The State of Hockey was alive and well long before the Minnesota Wild came into existence. However, the organization coined the term when it brought the National Hockey League back to Minnesota and, with it, connected the feeling of its residents and their passion for the game throughout the state.
Many elements the Wild and its advertising agency, Olson, created before the team’s inaugural season personify the idea of a State of Hockey, but maybe none greater than “The Wild Anthem,” which has become known to many as the State of Hockey Anthem.
The late John Olson, the company’s founder and a creative force in the ad world, penned the Anthem. Here’s an oral history of “The Wild Anthem” told by those who were there at its inception.
Derek Bitter, copywriter with Olson during the origins of the Wild: We were working back at Olson and Company on the project, launching the team, and the Wild had come to us with the whole State of Hockey idea. They didn’t really have much around it, just that they liked the idea of a State of Hockey theme song.
The first thing that came to mind as we were conceptualizing was the State of Hockey flag, like, let’s actually make this a banner, something to rally around and a place. So it started with the State of Hockey flag and the more we talked about it, the more it be- came, “Well if we have a flag we should have our own anthem that we can sing in arena” and really make that come to life as much as possible.
Matt Majka, then the Vice President of Marketing with the Wild and currently the team’s COO: We wanted to build a fully integrated brand that was expressed in numerous different ways through different marketing vehicles and one notion was creating a song for the Wild. So we need to create a sonic brand here as part of our effort.
DB: I think we presented the idea and it was met with, “Oh yeah that’s kind of interesting.” But I think John and us as an agency kept pushing it.
Joel Dodson, music producer with Olson during the origins of the Wild: We knew if we had this song that could be played nightly and just kind of take on a life of its own, if we can nail this, it’s going to be really big for the team and the state.
DB: John pretty much owned it. He had a pretty strong vision in his mind as to what the melody was and how that went. He wanted to base it off an Irish bar song, really tapping into the Saint Paul roots of the team and the Irish history of Saint Paul.
MM: John was a real musician actually, he ended up writing a lot of his own songs and performing them.
JD: John had this idea it was almost like an Irish drinking song kind of thing that we were really, really inspired by. We just wanted it to be a very group song and chanty, but we wanted a lot of these traditional musical elements in it as well so that it could live a long time so that we could make other versions.
DB: John wasn’t a huge hockey guy, to be honest, so the hockey ex- perts weighed in on certain lyrics. He’d write them then I’d hockey-ize them, but for the most part it was him writing the whole song and the lyrics and I was pitching in here and there, more than really making it collaborative.
MM: It was a little bit of taking a chance. The song was a little tongue-in-cheek, a little campy on purpose — John wrote it that way, right? But how fans were going to perceive it and accept it, especially when you’re going with that kind of a version? We had some real trepidation.
DB: I think it was hard for them to see on paper but once they heard the music and heard the lyrics and how it all came together, I think everybody was on board pretty quickly.
MM: We were all going a thou- sand miles an hour. There were so many things that we needed to get done, some things we needed to improvise and other things we just ran with. But this was out there enough that I thought Bob Naegele (the team’s first owner) and the Board of Directors should probably know about it.
There was a meeting I recall very well where — and I have a horrible voice, I have no musical ability whatsoever — but there was no one else around, so I sang the Anthem in a board meeting. I remember the look of fear in some of the board members’ eyes about ‘So you’re really going to do this?’ And Bob and Jac Sperling (then CEO) and a few others, thankfully they said ‘You know, I think it’s kind of cool and if you believe in it then let’s go ahead.’
It was just one of those moments where you get a little courage and say ‘what the hell’ I’m just going to try this. And again, some of the board members thought, ‘You’re nuts.’ And a couple of the important ones thankfully said, ‘It’s cool and if you believe it in, go ahead.’
