In February 1980, Mark Pavelich was sitting on top of the world as a key member of the US Hockey team that won the Gold Medal in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. He then went on to be an unlikely star for the New York Rangers before walking away from the NHL in 1987.
Today Mark, now 62, sits in a small room with a bed and a TV, in a mental health facility in St. Peter Minnesota, reading books and strumming his guitar while wondering how he got there and what the future holds for him.
Pavelich was born in February, 1958 in rural Eveleth, Minnesota, which later became the home of the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973. After starring at Eveleth High School, Mark earned All-American honors at the University of Minnesota – Duluth. He then joined Herb Brooks’ Team USA and became an integral part of the “Miracle on Ice” squad that stunned the Soviets and captured a Gold Medal at Lake Placid, NY., in 1980.
Being a small-time boy at heart, Mark didn’t let the fame and glory go to his head. He was the only member of Team USA to skip the White House reception with President Jimmy Carter, preferring to return to Minnesota to go ice fishing. He also skipped a parade that had been arranged by his hometown, but spoke at his former elementary school where he let the students wear his Gold Medal. It was his only speaking engagement and he later donated the Gold Medal to the US Hockey Hall of Fame. .
In June 1981, Pavelich signed as an undrafted free agent with the Rangers, a day after his Team USA coach Herb Brooks was hired to be the Blueshirts coach. The small, but crafty center fit right into Brooks’ bob-and-weave, puck possession brand of hockey, scoring his first NHL goal in his first NHL game. He had an outstanding rookie season, tying Ron Duguay for second place in team scoring (33-43-76) and leading the team with twelve power-play goals and three shorthanded tallies. He was voted the co-winner of the “Players Player” award that season (shared with defenseman Tom Laidlaw) and still holds the team’s rookie record for points in a season.
Mark continued to excel the following year, leading the team with 37 goals and 38 assists for 75 points and being named the Rangers’ MVP, as well as winning the “Frank Boucher Award” as their most popular player. Pavelich also had a memorable night on February 23, 1983 when he scored five goals in a game against the Hartford Whalers, becoming the first American-born player to do so.
“Herb Brooks was our coach then and Pav was concerned that Herb might get angry if he scored too many goals after his third.” former Blueshirt captain Barry Beck remembered. “Herb was all about ‘the team’ and Pav was well aware of that. Herb was already a Minnesota coaching legend before the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” and Mark looked up to him, as both are Minnesota natives.” Beck continued. “After his fifth goal, when he came back to the bench, Mark was congratulated and we all agreed to try and get him his sixth goal. Mark said he looked at Herb, Herb looked back, shook his head and with just his eyes Mark knew Herb was very proud of him and amazed to witness another one of Marks outstanding performances. Mark loved Herb and so did a lot of other players including me.”
Pavelich also led the Rangers in points and assists in 1983-84 and playoff points that same season.
Quiet and reserved, almost to the point of appearing shy, Mark often seemed overwhelmed and uncomfortable living in New York’s spotlight, in fact the Rangers broadcast team had to bribe him with a fishing rod and reel before he would agree to tape an interview. “Mark loved playing for the Rangers and established friendships with fans while playing. Some closer than others,” recalls Beck. “He did not seek the limelight. He played his guitar and loved to hunt and fish.” But prior to the 1985-86 season Mark surprised his teammates by marrying Sue Koski, a 21-year-old from Cherry, Minnesota. “It wasn’t that he didn’t like women,“ wrote one reporter, “but that he seemed to like solitude even more,” The couple had a daughter in the summer of 1987, but divorced in 1989.
Pavelich was small, only 5-8 and 170 pounds, but he was scrappy, quick and had great anticipation, which helped him create scoring opportunities for himself and his line mates. “Pav was very quick and very shifty,” recalled former Ranger goaltender, Steve Baker. “He had tremendous vision and passing skills and was very creative when it came to distributing the puck. He was very consistent. He gave you his best every night.”
But ultimately Mark paid the price for being a small man playing a big man’s game. He usually tried to duck under or dart around checks as much as possible, but still absorbed a lot of punishment through the years. “Mark paid a heavy price as he played inside the perimeter where there is extensive contact to the head area”, remembers Beck. “Inside the perimeter is where the games are won and lost.”
Pavelich always displayed a laid back demeanor; nothing seemed to bother him, at least not until 1985-86 when Ted Sator was brought in to replace Herb Brooks. Sator introduced a new “dump and chase” system which Mark, as well as a number of other players, felt stifled their creativity. Sator and his assistant coaches, Jack Birch and Reg Higgs also began to criticize the players in a way that was viewed to be mean spirited, and not particularly helpful. By mid-March of 1986, Mark had had enough. Saying that the game was no longer fun, he walked away from the Rangers and what remained on his $180,000 contract plus any future earnings. Pavelich was not alone in his distaste for Sator and company, as both Reijo Ruotsalainen and Barry Beck did not return the following season, because even though Phil Esposito had taken over as GM, Sator was still behind the bench.
Mark was eventually traded to the Minnesota North Stars for a second round draft pick in October 1986. His stay with the North Stars was brief, lasting only twelve games, before he moved to Europe where he played in Scotland and Italy for two seasons. In 1991 at the age of 33 he attempted an NHL comeback, playing two games with the expansion San Jose Sharks.
