The loss of former Ranger and USA Hockey hero Mark Pavelich a haunting reality for ignorant league

Getty Images via New York Post Associated Press

On March 4, the hockey community lost an American hero in Mark Pavelich. He was 63.

A key member of the 1980 USA Hockey Miracle Team that stunned Russia 41 years ago and went on to win Olympic gold in Lake Placid, Pavelich assisted on two goals including Mike Eruzione’s memorable game-winning goal to highlight a come from behind 4-3 stunning upset of Russia. Team USA’s dramatic win over the heavily favored Soviets was the upset of the 20th Century. Coached by Herb Brooks, they won the gold medal by defeating Finland 4-2 by rallying for three goals in the third period.

Like many great hockey fans, I’ve seen the footage a lot. I was only three at the time when the Americans pulled off the huge upset over a great Russian team that featured Slava Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Valeri Kharlamov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Petrov, Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Krutov, Aleksandr Maltsev, Sergei Starikov and Vladislav Tretiak. They were coached by Viktor Tikhonov. He called pulling legendary starting goalie Tretiak for Vladimir Myshkin due to a last second tying goal by Mark Johnson after the first period “the biggest mistake of my career.” Johnson got between two defenders to steer in a Dave Christian rebound that Tretiak misplayed.

The Americans still rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the third on goals from Johnson and Eruzione to win the great game. Jim Craig was the goaltender who made huge saves with 11 coming in a lopsided second that saw Russia score the only goal and outshoot USA 12-2. He was the winning netminder for the Olympic semifinal and of course the gold medal game against Finland.

Notable USA players such as Pavelich, Mike Ramsey, Christian, Craig, Neal Broten, Johnson, Ken Morrow, Jack O’Callahan and David Silk went onto NHL careers. That included Brooks, who coached Pavelich and the Rangers between 1981 to 1985. Under Brooks, who knew him well from the Miracle Team, Pavelich performed well for the Blueshirts. Over the first three seasons, he was nearly a point-per-game.

In his rookie year of ’81-82, Pavelich posted 33 goals with 43 assists for a still Rangers’ rookie record 76 points and a plus-19 rating over 79 games. That included 12 power play goals and three shorthanded goals along with 67 penalty minutes as a 23-year old to finish fifth for the Calder. The 76 points tied him with teammate Ron Duguay for second in team scoring behind Mike Rogers.

He followed it up by scoring a career high 37 times while adding 38 assists for a total of 75 points in 78 contests during ’82-83. That included two shorthanded goals and six game-winners. Pavelich was recognized for his season by finishing 10th for the Hart and 24th for the Selke. He also was 14th for the Byng. He recorded his only two NHL hat tricks that season with three against the Islanders and a franchise record five goals against the Whalers. Only two other Rangers have achieved it in a single game. They are Don Murdoch and Mika Zibanejad, who did it last year on March 5, 2020 versus the Capitals.

In ’83-84, Pavelich continued to produce at a high level. His 82 points were a career best. So were his 53 assists. For the year, he went 29-53-82 with 96 penalty minutes, a plus-12 rating, 12 power play goals and a shorthanded goal that gave him six total for his NHL career with all half dozen coming in the first three seasons. Of Pavelich’s 53 assists, 39 came at even strength. He was a superb even strength player producing 209 (79-130) of his 318 points at even strength over five years with the Rangers.

He continued to perform well his last two seasons on Broadway. But injuries limited him to 48 and 59 games respectively. He wasn’t big in stature. Listed at just 5-8, 170 pounds, the right center from Minnesota was part of the fun Smurfs teams under Brooks. They made the Division Finals in ’83 losing to the hated Islanders in six games. In an ’84 Division Semifinal rematch, they fell in a deciding five games with former Olympic teammate Morrow scoring the crushing overtime winner on April 10, 1984.

Pavelich paced them in postseason scoring with two goals and four assists for six points in that series. By then, the popular Duguay was gone. He was dealt to the Red Wings where he had his best seasons. By 1985, the Brooks Era was coming to an abrupt end. After getting eliminated by the Flyers in three games, Brooks was replaced by Ted Sator. A different style coach who preferred dump and chase to the emphasis on skating, speed and playmaking that fit the game of Pavelich so well.

After tallying 40 points (20-20-40) over 59 games, he was traded to the North Stars for a second round pick in ’88. Pavelich only played in 12 games for Minnesota registering four goals and six assists while reunited with Brooks.