JD: I did a lot of songs with John over the years, but this was obviously the most fun. We knew what we wanted and there is an element of discovery if we find it. But that’s the fun thing about music production: you’ve got an idea and you’re kind of just singing it. We didn’t really go through a demo or a pre-production. We sort of jumped right into production and wrote it as we went. We plucked out a few melodies on a piano and a guitar and found, at least, our motive and built it from there. Did a down-and-dirty sort of roadmap and started stacking things up on our melodies. It came together rather quickly.
We knew we had something right away. Once we had our melody and the main instrumentation started getting stacked in, especially when the vocals came in, we knew we had something. From the big drums to the guitars and bagpipes and everything, we knew that we had found our melody and our song. I remember the first time John heard the first pass at it. He was just ecstatic.
DB: After we had presented the idea and everyone was on board with a song, the first thing we wanted to do was to launch the Wild brand with it. The first time it was performed was on Opening Night in 2000, the inaugural game, where a kids’ choir sang it to open the pre-game ceremony.
Paul Loomis, Wild Manager of Game Operations: I was there on opening night. That was my introduction to the song as a fan.
I thought it was cool. To be honest with you, that’s what stands out the most for me however many years it’s been. Because I remember them standing there, I remember the choir there, I remember all the spotlights being on (the choir) and thinking, ‘Oh that’s kind of interesting.’ It’s just something you didn’t expect to see. So that is one thing that’s been ingrained in my mind from the very first home opener.
MM: I think we did that purposefully because we thought, ‘You know, they won’t boo children; they won’t boo a children’s choir singing this thing so let’s give it a chance.’ That did work.
Again, not everybody was like ‘That’s the best song ever!’ Some people thought it was stupid, but there were enough that thought it was awesome. The words are great and it’s campy, but I know what they’re going for so let’s have fun with it. But yeah, the children’s choir was the way that we introduced it in sort of a non-threatening way.
JD: The hero one, the one that we recorded originally is the one that still lives and gets played nightly and is used in broadcast, but there are other versions that we made over the years that are very guitar based and drum-driven — almost Jimi Hendrix-y in a way.
We had a lot of ideas. We wanted a guitar-rock version of it that we actually produced and I actually played on. It was a lot of fun. We did a dance version, a shortened version and a couple years later,
a version with horns. God, I think we maybe did 15 different versions of the song in our first couple of years. It just kept growing into other productions.
PL: My understanding is that the vision wasn’t for it to always be played at every game, it just kind of happened that way. It’s become such a staple that I think if we were to actually stop playing it in first intermission, the fans would be in an uproar. It’s one of those things where it’s where it’s meant to be.
What we try to do is try to keep it somewhat fresh. We try to keep changing it every year, maybe have a couple different versions each season so that there are different visuals that will go along with the song. The song in and of itself has a driving power that the fans should just identify with and love anyway. I’m not sure if they would mind what the visual is, so long as we just always play the song.
JD: I think everybody knows it. Even the smallest and greatest of fans. When I go to games, people are up on their feet, singing along. I think it’s genuinely loved by the state. I don’t think it’s ever gotten a bad piece of press. But I’ve loved how it’s lived and it kind of keeps getting used in broadcasts, in arena and in radio. I love that not only the team and organization has gotten behind
it, too. I think people would be bummed out if it went away.
DB: This song and it latching on, is such a great legacy for (Olson) because it really was what John was all about: coming up with an idea that connected. It was something that people could rally around and I think that was something John really loved doing, making something that people could connect through. And the song does that in spades.
The State of Hockey was this big idea. How do we make something that everybody can feel a part of? And that’s the State of Hockey: everybody feels intrinsically a part of it. And this song is so dead on with what it says and how it goes. It makes a connection for the people who are a part of the State of Hockey.
MM: It is cheesy-campy on one hand but there’s enough truth in the song and pride in the song that it balances it. That’s John’s genius. He struck a perfect balance there. As I think about it today, and I don’t mean to get too strange here, but we’ve lost John and he was an incredible person and a creative genius — to have this thing living on and probably forever, as long as the Wild’s around, which I hope is forever, that’s a great testament to John and what he offered this world. I think of him sometimes while the song is on and I’m sure others that were close with him on this project do as well.