In 341 regular season games with the Rangers over five seasons, Mark scored 133 goals with 185 assists for 318 points with 326 PIM, 48 PPG, 6 shorthanded goals and 17 game-winners. Mark was also a reliable playoff performer recording seven goals and seventeen assists with two game-winners in twenty-three playoff games with the Blueshirts. Overall in 355 regular season NHL games Pavelich recoded 137 goals, and 192 assists for 329 points.
Upon retirement Mark began buying and selling property along the North Shore of Lake Superior. He also married again in 1994, this time to his daughter’s piano teacher, Kara Burmachuk. The couple enjoyed the outdoor life and worked together constructing and decorating their home.
But Mark’s life began to take a downward spiral on September 6, 2012 when Kara fell off of an unfinished 4-by-5-foot deck that did not have a railing. It is believed that she had gone on the deck for better cell phone reception and lost her footing. She stuck her head on rocks 15 feet below and died instantly. She was 44 years old.
Mark, who was taking a nap at the time of the accident, was devastated, blaming himself for Kara’s death because he had made the rock garden where Kara had struck her head.
It was actually the second traumatic experience of Mark’s life. At the age of 18, before entering college, he accidentally shot and killed a friend while hunting. Pavelich was inconsolable and many said that the incident caused him to become even more withdrawn.
Following the death of his wife, Mark was said to become reclusive and paranoid. Friends and family suggested that he seek psychological help, but he insisted that nothing was wrong.
Then on August 15, 2019, Pavelich and his neighbor, Jim Miller spent the day on Deeryard Lake fishing for walleye, as they had often done in the past. But this time Pavelich turned violent, accusing Miller of spiking his beer and then attacking him with a three-foot metal bar. Mr. Miller was hospitalized with two cracked ribs, a bruised kidney, a fractured vertebra, and welts over his legs, arms and back.
When deputies searched Mark’s home, they found a shotgun tucked under a bed with its stock shortened and the serial number scratched off. Pavelich was charged with four felonies: assault with a dangerous weapon, assault causing bodily harm, possession of a shotgun shorter than the legal limit, and possession of a firearm without a serial number.
A pair of court-appointed psychologists agreed that Pavelich was not competent to stand trial, saying that he “lacks the ability to rationally consult with counsel, is incapable of understanding the proceedings, and is incapable of participating in the defense due to mental illness or deficiency.”
They also diagnosed Mark as presenting an imminent risk of serious danger to others. Both psychologists believe that Pavelich suffers from a neurocognitive disorder, but differed on the cause. .One psychologist suggested that Mark’s underlying problem was post-traumatic stress from life trauma, which could have resulted from the accidental shooting of his friend as a teen and the more recent tragic death of his wife.
The second theory, and the one embraced by Mark’s close friends and family, is that his disorder is linked to “traumatic brain injury,” leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — the degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with a history of repeated blows to the head. CTE, however, is impossible to diagnose while the patient is alive.
“We played in the live puck era, before the trap came in,” recalls Baker. “Pav was never afraid to go into the tough areas against guys who weighed 50 pounds more than him and their elbows were at head level.”
Beck, Mark’s former captain with the Rangers has kept in constant contact with his fallen teammate calling him almost daily from Hong Kong where he is GM and Coach of the Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey. “I first read about Mark’s incident and subsequent arrest on a Facebook post from Kelly Brooks Paradise (Herb’s daughter). I was concerned for his well-being as he was a former teammate and friend,” recalled Beck. “I reached out to his sister Jean to see if I could help in any way. Supporting the family is crucial in dealing with a crisis. You learn that early when you’re a hockey player.”
Barry reports that Mark is usually in good spirits when they talk, but worries about his friend’s long-term wellbeing. “If Mark is kept detained for at least a year, we all fear he won’t make it,” Beck said. “Mark needs help now. He should not be institutionalized. This will not benefit him.” He also fears for Mark’s safety. “I think you’re always in danger and have to be constantly vigilant while being detained in a psychiatric facility.”
Many of Mark’s former teammates have reached out to him and the NHL and NHLPA have also recently gotten involved. Beck, along with eight former players have formed a group that would like to operate a ranch where hockey players suffering from the effects of mental illness can come together to receive help. It will include dogs and horses for pet therapy, yoga, a gym, group therapy and research facilities. They plan to call it The Ranch – Teammates for Life, and have set up a GoFundMe page. “Mark’s actions aren’t indicative of who he is,” Beck says. “Most players have some kind of disorder, me included. You can’t help it in a full contact sport where you get your bell rung.”
A hearing had been scheduled for February, 2020 to discuss the possibility of moving Pavelich to a facility where he can get the help he needs, But that hearing was cancelled due to Mark’s inability to follow the program as requested by his evaluators. However he is now able to follow the directions of his lawyers and complying with state regulations and another meeting is planned for the spring.
Until that time, Mark sits in his room, strumming his guitar and reading the books, cards and letters sent by friends and concerned fans, and doing his best to cope with a situation that is often beyond his control.