcoming Hart back, went wild. Hart and Michaels, whose life had changed dramatically a few years back because of a new-found faith in Christianity, made peace in the ring. After Michaels departed, McMahon came into the ring and welcomed Hart back and the two raised their arms in celebration. And a few moments later, McMahon kicked Hart in the gut.

The story line of a feud between the two began and led up to Wrestlemania. For weeks, McMahon’s character did all he could to physically and emotionally destroy Hart’s character, including spitting in his face. And when Hart broke a leg in an automobile accident — it was actually a ruse — and hobbled into the ring with a crutch, McMahon kicked it away and sent the legendary wrestler sprawling to the canvas. The plot changed in another episode when Hart took off the cast and revealed he had faked the whole accident.

It was just like old times and it would lead to a Wrestlemania that would include Hart and members of his family, including a new generation that included his niece Nattie Neidhart, nephew David Hart Smith, the son of the late Davey Boy Smith, a.k.a. The British Bulldog, and Tyson Kidd, who had been a friend of the family and trained in the famed Hart Dungeon.

Bret Hart struggles during an interview following Owen Hart’s death. Sun file photo.

“It’s been a great ride for me. I’ve had so much fun doing it,” he said. “I thought the whole thing at Wrestlemania, even though it was just wrestling gaga, was a nice kind of closure for the Hart family. I know my sisters and brothers had a great time playing their parts and watching this whole thing — one last moment for the Hart family. Who knows there may be more.

“In a fairytale way I know it’s been kind of good. People must wonder what I think, but I know I feel that my brother Owen and my (deceased) Mom and Dad (approve of it). I’ve felt a sense of encouragement out of nowhere that it was a good thing and to keep going forward; keep trying to make it work.

“When you really get down and look at it really close you have to figure Vince McMahon always felt badly about what happened to Owen, how things ended up with my family and even with me. I was always involved with everything that happened (after) Owen’s death, but the one thing I understood perfectly clear was that it was just a tragic accident. Vince was far removed from that accident as anybody could be, other than the fact it was his show and his company and that kind of stuff.

“So I thought (coming back) was good for Vince. I thought it was good for the company and good for the wrestlers. I feel like Wayne Gretzky going back to hockey. Everyone is so glad to see me sort of make peace and come back and be part of things.

“With Shawn Michaels I thought that I would have trouble forgiving him and making peace with him, but once I met Shawn and saw the emotion come out of him and how sorry he was and affected he’s been all these years carrying that around and that guilt and shame, I just realized that it was good. This whole process has been good for a lot of people and it’s mended a lot of hearts, maybe even my own.

“In the end now looking back, I think it’s been a really good thing for everybody. I think fans have enjoyed it. I think it’s given wrestling a little spark and maybe gave Vince a little bit of a brand in stomping out (rival company Total Nonstop Action) when they were trying to make a presence for themselves.”

The Hart Dynasty and Uncle Bret after the Hitman beat The Miz for the U.S. title in Toronto. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

Following Wrestlemania, Hart became part of a story line that led to his becoming the United States champion in Toronto, a place where his fame is huge. After that, he became the general manager of Monday Night RAW, and one of his duties included firing the members of the seven-man renegade group Nexus. But then Hart received his pink slip, so to speak. But in the unveiling of the John Cena-led Team WWE that would do battle with Nexus at SummerSlam, it was Hart who was unveiled as the seventh member, who drew incredible applause from the fans in attendance. To use a wrestling phrase, it drew the loudest pop.

There have been some major differences in the old Bret Hart and the new one. He’s ditched his pink tights and boots, done away with the trademark wraparound sunglasses that he would hand out to a fan en route to the ring. He now wears jean shorts, running shoes and reflector sunglasses, and for the most part he has been doing more talking than actual wrestling, largely because he has been restricted by his medical history and a settlement from an insurance company that limits physical contact. It has forced him to mentally work as hard as ever.

The classic Bret Hart look.

“What I’m doing is more of a theatrical or speaking part now. That’s fine,” he said.

“Because of my concussions and my stroke to memorize lines that are given to you 20 minutes before you walk out and to try to pull that off without any blips is a challenge every night. I really hunker down and I study everything and I give my best shot out there all the time. I’m happy with the job I’ve done. Every week I show up it’s all a throwback into my stroke and the resisting of it.

“I remember when I had my stroke, I never thought I’d ever walk into a wrestling ring again. I notice in the last two years my walk and my stiffness on the left side and my smile is a little off kilter and I know that. You just fight through all these sort of things where you feel you’re not good enough, you’re not young enough anymore. I’m a 52-year-old man that’s done well for himself and I’ve got lots of time and lots of energy to put into certain things. It seemed like a fun thing to do to try to come back and see if I could do this stuff again.

“I prepared myself for the simple fact I could bomb and take down my image a notch or two and people would look at me and feel sorry for me almost. I feared that. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. I want to come back and make people proud of me. The biggest thing I’ve got from people is taking that step forward to sort of forgive everybody.

The Hart Family celebrates Bret’s win over Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 26. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

“I’m meeting more fans every day thanking me for coming back. It’s like a life lesson for them not to carry things around forever. To forgive and make up is sometimes a good thing, like turn the cheek and that kind of thing. I get that a lot from people and that makes me feel good because it took in my heart to move on and make peace with these guys and try to have fun with wrestling again and I am having fun. I’m really happy with they did for me, and I think it’s been good not just for me, but my niece and my nephew and the Hart Dynasty. I’ve got other brothers and sisters that might get into wrestling the next few years and to come back and smooth all that hurt, pain and all the bad feelings that happened from years ago and see if we can turn that all around and help the next generations of wrestlers down the road rather than bar them from ever being in the company, this was the smart way to do it, I think.

“Most of my brothers and sisters and most of my nieces and nephews, they’re watching the shows again. It’s like wrestling is alive and thumping in the Hart family again and it’s just kind of nice. I know that all the stuff I’ve done with Vince in the last six months or so has been a lot of fun even for him and (his wife) Linda and the family. I think it’s like the big mess has kind of been cleaned up and they’re happy it got cleaned up. It’s just been good for everybody.”