He would travel overseas the next two years to play in Italy for HC Bolzano. His final stop was with the expansion Sharks in ’91-92 where he picked up an assist on the first ever San Jose goal scored by Craig Coxe. Pavelich only played two games before calling it quits.

Following his hockey career, Pavelich remarried for the second time to Kara Burmachuk in 1994. However, her tragic death on an accidental fall from their second story balcony in Lutsen, Minnesota on Sept. 6, 2012 had a deep impact on Pavelich. A former hockey player who suffered from mental health issues stemming from behavioral changes that sister Jean Gevich noticed, he was a troubled person. She believes he might have suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

On August 15, 2019, Pavelich was arrested and charged with four felony counts of assault when he injured a neighbor while fishing. That included possession of short-barreled shotgun and possession of a firearm with a missing serial number. When his trial came up later that year, it was suspended before the judge ruled that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. He was declared mentally ill and incapable of partaking in the defense due to not understanding the proceedings.

A year later on Aug. 12, 2020, Pavelich was granted court approval to be transferred to the state’s high security mental health facility for less restrictive treatment. He passed away on March 4, 2021 at the residential treatment center in Sauk Center, Minnesota.

The real sad part about this awful tragedy is he didn’t get any support from the NHL, USA Hockey or the New York Rangers. One of the biggest issues off the ice is the league’s total failure to assist any former players who have suffered from mental illness and health issues stemming from CTE.

They all but ignored Daniel Carcillo, who’s since recovered well from his physical ailments due to concussions by experimenting with psilocybin mushrooms. It includes preclinical trials on psychedelic drug-assisted therapy to help treat recovering people from traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

A vocal critic of the NHL for not being more hands on with former Hawks defenseman Steve Montador, who passed away at 35 on February 15, 2015, Carcillo founded Wesana Health as a way to help many players suffering from post-concussion syndrome, anxiety and depression. It was discovered that Montador had CTE. He left behind a son who was born four days to his girlfriend after his death.

Since the NHL settled a lawsuit stemming from the degenerative brain condition, they’ve remained mum on any correlation linking hockey to CTE. In November of 2018, the league announced an $18.9 million settlement with 318 former players who were part of the lawsuit involving the dangers of concussions linking it to CTE. Regrettably, many of these players have experienced symptoms due to head trauma.

This includes a testimony from former Devils Stanley Cup champion Mike Peluso, who told a earth shattering story of being knocked out cold in a fight, but sent back on the ice to fight again. Back then, it was considered bravery for tough guys to play through such risky head injuries. Physical play has always been a selling point for hockey.

However, things are different now. If a player isn’t right, they have concussion spotters on site to put them through concussion protocol. It’s taken much more seriously. If only they had handled it with the same kind of fragile care when you had players getting crushed and returning as if nothing ever happened.

In a scathing post, former Rangers teammate of Pavelich, Barry Beck ripped into the NHL, USA Hockey and the Rangers for not checking up on Pavelich. It’s extremely eye opening and mind numbing.

The Rangers and USA hockey are accountable for Marks death,” Beck wrote in a 946-word post that appeared on Facebook with excerpts in the New York Post. “The NHL has to grow a set of balls and take action.”

Referring to the NHL as “cowards” who only care about money coming in, Beck pulled no punches on the seriousness of the issue they continue to shy away from. That included current Rangers Team President John Davidson, who never returned an email.

“Well JD did not even return my email. I guess he was too [f—ing] busy,” wrote Beck, a Rangers defenseman from 1979-86. “He should have picked up the phone and called me. That would have been the right thing to do as we were teammates and he certainly would have my back right?

Although it was learned by The Post that Davidson had been in direct contact with current NHL Alumni Association President Glenn Healy, I can understand Beck’s frustration. A former close friend and teammate should’ve had better care from the league, who is to blame for this mess. They make it almost impossible for their teams to keep tabs on former players due to the conflict of interest.

Obviously, it’s a very sad story. Carcillo recently noted that he’d been in contact with the NHL about discussing his new treatment therapy further to assist troubled players.

The lesson in all of this is accountability. It’s high time the NHL did a much better job taking care of their own. Stop pretending that everything is okay. These are tough players who sacrificed for their teams due to the way the game was played. Their long-term health has been impacted.

How many tragic tales do we have to hear or read about? Derek Boogaard. Montador. Wade Belak. Rick Rypien. There are others who are still around that are suffering. It’s time for the NHL hierarchy to take responsibility. Do the right thing.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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