The search for Canadian wrestling’s next Bret Hart

In this March 28, 2010, file photo, Bret "Hit Man" Hart celebrates his victory over Mr. McMahon at WrestleMania XXVI in Glendale, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

As the sun sets on four straight days of WWE action in Toronto, let’s examine something.

For the last 20 years or so, professional wrestling has been looking for the next transcendent superstar to bridge the gap between devout and casual fan.

In that regard, pro wrestling is really no different from other major professional sports. Hockey is looking for the next Wayne Gretzky. Basketball is looking for the next Michael Jordan. Golf is looking for the next Tiger Woods.

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair will always be linked by way of their stardom that propelled the wrestling world into the mainstream media. They made the world of pro wrestling, so often cast aside by a turned-up nose, cool.

Canadian wrestling fans aren’t much different in that regard, as we also strive to find that "next" one. However, that "next" one isn’t in the same vein as what our American friends are looking for. Canada is searching for that next superstar that will resonate with our own. We’re looking for the next great hero to come out of the Great White North. We’re looking for the next Bret Hart.

But should we?

Hart is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time and, if you were to poll fans, would be at the top of the list as the greatest Canadian to ever step in the squared circle.

Hart’s Canadian-ness was explained on television by way of the fabled Hart Family Dungeon in Calgary. The Dungeon was mentioned so often, and then worked into storylines, that it became a symbol of Canada, therefore making Hart the poster boy of the country.

Hart was accepted by fans around the world as the excellence of execution. To wrestling fans, Hart represented Canada, in the same way, Wayne Gretzky did around the world.

American audiences, however, began to grow tired of Hart’s nice-guy act as the end of the millennium approached. Fans were ready for a new kind of hero, which was represented by wrestlers like Shawn Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Hart became a target for American audiences’ hatred of anything resembling a white meat babyface. Hart took that heat, though, and turned it up to Hell’s Kitchen levels, chastising American values and the U.S. in general, while also espousing the stronger and smarter values of Canada. He had the platform to say what so many Canadian’s had always wanted to say about their neighbours to the south.

That Canadian pride reached peak levels in November 1997, when Hart was defending his WWE Championship in Montreal at Survivor Series. Hart told Vince McMahon that he would not drop the title to Michaels in Canada. Thus, the Montreal Screwjob was born. Hart refused to lose in a scripted contest as he did not want to disappoint Canadian fans in attendance and across the country.

And there it is, the ultimate Canadian hero moment.

It’s that kind of Canadian pride that has always had me, and many other Canadian fans, searching for the next Hart.

But again, should we?

Think of the long list of great Canadian wrestlers who have come and gone in the time since Hart left WWE in 1997. Chris Jericho, Edge, Christian, Owen Hart, Lance Storm, Trish Stratus, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Tyson Kidd, Eric Young, Bobby Roode and many more.

There was always a desire to have one of those superstars represent Canada in the same way we watched Hart represent our country. But it never happened.

It’s natural to want another Hart, but think of the circumstances that I listed earlier which surrounded his run to the top. He was the right Canadian. In the right place. At the right time. As superstars like Jericho and Edge catapulted to stardom, there was no need to feature their citizenship, they were already strong wrestlers independent of where they were from. If there was a storyline where it was mentioned that a wrestler was from Canada, it was to draw the cheapest of heat (think Lance Storm in The UnAmericans), and even that is based off the heat that Hart drew years earlier.

Superstars such as Jericho and Edge existed in a way that almost all other wrestlers exist today, and that’s outside their nationality. The business model isn’t driven by an evil foreigner heel anymore. That’s not to say they don’t exist, because they so obviously do (Rusev, Jinder Mahal – who is a Canadian playing a native of India, by the way), but those kinds of wrestlers aren’t going to drive a story the way Hart playing the Canadian hero did. And that’s because Hart wasn’t playing the Canadian hero, he was a Canadian hero.

Think of this weekend at SummerSlam: WWE tried their hardest to sell Natalya as a Canadian coming home to do her country proud in the face of a cocky champion. It flopped. Becky Lynch was as popular as ever and certainly more so than the Canadian, Natty.

Wrestling audiences are too smart now to accept a wrestler who spews nationalistic integrity over everything. "Americans aren’t smart," is as tired as "the Maple Leafs suck."

So let’s come to peace with an indisputable fact: Hart will not come back, and no one like him will ever exist in the business again.

Let’s instead admire the fact that he existed during the most popular period in wrestling history, and championed Canada while doing so. Let’s also admire the fact that Hart’s existence and popularity almost certainly helped push Canadian wrestlers such as Edge, Christian, Owens and Zayn into the business.

Let’s just remember this: Hart was the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be. And there will never be anyone like him ever again.

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