Considering how integrated wrestling is into the recent history of Calgary, it is surprising to consider how infrequently the city has seen events of note in the WWF. Not averse to a trip over the border, it had been Toronto that had become the WWE’s home from home. Capitalizing on the city’s relative proximity to the promotion’s historical stomping ground, shows such as The Big Event and WrestleMania VI ended up in Toronto, whilst Hamilton (also in Ontario) had hosted the first-ever Royal Rumble. The introduction of the In Your House brand of mini-PPVs had seen the WWE branch out to use Winnipeg and British Columbia, yet they still seemed wary of going into Calgary with an offering of any significance.
Twenty-five years ago, this all changed as not only did WWF book their first (and as yet, only) PPV in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but they took a risk with the presentation of their stars that felt groundbreaking at the time, yet one that fit in with the new Attitude that the company was trying to foster. As the booking trends that followed the end of the Monday Night War tended to move towards storylines with clearly delineated lines in the sand and clear expectations of who the fans should and shouldn’t like, Canadian Stampede stands as a beacon of what the promotion can achieve when they were willing to take a leap of faith.
Booking Calgary itself wasn’t a leap of faith in and of itself. A show at the Saddledome offered the fans in the city to welcome home their prodigal wrestling son, Bret Hart. Beyond the Hogan-era of the WWE, in which his name was used to sell wrestling in Canada and America, the promotion had unsurprisingly used familiar names to the Canadian crowds to sell events. In Your House 4 not only had British Bulldog challenging for the WWF World Heavyweight Title against Diesel, but a dark match had the aforementioned Hart defeating Isaac Yankem and his brother Owen teaming with Yokozuna in a victory over Savio Vega and Bam Bam Bigelow.
By In Your House 9, Owen had joined Bulldog in the PPV main event, teaming alongside Yoko to vanquish Psycho Sid, Shawn Michaels and Ahmed Johnson.
The risk came in this time was how the WWE chose to position the wrestlers. Though naturally receiving a generous reaction from a crowd who held them near and dear for different reasons, the British Bulldog and Owen Hart—the two showcased on PPV in both instances – were presented unquestionably as the heels. Whether it was through challenging a face champion with additional tension towards Bret Hart (Bulldog at IYH 4) or association with unsavory characters such as Yokozuna and Jim Cornette (Bulldog and Owen at IYH 9), they were painted as the bad guys for those in attendance alongside a worldwide audience.
When Canadian Stampede came around, the promotion had decided to experiment.
Historically, Vince had largely avoided putting his main babyface in a position that afforded the fans a decision to make as to whether they met them with rapturous applause or a chorus of boos. In the early years of his time at the helm, the plan to have a Hulk Hogan and Jake Roberts feud was allegedly kiboshed as an angle ran in front of a live audience hinted that the fans were just as, if not even more so, into the Snake as they were the champion. In a world built on easy binary oppositions – superheroes to cheers, villains to boo – this couldn’t be risked.
Over a decade later, the lines of what made a good or bad guy in wrestling had blurred. It would be naive to suggest that Steve Austin was the first man to skirt the line between heel and face, but he was the most popular example of the tweener role and the changing sensibilities of what fans wanted to see from the people they supported. Austin as a heel and Austin as a face were two sides of the same coin; little had changed about his attitude or behavior, other than who it was aimed at. He was still nominally doing the things that a heel might be expected to do, only getting an increasingly popular reaction for it.
In the same way, Bret Hart wasn’t the first wrestler to press the courage of their convictions about a situation onto the audience to the point of turning heel. The best heels always felt justified in their actions, and Bret’s vocal denouncing of wrestlers of the ilk of Austin wasn’t necessarily the type of behavior that would have turned fans against him in years past. However, perceived as whiny, sanctimonious, and arrogant in equal measure to a contemporary fandom, alongside being positioned opposite a white-hot Austin, meant that Hart became the bad guy—putting in the best character work of his career.
