Unless you’ve been living in a gunny sack—or Canada—for the last year, you probably know that Minnesota is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its statehood this month.
We here at Minnesota Monthly wanted to mark the big occasion, of course, but we wanted to do it our way, to do justice to the drama and importance of the state’s history, to capture the real significance of all the stuff that makes this place unique. In other words, we wanted to do a story that wasn’t homework, a story that said, “Happy Birthday, Minnesota. Look at how cool your life has been!” Not a story—all too common with retrospectives—that said, “Happy Birthday. Now here’s some facts about beet farming.”
It turned out to be easier than we imagined. Over the last 150 years, Minnesota has given the world an incredible array of people, ideas, and events that have shaped the way we live. (It has also given the world a huge number of miscreants and weirdos, but that’s another story.) Not surprisingly, some of these people and ideas are well known, their significance obvious. Dylan. The Post-it note. The Hamm’s Beer bear. Other were more obscure: Did you know that food stays fresh while it travels cross-country because of an inventor from Minnesota? Or that the phrase “Holy Cow” was first uttered during a Twins game?
I did not. Even so, among all the things we chose to highlight for our sesquicentennial feature, “How Minnesota Saved Civilization,” I have to admit that I have a favorite: the story of how Minnesotans played a central role in the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics.
For most of the country, that game—played amid the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis—was suffused with political, even moral, implications. But for a seven-year old kid who grew playing hockey in Minnesota, it was something much more simple: proof that you could be from here (12 members of the team were natives) and do something extraordinary in the wider world—that being from this place wasn’t an excuse or a liability.
A few years after that game, I somehow persuaded my parents to send me to a hockey camp in Northern Minnesota, a camp started by Herb Brooks, the legendary coach of the 1980 U.S. team. Brooks didn’t spend much time at the camp; I think he was off coaching pros somewhere. But on the last morning of camp, after my parents arrived to pick me up, my father and I were standing in the empty mess hall, trying to find him some coffee, when he looked down at me: “Do you want to say hello to Mr. Brooks?” he said. I turned around, and there he was, the great man himself. To this day, I have no recollection of what he said. In fact, I can recall only one thing from the entire incident: that when we met, Herb Brooks—hockey god—was wearing canary-yellow pants.
Needless to say, I hope the people and moments we’ve chosen to highlight from Minnesota’s history conjure equally, well, colorful memories—and that we’ve managed to say “Happy Birthday” in a way that offers a fresh appreciation of just how important our past has been.