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Miracle on Ice has a NASCAR tie

Among the mementos Dave Ferroni has from the 1980 Miracle on Ice: a U.S. hockey team picture signed by coach Herb Brooks. Courtesy Dave Ferroni

Engaged, uninterrupted conversation is rare these days. Folks are consumed with checking tweets and texts every eight or so seconds, and don't much listen intently. So when conversation happens, the interesting morsels of information that often stem from them are that much sweeter.

I was reminded of this during Speedweeks at Daytona last month, when I learned by listening that there is an obscure yet direct link between today's NASCAR garage and arguably the greatest moment in the history of American sports.

The United States' Olympic hockey upset of the Soviet Union during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., is widely regarded as that moment, the most-revered sporting achievement ever for this country.

It made stars of its players and a legend of its coach. Its final seconds prompted the most famous broadcast call in the history of sports television, Al Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

It made America burst with pride -- even folks like my family who wouldn't know a puck from a praline.

I am not a hockey fan. I do greatly respect the tremendous athleticism and toughness the game requires. But I don't get it. At all. Its majesty -- which I know exists because many of my friends are puck-crazed hockey addicts -- escapes me. And I've been to the Stanley Cup Finals and seen the home team win.

I grew up in the rural South, and razorblading around on a frozen pond slapping a perfectly contoured river-skipping rock with a dull scythe was as foreign to me as unsweetened tea or frozen cornbread.

I am aware how ignorant that description is. But it's no less true. I figure my perception of hockey is similar to that which many folks in regions of the country outside the South carried about NASCAR in the 1980s, prior to the sport's explosion into the national sporting consciousness a decade later: a bunch of rednecks turning left. (Granted, in some places, that perception still exists today.)

Despite my lack of knowledge or appreciation for hockey, my appreciation for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team could not be higher, for obvious reasons. To prepare to write this piece, I watched the game in its entirety on YouTube. It is most captivating television. The bedlam that ensued in the crowd is instant chicken skin. Every time.

That team shocked the world. "Shocked the world" is thrown around a lot these days. But when describing those kids and that coach, Herb Brooks, this group of 20 amateurs skating unified into a professional arena during the height of the Cold War, it was unequivocal truth.

I was 3 years old in February 1980. Like many kids born during that era, I knew my old man disliked the Russians. He'd often grumble under his breath watching Dan Rather on the "CBS Evening News." Kids my age couldn't possibly understand all the reasons why the U.S. beating Russia was a big deal, but all we had to see was the reaction from adults around us to know it really mattered.

Thirty years later, I have a far greater appreciation for that team. They were boys among men who stared down the enemy and never blinked, and became kings of the world, molded and cured and urged by Brooks' hard-edged guidance.

For most folks in my generation, the Disney movie "Miracle" gave that achievement eyebrow-raising context and heightened awareness. Ten years after that movie debuted -- in February 2014, in, of all places, Daytona Beach, Fla., standing outside an 18-wheeler that carries two race cars from one town to the next -- I learned a "Wait ... what? Come again?" head-shaker: Martin Truex Jr.'s publicist, an unassuming man named Dave Ferroni, was the publicist for the 1980 U.S. hockey team.

I've known Dave for 15 years. I had no idea he was among the inner circle of America's most celebrated sports team. For sports dorks like me -- especially patriotic types -- that is just awesome. I had to know more. I called Dave.

In the early 1970s, Brooks was the freshman coach at the University of Minnesota. Ferroni was the team manager for the varsity. A friendship was forged. Toward the end of the decade, Ferroni had moved on to a public relations position with the Minnesota Kicks of the North American Soccer League, back when there was such a thing.

His phone rang one day with a request for some PR help. It was the general manager for the U.S. Olympic hockey team, which at the time was based just down the road from Ferroni in Bloomington, Minn. Ferroni had moonlighted some for the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL, and Ferroni figured it was their PR director who recommended him.

The U.S. Olympic team would play 12 home games at the Met Center, then home of the North Stars, and needed help promoting the games. They had no money and it was important to generate revenue at these games.

"They were just another hockey team trying to make it," Ferroni said.

He agreed, and arranged interviews, handled press requests and produced the team media guide. Shortly thereafter, he received another call from USA Hockey in Colorado Springs. They hoped Ferroni would continue to help them out. He had a full-time job. But he figured he could handle it as a side gig, so he agreed.

He couldn't begin to imagine the ride for which he'd just signed up.

