The sudden death of Miracle on Ice star Mark Pavelich at a treatment center last week has shocked and devastated those closest to him. The devastation is understandable, since Pavelich was just 63 and, despite his checkered recent past, was seen by many as a loyal friend and compassionate and caring individual. The shock comes from the fact that those who knew him best thought he was finally turning a corner in his recovery and they were seeing glimpses of the Mark Pavelich they knew was always in there.
Exactly one week after his 63rd birthday and weeks before he was set to stand trial on four felony assault charges, Pavelich was found dead at the Eagle’s Healing Nest rehabilitation center in Sauk, Minn., last Thursday. No cause of death was released. It shocked his former teammates with the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, a number of whom from Minnesota kept in regular contact with him. Someone close to the situation acknowledged that the NHL Alumni Association had taken a lead role in advocating for Pavelich, helping him get moved from the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, Minn., to the Eagle’s Healing Nest and working with lawyers to help secure future furloughs and weekend passes.
Everything seemed to be trending in the right direction. Then Pavelich was found dead. Minnesota-born former teammates such as Bill Baker, Buzz Schneider and Phil Verchota had kept in close touch with Pavelich over the years and could not believe what happened. “I would talk to him every couple of weeks, and he was upbeat and everything was going great,” Schneider said. “I don’t know. I just don’t get it. He seemed to be doing so well. I texted him on his birthday (Feb. 27), and I called him right after, and he never called back. And then I got the news, and I was in my car and I was riding around and I didn’t even know where I was. It was a tough one. It blew me away.”
Baker said he had just visited Pavelich in February and remarked on how much more pleasant things were at Eagle’s Healing Nest for Pavelich than the were at the maximum security hospital in St. Peter, and he felt Pavelich was turning a corner in his recovery. “He seemed like the same old Pav,” Baker said. “Phil Verchota talked to him a lot as well, and we both agreed it sounded like the same Pav. He seemed to be doing really well, so I was shocked. I’m hoping it’s natural causes, but I don’t know. You always wonder how badly he was hurting.”
Pavelich’s sister announced after his death that Pavelich’s brain has been donated to determine whether he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), but results of those tests won’t be known for weeks. If that is indeed the case, it would go a long way to explaining how a quiet recluse who loved to hunt, fish, play hockey and strum his guitar went from being an Olympic hero to a possible violent offender. The charges against Pavelich stemmed from an incident in which he allegedly assaulted a neighbor with a metal pole in the summer of 2019. CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, is associated with the development of dementia, as well as changes in behavior and mood.
The NHL is on record as saying there is no proven direct link between repeated blows to the head and CTE, but last October, when Pavelich was ruled not mentally competent to stand trial, a psychologist who examined him concluded that he suffered from a post-traumatic stress disorder and a mild neurocognitive disorder, saying his condition was “likely related” to head injuries sustained over his lifetime. Pavelich was deemed competent to stand trial last spring and in the fall was approved for transfer to a less restrictive facility.
What Pavelich’s former teammates are now concerned with is his legacy. The Mark Pavelich who was charged with those violent crimes was not the Pavelich they knew, on or off the ice. Team captain and former linemate Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal against the Soviets on a pass from Pavelich, maintained Pavelich was quiet and unassuming, never wanting the trappings that came with celebrity. Eruzione, who later was a television analyst for the New York Rangers, recalled the only way they could get Pavelich to do interviews was to offer him a gift card from a hunting and fishing outlet.
“Pav was the kind of guy who would score two goals and three assists and not say anything about it,” Eruzione said. “He lived to hunt and fish and play his guitar and play hockey. When I talked to him, there was nothing different about him. Not a thing. Same old Pav.”
In the more than 40 years after the fact, that Miracle on Ice team lost coach Herb Brooks in a car accident in 2003 and defenseman Bob Suter to a heart attack in 2014.
“Someone was saying that it’s a good thing Bob Suter is there in heaven,” Eruzione said. “He’ll be able to help Pav deal with Herb.”