Bret “The Hitman” Hart, once called the most famous Canadian and who endowed his name to the Calgary Hitmen, is also going on 12 years now as the national spokesman for March of Dimes Canada’s stroke recovery program.
“I always tell people that when you have a stroke, you never know what you’re going to get,” Hart said from his home in Calgary. “I had a pretty good recovery, I got about 90 per cent (movement) back, but I know people a lot younger than me who never got anything back.”
Hart, a member of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Professional Wrestling halls of fame, is the special guest at March of Dimes’ annual battle-of-the-bands fundraiser at the Commodore Ballroom on Friday night.
For someone who got in the ring with the likes of Andre the Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior, recovering from his 2002 stroke — he was 45 — was the biggest battle of his life, Hart said.
After the initial shock, after the realization it’s not something that’s going to wear off, once you understand what you’re up against, it feels like your world has ended, he said.
An early word of encouragement came via a phone call from Walter Gretzy, Wayne’s dad, who’d had a stroke 11 years earlier.
“He said ‘Don’t despair,’” Hart said. “That’s what stuck with me, don’t despair.”
Hart grew up one of 12 children, the son of hard-nosed professional wrestling pioneer Stu Hart, who at one time kept a wrestling bear name Terrible Ted under the family’s porch.
Wrestling, Hart said, was part of life from the day he was born.
“Growing up with 11 siblings, four of them older brothers, it was like a game of Risk,” he said. “Every morning you’d wake up and form new allegiances, former allies would become enemies.”
During his pro career, much was made of his feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin, but like much in the choreographed world of WWE, the reality was different.
“I’ve always been pretty close friends with Steve Austin,” Hart said.
If you want a quick study of what pro wrestling is all about, Hart said to go to YouTube and watch his WrestleMania 13 grudge match with Austin in March of 1997.
“It was the best wrestling match ever,” he said.
What wasn’t choreographed was what happened eight months later after the Montreal Screwjob, after WWE impresario Vince McMahon had double-crossed Hart.
The Hitman knocked out McMahon with one punch.
“It wasn’t the best way to do business, punching out your boss, but I’m glad I did it,” Hart said. “We have a dialogue today, we’re on decent terms, we’ve moved on from any anger we had.
“Vince McMahon can play God, he can make you or break you with just a decision. He can change your life.
“The fact is, I was a nobody until Vince McMahon gave me the chance he gave me.”
Hart’s stroke happened during a cycling accident, not long after a concussion forced him to retire from the ring. The stroke left him paralyzed on his left side.
“Right down the centre of my body,” he said. “I couldn’t move a finger.”
Or blink his left eye. It was frozen open, it looked like someone had hit him with a ball-peen hammer, he said. Every day he’d look in the mirror to see if that was the day he’d be able to twitch the eyelid a bit.
“Then one day I could wink like normal,” he said. “It’s the little breakthroughs all the time.”
The little victories mounted. Getting out of the wheelchair and walking, gingerly at first. Being able to pick up a toothpick. Learning how to swallow again.
Some days now, the muscles on his left side don’t fully cooperate. And emotional imbalance from the stroke leaves him weeping any time something sad is on TV.
“I melt down, I can’t control it.”
Hart mused that he could have easily wound up pumping gas somewhere. Instead, he became a real-life cartoon hero.
“I try to stress to stroke survivors how important it is to not give up hope when you first have a stroke,” he said. “And do everything the experts tell you to.
“You need to understand it’s two years to recovery and you can’t rule out anything.”
This article was originally published on February 21, 2018 by Gordon McIntyre, Vancouver Sun