Just over a year ago, a new tag team burst onto the WWF scene. Tall, dark and handsome, long brown hair, white spandex briefs, long boot laces - The Can-Am Connection. From their first appearance, they seemed destined to wear the gold around their waists.
For Rick Martel, it was like a dream come true. Since he dropped the AWA heavyweight title to Stan Hansen, his career had definitely taken a nose dive. He had returned to the Montreal area to recover from a back injury. Many said he was a quitter, something that hurt Martel a lot. To prove he was still around, he worked for good friend and promoter Gino Brito, Sr. in Canada's International Wrestling. Martel used his credibility with wrestlers to bring in new talent to the area, including old friend Tom Zenk.
Zenk was relatively inexperienced but had had a very successful stay in the Pacific Northwest, holding both the heavyweight title and the tag team title (with Scott Doring). Zenk soon captured the International tag team belts with new partner, Dan Kroffat. Martel was impressed with Zenk's ability and looks, noting their similar coloring. In his mind he began formulating an exciting new tag team. He envisioned The Can-Am Connection, right down to the style of hair and the clothes they would wear. Martel sold his stock in the International promotion and headed for a short stay in Puerto Rico, waiting for Zenk and Kroffat to drop their title. In mid-October the belts changed hands. Martel offered Zenk the chance of a lifetime - a lucrative tag team tournament in Japan. And after the Japan tour? The WWF, the supposed land of milk and honey.
The combination was perfect. Two good friends with similar looks and coloring, charisma, speed, agility, determination AND desire to make it all come together. For fans, Martel and Zenk were likewise a dream come true. It seemed too good to be real. And for Rick Martel, it was.
On July 10, in Boston, the dream became a nightmare. Just hours before a scheduled television interview, Tom Zenk dropped off the keys to their rental car at the front desk of their hotel and left. Martel had been deserted. Obviously taken by surprise, he went through with the TV spot anyway, supposedly speaking on behalf of Zenk. Rumors circulated that Zenk was injured or maybe delayed somewhere. Martel knew better, but wasn't saying much. What do you say when you know your partner has left you for good?
In a desperate attempt to get him to return, Martel flew to Zenk's new home in Minnesota. "I went to ask him to come back, maybe put in two years, maybe make some money and THEN leave. But he slammed the door in my face. After all I've done for him, he wouldn't give me the time of day. He left me like a thief in the night. It really upset me. That's all I have to say about it," said Martel, when reached for comment at a later Toronto card.
For the benefit of the television audience, Craig DeGeorge announced that Martel's partner had "just up and left" when the going got tough. We were then treated to a sniveling Martel, gasping for breath like he'd just run a marathon. "Cause you see, the competition got to be too much against the Islanders, and my partner left me, quit on me. Yes, I felt bad inside, I was hurt, but the Islanders - you're gonna learn a lesson that I'm not a quitter. I'm a fighter! Yes, I may be alone, but I'm gonna come at you even if it's one by one or with a new partner, because a lot of people want to be my partner!" Enter Tito Santana, who left the Spanish commentator's table to rescue Martel from a double team effort by the Islanders. So emerged the new tag team, the Strike Force - a poor imitation of the original Can-Ams, lacking the charisma, looks and overall appeal of Zenk and Martel. (Perhaps they should be known as the Can-Mexican Connection. Santana had recently been relegated to the undercard and does not seem to have Zenk's main event appeal!)
Meanwhile, as far as the WWF was concerned, Tom Zenk didn't even exist anymore. He was rumored to have retired completely and referred to by Bobby Heenan [Manager of the Islanders] as a cowering idiot. The rumor mill churned out many different versions of where he had gone and why he had left, ranging from his general lack of wrestling skill to various slurs on his personal and moral character.
When reached in Minnesota, Zenk was having a great time.
"I finally have some time to spend with my friends. I can go to the gym and work out with Scott (past partner Scott Doring), relax, go for a drive .... I actually have a social life again!"
"I work when I want, if I want."
You know everyone thinks that Tom Zenk is all washed up, that he lost his big chance when he left the WWF.
"Well, that's nice. But what nobody seems to realize is that I don't have to be a wrestler."
"I have an education. I've been in the business world - wrestling is something I WANT to do!"
"I'm going to wrestle on my own terms now."
"I've got a brain and I'm using it. I find it strange that everyone thinks that makes me a quitter! They're just crying because I'm not making them any money!"
"I'm looking out for number one, baby, and that's me!"
"I'm not conceited or arrogant - I'm telling it like it is."
"And no, I have nothing at all against Rick, but he's got his life and I've got mine. He has Joanne (his wife) to support. I'm single. He's getting older (35 next March) and is losing some hair. I've got my youth and good looks. He's getting thick around the waist, but my body is very close to competition form."
"Don't get me wrong. Rick is a great wrestler, better than I'll ever be, but I'm the first to admit that. I get by on my body and good looks rather than by wrestling skill. (I was born good looking and I make the most of it). I CAPITALIZE ON WHAT I HAVE. Don't blame me if I'm great looking - it's my parent's fault, you know. I had nothing to do with it!" (laughs)
Zenk, like Jesse Ventura, tells it like it is. He's not wrong, but will Martel want to hear it? Probably not. It seems like there are sour grapes on both sides but Zenk covers his emotions where Martel wears them on his sleeve.
The quest for fame, money and adulation took the ultimate toll on a partnership and friendship.
The results have left Martel struggling to hold on to the popularity he so desperately wants. Everyone knows what happens when you don't draw well for Vince. You become expendable. Look at Jimmy Jack Funk, a good worker reduced to preliminary matches and then ousted when a serious eye injury resulted from an outdoor melee with King Tonga. Notice that Tonga, one of the more popular heels, is still around. Martel and Santana may be making their last ditch attempt at wrestling stardom.
Zenk doesn't care. He is what he is. He goes it alone, choosing not to ride on anyone's coat tails.
Regardless of whose side you are on, the facts remain the same - Martel will never match the popularity of the Can-Am Connection with the Strike Force.
Fans may soon be seeing both Zenk and Martel in the independent promotions. But don't be surprised if they come out of separate dressing rooms!
back to Can-Am file
You Asked Us
The Wrestler, February, 1991
Q:"I have a question for Tom Zenk: If your partner in the Can-Am Connection, Rick Martel, came to the NWA, would you reform your tag team again?" Gary Graham, South Zanesville, OH
A: "I don't think there's even the slightest chance of something like that happening, Gary," said Zenk, who currently is concentrating on singles pursuits in the NWA. "Haven't you been watching your TV lately? The guy has turned into "The Model", and he's bad news. In the days when I teamed with Rick, back in 1987, I never really trusted him. That's why I left the Can-Am Connection, right when we were on the verge of winning the WWF World tag team title. Martel simply was more concerned with ego than he was with winning matches, and I could see that it was going to lead to trouble someday. Just look at him now - reduced to spraying cologne in his opponent's eyes. If he came to NWA today, I'd challenge him to a match, not team with him. He's embarrassed everyone who's ever known him in the past, and I'd try to beat him just to avenge all the people he's hurt."