"Back then, nobody ever dreamed what happened was going to happen," Ferroni told me, the awe of the accomplishment still quite evident in his tone, 34 years later. "For anybody that was involved in hockey and understood the game, the very best chance they had was a bronze medal. And that was going to be really tough to get."

The Russians were a professional hockey team, indisputably the best in the world. They had dominated Olympic play since 1964. In February 1979, they'd beaten the National Hockey League All-Stars in the Challenge Cup, a three-game series in Madison Square Garden that, for the first and only time, replaced the 1978-79 NHL season's All-Star Game. The Russians won two games to one.

That same Soviet team would face off against America's best amateurs in the Olympics. But 13 days before the Lake Placid miracle, the U.S. would play an exhibition game against the Soviets at Madison Square Garden.

"We got bombed," said Ferroni of the 10-3 drubbing. "That was on a Sunday. And right after the game they flew up to Lake Placid. I was sitting on the airplane, a little private airplane, across the aisle from Herbie. He says, 'Ya know, Foofs, I started to clap on some of the goals those Russians were making. They were so fantastic.'"

Despite the loss, Ferroni said he sensed a small victory for Brooks, a master psychologist.

"He felt he could beat that [Russian] team, even though he just got bombed," Ferroni said. "He never liked authority. It was his way or no way. But he was really well-liked. The media liked him. The players liked him. But he was a hard-nosed coach. He was like Bobby Knight."

The next day, Ferroni was walking around Lake Placid with a Newsday reporter, who asked Ferroni his thoughts on the U.S. team's chances.

"She just saw the Russians beat us, and said it was men against boys," Ferroni said with a chuckle. "Having just talked to a player, Buzzy Schneider, I said to her what Buzzy said to me: 'We have a shot at the bronze, and if we get some great goaltending we could win the silver.' And she basically laughed at me."

Ferroni understood her reaction. She had just seen the Russians destroy the U.S. at Madison Square Garden. Entering Lake Placid, Ferroni said, it was essentially predetermined that the Russians would win the gold and the Czechoslovakians would win the silver. From there, he said, the bronze was a shootout between the Swedes, the Fins and the Americans.

But Brooks knew the European system with expert precision -- especially the Russian way. Brooks had faced it often, having been a member of the U.S. Olympic team both in 1964 and 1968. In 1960, he was the last player cut from a team that would win the gold medal in Squaw Valley, Calif.

"Herbie would always say that they cut the right guy, because they won the gold medal," Ferroni said. "Nobody understood the European system -- especially the Russians -- as well as he did. And he was so driven. He was very much driven to beat those Russians. There was no question about that. He was a very tactician of a coach, and a psychologist in a lot of ways, too."

Brooks would openly challenge star players.

"He would say things to some players to get everybody else mad at him," Ferroni said. "Two of the guys he picked on the most were two of the stars -- [goalie] Jim Craig and [forward and team captain] Mike Eruzione. There was one game where the team was down, and Rob McClanahan was hurt, and he was going to not play, and [Brooks] told him to put on his uniform and called him every name you could call him. And that fired up the team."

He paused.

"Wow. I learned what a coach can extract from a bunch of young athletes, and how enthusiasm can make up for talent."

Ferroni recalled the moment that Brooks' unrelenting philosophy was first revealed to him. It was an exhibition game the U.S. played against the NHL's Minnesota North Stars. Before the game, he received a call from a cable network he'd never heard of. It was called ESPN. They wanted to televise the game. Ferroni was ecstatic.

The Stars beat the Olympic team that night, but it was a close game. The kids played well.

"After the game I went down to the dressing room, and we got beat, and I said something to Brooks, like, 'That was a great game!'" Ferroni said. "And he was like, 'Aw, we didn't do this and didn't do that.' And I thought, 'Man, this guy's never satisfied.' At that point I knew he had something in mind, he had a vision, and he was going to get it no matter what. You could sense it. He was a guy that wouldn't compromise. He may not have picked the best players, but he picked the best players for the best team, the team he wanted to build."

And build them he did.

Back to Lake Placid and that Newsday reporter. A couple of days after that, Ferroni jumped on a plane and flew home. Once the Olympics begin, the USOC appoints the public relations staff for every sport. Ferroni wasn't chosen. It wasn't a big deal to him. He had a full-time job with the Kicks to manage after all, and quite frankly, low expectations for the hockey team.

