Earl Hebner will never forget Montreal.
Neither will millions of fans who viewed what would become the highest-profile double-cross in pro wrestling history.
And although it's been nearly 10 years, the event remains fresh in the minds of fans and those who participated in what has become known as the "Montreal Screwjob," the real-life double-crossing of defending WWF champion Bret Hart by WWF (now WWE) owner Vince McMahon.
The controversial match, which was the main event of the Survivor Series pay-per-view Nov. 9, 1997, at the Molson Centre in Montreal, has had a big impact on the veteran referee's life and has literally defined his professional career for the past decade.
"That will live forever," says Hebner, who now works as a senior official with Total Nonstop Action and the United Wrestling Federation, which will hold a show July 19 at Rick Hendrick Jeep Chrysler in North Charleston.
Hebner fully expects a throng of fans to jeer him at the North Charleston show.
"The fans are going to hate me regardless. But I love it."
Hebner claims he did what he thought was the right thing at the time, but now says he would have refused had he known then what he knows now.
"I wouldn't have trusted anybody," he said in a recent interview.
Hebner says he was informed of the swerve by WWE road agent Jerry Brisco — not McMahon — just 10 minutes before the infamous match.
"Why in the hell didn't someone talk to me during the day?" he asked. Brisco, he says, told him it was because "everyone was bugged."
Hebner recalls slowly walking to the ring that night and remembering a conversation he had with Hart less than 24 hours earlier. The referee had gone to dinner the evening before with Hart who, sensing something might be up, asked Hebner if he knew of any plan to take his title away the following night.
"I never said I wouldn't double-cross him," says Hebner. "I told him I wouldn't count him out as long as his shoulders were up. And that's a true story so help me God."
But a secretive change of the match's finish, known as a "screwjob" in pro wrestling parlance, already had been concocted by McMahon and Michaels. The plan called for Hebner to signal for the bell and end the match as Michaels held Hart in the sharpshooter hold. Michaels was declared the victor by submission and the new WWF champion. Hart, however, never really submitted, and he, along with the audience, was outraged.
Hebner immediately exited the ring, was whisked away to his hotel room and took the first flight out of Canada.
Hart, who planned to leave the company a day later to join rival promotion WCW, had been unwilling to drop the title to Michaels on Canadian soil. Although Hart claimed he was willing to lose to anyone but Michaels the next night on Raw, McMahon feared that Hart would leave the company with the title, take the belt to WCW and disrespect it as Alundra Blayze (Debbie "Madusa" Micelli) had done in 1995 with the WWF women's championship, throwing the belt into a garbage can during a live broadcast of Nitro.
Hebner feels McMahon was probably justified in taking the title off Hart — one way or the other.
"Bret could have dropped it a lot earlier than Montreal. But that was his choice. Vince said, 'OK, you don't want to do it, I'll do it my way in your hometown.' And that's what he did. Bret could have dropped the belt weeks earlier in the United States. He had ample time to do it, but he wanted to play hardball, and he didn't like Shawn anyway."
Hebner still felt deeply conflicted about the way they took the title from Hart.
"Sixty-forty. Sixty percent for the company and 40 percent for Bret. He was going to leave the company and make $3 million. What should it matter to him? My main thought was to protect the guys in the back. All of them had worked hard to put Bret over, and now he wanted to go down there and make them look like idiots. It wasn't fair. I guess I thought more about the guys in the dressing room than I did about Bret."
Fearing reprisals from the crew, Hebner told McMahon the next day that nobody in the company would ever trust him again. "Who in the hell would trust me now? I did what Brisco told me to do ... what you told Brisco to tell me to do.'"
"Regardless of whether I did it or not, the bell was going to ring," says Hebner. "That belt was going to come off Bret. That's why he (McMahon) was down there and Sgt. Slaughter was down there. The only thing I did was make it look official."
Hebner and Hart's paths crossed shortly after the incident at an airport.
"He didn't want to talk to me," says Hebner. "That was fine because I wasn't going to waste my time talking to him. He did talk to my brother for awhile. But I wasn't going to argue with him. Later in Calgary he told me he understood what happened and what position I was put in. He said he wasn't mad at me anymore. I thanked him and told him I couldn't believe it would take him this long to realize it. He's as stubborn as a mule."
Things have changed dramatically for Hebner since Montreal. He was unceremoniously released from WWE on July 18, 2005, for allegedly selling company merchandise without permission. Hebner's twin brother, Dave, also was released a day later in connection with the charges. Earl had been with the company 17 years, while Dave had been employed by WWE as a referee and road agent for more than a quarter-century.
"(The allegations) were a lie. It wasn't true," says Hebner. "That was a false story to begin with. (WWE talent chief) Johnny Ace (John Laurinaitis) just wanted to get his people in. Basically he wanted to get rid of David more than me. It was because my name was on a card in which I was a partner or owner. I wasn't. All I had done was invest."
"Johnny Ace didn't like Dave because Dave had a lot of pull with Vince," he adds. "Johnny was more scared of David than he was Vince. Here was a guy (Dave) who went into buildings and added 80, 90, 100 chairs at $25 a pop. How could they say he was stealing and making money?"
Hebner, one of McMahon's top lieutenants, remains miffed over why the company gave him his walking papers and why McMahon never even gave him a chance to present his side of the story.
Hebner, 58, said he sent McMahon a registered letter which he claims was opened by someone else. "I told him that I just wanted to come and talk to him. I wasn't going to beg for my job back because I didn't want it. I just wanted him to know the truth. But I was told someone else got the letter in the office and threw it in the trash."
"I did more things in matches than you can believe," he adds. "I sacrificed my body. My body is all messed up now. I would have bought my own plane ticket to come down and talk to him. But he never got the letter, so basically I can't say it was his fault."
Hebner says he has refused several WWE offers to return to the company.
"Even though I can make two or three times as much as what I'm making for TNA, there's not a chance. It's not a money factor for me. It's the courtesy and family affair that people love you in the business. WWE is not a love factor anymore."
Hebner says he also has to turn down plenty of opportunities to appear on various independent shows across the country. In addition to working for TNA/UWF, Hebner also is involved in other business ventures, including running a souvenir shop at a mall in Richmond with brother Dave, and operating a construction business.
"If I wanted to work every day somewhere in the wrestling business, I could. I love working in the construction business. It's a little harder than counting 1-2-3, but I love it. I'm fine. When I got fired up there, I was going to stay home and take it easy. But I'm working more now than I ever worked for WWE. We're doing pretty good."
Hebner says he's still open to whatever options may come up.
"TNA wanted me to sign a two-year deal, but I didn't want to because I don't know how long I want to do this. I don't want to obligate myself for two years because a lot of things can happen. But they've been good to me, and I love them to death. I'm too old. At my age, I just want to go year to year."
The UWF show July 19 will feature a double-elimination tag-team tournament that will include The Steiners, LAX (The Latin American Exchange), The Naturals, Too Cool (Scotty Too Hotty and Grand Master Sexay), Diamonds in the Rough, Team Macktion, Jay Lethal and Petey Williams, AJ Styles and Joey Mercury, and more. Tickets are on sale online at www.uwfusa.com and locally at Rick Hendrick Jeep Chrysler and The Plex. Tickets start at $10. For more information, visit www.uwfusa.com.
--George's Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Vengeance pay-per-view at 8 p.m. tonight. Cover charge is $7.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.