The State of Hockey's brush with the Stanley Cup. Payne Stewart's 18-hole playoff triumph at Hazeltine. "And we'll see you tomorrow night!"
The year 1991 was a special time to be part of Minnesota sports culture. In May of that year, the Minnesota North Stars met the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final at the Met Center in Bloomington. That summer, the U.S. Open came to Hazeltine National Golf Club, and in late October, the Minnesota Twins won the World Series at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
"That whole spring was so much fun," remembered Mike Modano, who tallied 77 points in 76 games with the North Stars that season. "The crowds, the atmosphere, the tailgating before the games, the [Met] was just packed before the games even started."
The North Stars were something of a Cinderella story that year. They knocked out the first-place Chicago Blackhawks in six games and eliminated the second-place St. Louis Blues in the semifinals before defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in the conference final.
Bobby Smith, whose Stanley Cup win with Montreal in 1986 was sandwiched between stints with Minnesota, says that the North Stars' unexpected success surprised even some of their diehard fans.
"People really got behind the team," Smith said. "I talked to lots of people, and I don't think anybody expected us to play right through to the Final. [I remember] younger people telling me they were taking their homework to restaurants so they could do their homework and watch the games because they didn't have the right cable package at home, and other people telling me they maxed out their credit cards [because] they had no idea they'd be going to 12 North Stars home games in the spring."
Minnesota's magical run came to an end at the Met Center in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final when Mario Lemieux's Penguins put up eight goals to shut out the North Stars.
But it wouldn't be long before another Minnesota team climbed to a championship series.
The Twins' 1991 run is often remembered as one of the greatest World Series ever played. Five games between the Twins and the Atlanta Braves were decided by a run, four were determined by the last at-bat, and three took extra innings.
"Each game, it kind of had more drama that built up to Game 7," said Dan Gladden, who will be making the "Let's Play Hockey!" call with Twins teammate Gene Larkin at the Wild's Friday game against the same Pittsburgh franchise that ended the North Stars' title hopes 25 years ago. "I don't think it could've been a better setting or a better ending."
The Twins and the Braves battled to a 0-0 tie after nine innings. In the bottom of the 10th, Gene Larkin smacked the first pitch he saw to left center with Gladden on base. Gladden raced home, and Minnesota won its second World Series in five years.
"As you get older and get further and further away from the moment itself, you appreciate it even more, and you have more perspective about the circumstances behind it," Larkin said.
That year, the championship-caliber franchises each made their own mark on Minnesota history, but they also embedded themselves in the minds of fans.
Modano recalls that when he would pull into the Met Center parking lot before playoff games, the place would already be packed with tailgaters in their North Stars gear. He still feels some of that admiration to this day when he returns to Minnesota to watch the Wild play.
"There's still such a strong following of North Stars fans [in Minnesota]," said Modano, who reunited with several North Stars teammates in last year's NHL Stadium Series Alumni Game at TCF Bank Stadium. "I always enjoy going back there. I think it will always hold a special part of me because I started my career there and I was so young and the fans were so great. So it's always been a special part of my life."
Across town, Larkin admired the franchise's fan base, too. Many of those same fans tailgating in the spring cheered on the Twins as the leaves fell, proud of how their hometown teams had put Minnesota on the map.
"The state of Minnesota had a tremendous opportunity to watch some very good teams get to the final moments to win their League," Larkin said. "I went to quite a few [North Stars] games that year ... I loved hockey, and I think this being the State of Hockey, people here really appreciate the skill level and have an amazing passion for hockey. That was a great experience for me."