For Cochranites who don’t keep up with the high-octane action and dramatic antics of professional wrestling, there is a good chance they are still aware of the impact the Calgary area has had on what is now a multi-billion half-sport, half-entertainment industry.
Established in 1948 by Stu Hart, the Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling promotion outfit was integral in the development of many of the elements that transformed the sport of wrestling into a global entertainment spectacle.
Hosted by legendary broadcaster Ed Whalen, the weekly Stampede Wrestling program was the first globally-syndicated instance of professional wrestling on television. The format of this television program is widely considered as the basis for what is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
The Hart family’s Calgary-based training centre, The Dungeon, has been instrumental in the development of a long list of WWE stars including the likes of Abdullah the Butcher, Natalya and Chris Jericho. The Hart family continues to operate training camps in the Calgary area to this day.
There is, however, an even more local connection to how professional wrestling is conducted today. One involving two men, a ladder, and a big ol’ bag of cash.
Scouted at the beginning of the 70s, Cochrane’s Dan Kroffat left his Vancouver lifeguarding job and headed for Calgary. He joined Stampede Wrestling at a time when, while dominant for the better part of two decades, the outfit was beginning to deal with stiff competition from an increasing amount of rival operations.
“During the early seventies in Alberta, Stampede Wrestling was doing just ‘okay’,” said Kroffat.
“The arenas were half full and the promoter at the time, Stu Hart, was looking for people or ideas to fill the arenas.”
‘Okay’ was also the word Kroffat used to describe his own career trajectory at the time.
“I wanted to climb to the top billing, stay on top and create longevity. In order to do that, I realized that I had to come up with some ideas because I wasn’t the biggest guy, the best-looking guy or the biggest name in the dressing room.”
Kroffat wasn’t just a muscle-bound jock capable of following orders and nothing more. He was crafty, and he took it upon himself to devise situations that would keep Stampede Wrestling fans cheering for his character every week on the television program.
“I realized that if I created a match where there could be ‘sequels’ week-after-week like Dynasty or Dallas that brought you back every week with cliffhangers,” he said.
“Promoters are always looking for guys that have great ideas. You need to tell a story, and a cliffhanger to bring them back. “
In 1972, Kroffat pitched to Stu Hart the one concept that he credits as having the greatest impact on his career.
“The idea was to ‘challenge’ a guy to get in the ring. I would hang a bag of money from the light and put a ladder outside. I would say that if he wants to fight, he has to come in, fight me, get the ladder, climb up and get the money.”
“You hung it like a bone for a dog, it was the idea of dangling the money there, the ‘greed’ in the bad guy’s eyes was the storyline.”
Kroffat won the first ‘ladder match’ over designated villain Tor Kamata at the Corral in September 1972, and the appeal to Stampede Wrestling was that the concept could be applied to storylines that could continue for multiple weeks.
“We had to think of how we could bring the match back again, because the fans loved it,” said Kroffat.
Referring to on-stage dialogue, he added “What I did was I said ‘Okay, I’ve won the money, I’ve beat him, I could care less, I don’t want him anymore.’ The bad guy gets really upset and says ‘I’ll hang my money in the ring, I want you back in the ring.’ I said ‘Well, you’re going to have to hang a lot of money up here.’ The bad guy says he’ll hang five thousand dollars, and I say that if I win, I’m going to throw all that dirty money to the crowd.”
In front of a noticeably larger crowd for the second match thanks to the popularity of the initial fight, Kroffat was made to be the winner once again.
“On television, it shows the money fluttering through the air to the crowd like leaves falling from a tree,” he said.
“Every arena we went to, people were buying tickets in advance, buildings were selling out because people wanted to see this new match, plus to see money thrown to the crowd.”
Kroffat and Stampede Wrestling quickly worked out how they could keep the concept going.
“We would get a villain who had the championship belt at the time and I would say to him ‘I’ll challenge you for the belt, winner-take-all.’ He would say, ‘I own the belt, you’ll have to pay for it.’ And I would say that I would put five thousand dollars in a bag and hang it above the ring. If he gets the money, he keeps his belt and the money but if I win it, I get my money back and the North American heavyweight belt.”
“They would agree, and I would win the belt. Now that I have the belt, the bad guy comes back and says ‘I’ll put ten thousand in the bag.’ We were building sequels every week so that people would see and say ‘Wow, I’ve got to follow this’. Coverage on television was great, across Canada people would see the matches and start coming to the arenas to see them live.”
Kroffat was thrilled to see his creation blossom into a money-maker for his promoters.
“It put me on top, I was a main event-er everywhere,” he said.
“It elevated my presence, and then you become in demand. Other promoters hear about you making money for a promoter and they ask for you. Whether it be out in Vancouver, San Francisco, Arizona or Louisiana, these promoters were very open-minded to ideas that would fill the buildings.”
The bags for these matches normally held a few hundred (as opposed to a few thousand) dollars, but the sight of the cash released from high up in the air was enough of a visual spectacle that the average wrestling fan couldn’t tell the difference.
“An old adage in marketing is ‘What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t desire,’ said Kroffat.
“I used clear plastic bags and would fill them with fives, tens, at the time we had twos and ones around as well. It was the concept of the bag dangling there like a proverbial carrot.”
Following Kroffat’s retirement in 1985 Bret Hart, another Stampede wrestler and son of founder Stu Hart, developed into a bonafide superstar. He had competed in ladder matches under the Stampede banner, and when he made the jump to the WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) in the late 80s, he brought the concept with him.
“Vince McMahon had heard about this ladder match,” said Kroffat about the famously eccentric CEO and owner of the WWE.
“Bret took it to Vince and said ‘Vince, this was a match that was created in Calgary.’ He told him about me and I talked to Vince numerous times outlining ideas that they could use.”
The WWE’s first ladder match was held in Portland, Maine in the summer of 1992 with the younger Hart defeating Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental Championship. The format picked up steam, and by 1998 the WWE was hosting at least two televised ladder matches each year.
“You take it with pride, kind of like raising a child,” said Kroffat.
“They’ve used it hundreds and hundreds of times throughout the world. It’s kind of a nice thing to say ‘Hey, I’ve created something that’s making millions of dollars for everyone else.”
“I didn’t patent it or anything, maybe I should have,” he laughed.
The WWE has since expanded on the concept. Sometimes championship belts, or briefcases with ‘contracts’ to one of the WWE rosters are hung above the ring instead of cash. Sometimes four or six wrestlers will fight their way to the top of the ladder, instead of the traditional one-on-one battle.
Virtually every major WWE star in the last twenty years have participated in a ladder match, including the likes of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Triple H, and Stone Cold Steve Austin. The match has been a part of twelve WrestleMania shows, the annual ‘Super Bowl’ of the WWE so popular that it is normally hosted in major football stadiums.
On August 16, a Friday night, the ladder match goes back to its roots in Cochrane. As part of the Cochrane Fair festivities, Kroffat will referee as 18 wrestlers from the Canadian Wrestling’s Elite brand battle it out for ladder supremacy.
Tickets can be purchased online for $20 by searching ‘Cochrane Fair’ at EventBrite.ca, and will also be available at the gate for a slightly higher price. The wrestling action kicks off at 8:30 p.m..