None of this mattered come Canadian Stampede.
Nothing was going to stop the Calgary fans from supporting their own. This wasn’t like past events with heel Canadians and Canadian-adjacent wrestlers on top; the fans in the Saddledome were going to celebrate the homecoming of a genuine sporting hero. In deciding to book the show in his primary heel’s hometown, McMahon knew what he was getting into. Halfway through an ongoing feud that had already been effective enough to turn both Hart and Austin, the script would be flipped for one night as Bret and his extended family were going to defend their honor on home soil. In the middle of a stratospheric push for Austin, he was back to playing the bad guy for the night.
This was a WWF that was still languishing behind WCW in the television ratings. This could have been seen as a risk that wasn’t worth taking; a decision that could be narratively confusing and an unnecessary bump in the road in the trajectory of both Austin and Hart. However, with a product that seemed to be getting hotter week by week, underpinned by a strong feud on top and a guaranteed electric crowd, it was a risk that was always likely to pay off with hindsight.
When speaking about the show, it speaks volumes that it isn’t only the ten-man main event that gets all of the plaudits. The show could have largely coasted outside of the match people clearly paid to see, but in a tight four-match card the WWF delivered one of their best shows of all time. Mileage per minute, few can really challenge it.
In the ring, a double countout between Mankind and Triple H was further evidence of their chemistry together (and almost the death knell for the blue blood gimmick); The Great Sasuke and Taka Michinoku wowed fans with a slick light heavyweight contest that served as the foundation for a whole new (admittedly underwhelming) division; The Undertaker slugged his way to victory against Vader, even managing to finish off the Mastodon with an impressive tombstone piledriver. Outside of the squared circle, every minute was maximized: interviews, highlight packages, a rendition of ‘O Canada’, not to forget the obligatory introduction of Stu and Helen Hart at ringside.
The opening minutes of the contest were played to perfection, really drilling down into the roles required of the two main men in the match. Hart and Austin traded control, earning very different reactions from the fans in attendance. Having received nothing but pure adulation for several months, Austin appeared to relish the chance to get under the skin of a crowd, flipping his middle finger at them en masse as well as using a low blow to escape a perilous position. From an entertainment perspective, the mass of humanity around the ring afforded for a lot more bomb-throwing – a running powerslam from Davey Boy and the Doomsday Device by the Legion of Doom were both used in the opening five minutes – and there was rarely a moment without something exciting going on.
The Canadians were even afforded the ‘win against the odds’ narrative: though both Owen and Austin had been taken out of the match (Stone Cold hitting Owen in the knee with a chair; Bret returning the favor on behalf of his little brother with a fire extinguisher), Owen’s injury appeared to be more serious, something that seemed to have been confirmed when the Rattlesnake made his return to make it a five on four contest. However, the finish was befitting of an occasion that saw a ‘Family Values’ sign in the crowd: not only did Owen return, but he was able to get a schoolboy roll-up on Austin for the three, Stone Cold distracted by trying to take on anyone with a Hart surname whether in the match or not.
Looking at the match 25 years later, the finish itself felt somewhat anticlimactic, as if it came out of nowhere. Narratively though, the winners and losers of the match didn’t really matter. Within seconds of having his shoulders pinned to the match, Austin was continuing to kick ass to the point of being handcuffed by the police – something that didn’t stop him from flipping the bird some more. The finish did manage to give the fans the happy ending they wanted.
One PPV in Calgary, one win for Calgary’s own; they couldn’t ask for too much more.
By the following month, the momentum that this show had afforded Bret Hart, in particular, made his ascent to the championship all the more worthy. That Steve Austin suffered his almost career-ending injury in the semi-main against Owen did put a dampener on proceedings and bring forth a premature end to the feud, yet the promotion as a whole felt alive with potential and opportunity. That the ending of the Bret Hart/Undertaker match saw an inadvertent assist from Shawn Michaels allowed the promotion to continue their stampede, one that would eventually take them beyond their competition for good.