But Brooks wasn't pleased that Ferroni had been overlooked. Ferroni said the coach called him afterward, saying he would fight to get him on the team. Ferroni declined the offer.

Looking back, Ferroni said, that was a "bad mistake."

"I was just hoping they'd win the bronze," he said. "They had to play the Swedes the night before the opening ceremonies and they were down 2-1 with less than a minute to play in the game, and Bill Baker scored a tying goal."

He remembers that moment vividly. With 40 seconds to play, Sweden pulled its goalie. Baker took a shot from the plank and tied the game.

"Bill Baker doesn't score that goal, there is no gold medal," Ferroni said. "From that moment on, they became the darlings of the Winter Games there."

In the next game the U.S. upset Czechoslovakia 7-3. Then they beat Norway, Romania and Germany to set up the Feb. 22, 1980 epic with Russia, which entered the game undefeated during the Olympics. Ferroni sat in his office at the Kicks' soccer complex and listened on the radio. The game wasn't televised live.

"Somebody really screwed up there," Ferroni said. "They put the Russians against the U.S. at 5:30 ET, and there was no way ABC was going to give up their news at that time to televise a game live."

He just hoped his boys could keep it close. After the first period the score was tied 2-2. The Russians took the lead 3-2 in the second period.

"But then, boy, after they scored those two goals to go up 4-3 with 10 minutes to go ... I'll tell you what, those were the longest 10 minutes I've ever experienced," Ferroni said.

"I'm really happy in a way I listened to it on the radio, instead of seeing it on television. There's something about listening to a sporting event on the radio -- your imagination just takes over. I just sat there. I couldn't believe it. I understood the enormity of what just happened."

Ferroni had studied international hockey his entire life. There was no way a bunch of college kids would beat a professional team that had played together for years and years.

"It was shocking. It was just incredible," Ferroni said.

Though he wasn't there physically, Ferroni did talk with Brooks during the Olympics. The media was hard after Brooks, because he refused to bring a player into the postgame press conferences with him.

"The media started calling him 'Ayatollah,'" Ferroni laughed. "I remember I called up Brooks and said, 'Herbie, instead of bringing one player, bring the whole lot. Bring them all.' And he laughed. I remember that laugh. And that's exactly what he did after they won the gold medal, he brought every one of them."

Ferroni noted two particularly keen moments that Brooks shared with him post-Olympics. The first was the coach's speech to the team before the game against Russia, which Kurt Russell delivered so passionately in the film "Miracle."

"He told them, 'You were born to be a hockey player, you were meant to be here. This is your moment,'" Ferroni said, voice an octave higher. "He was so good at getting their all."

The other moment Ferroni noted was Brooks' comment to the team in the locker room between the second and third periods of the gold-medal game against Finland.

"If they beat the Fins they win the gold medal, and they were losing going into the third period," Ferroni said. "He walked in the dressing room and said, 'Guys, you blow this game you'll take it to your f----- grave.' Damn truth."

The victory over Russia, Ferroni said, unquestionably turned Brooks' life around. They chatted after the Olympics, but rarely about the greatest victory in U.S. Olympic history. They were friends long before then.

"All I remember was he was still so upset about the team photo," Ferroni howled. "That's Herbie, little things like that."

If you study the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's group photograph, you'll notice that the coaching staff is in the middle row, from shortest to tallest. That annoyed the fire out of Brooks.

"The photographer didn't see it and I didn't see it, nobody saw it," Ferroni said. "He says to me, 'I have to look at this the rest of my life!'"

So will Ferroni. Somewhere, packed away in his home in Minnesota, he has that photograph, autographed by Brooks. When I broached with him the magnitude of having been inside the circle of the most-revered team in the history of the nation, he paused to ponder the thought.

"You know, you're right. There's not too many people that can say they were part of the sports story of the century," he said. "I do think of that sometimes. I think Sports Illustrated did pick it as the sports story of the century. It's mind-boggling, Marty, when you stop to think about that.

"You think about 100 years of sports. You think about Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, or Lou Gehrig or Roger Banister or the '27 Yankees. All the sudden you're part of this group, that was the sports story of the century? Mind-boggling."

That's precisely how I felt when I learned the story. Here's this guy I see as much as I see my own family. He's arranged interviews for me with everyone from Scott Pruett to Mark Martin to Kurt Busch to, now, Truex. Since 1985 he has been a motorsports media relations staple, in NHRA and NASCAR.

He doesn't say much. But my gracious, does he have plenty to share when asked.

Who knew?