He walks into the courtroom, hands cuffed at his waist, an armed deputy in a flak jacket at his side. He wears a white-and-gray striped jumpsuit with “Lake Co. Jail” in large red letters on the back. Short with neatly combed hair, a trimmed gray beard and brown plastic-rimmed glasses, he does not glance at his 87-year-old mother in the front row or at his sister beside her, or his brother or two cousins and a friend. He sits at a small table beside his attorney and faces the judge.
This does not look like someone who beat his neighbor so badly with a metal bar in August that the man was hospitalized with two cracked ribs, a bruised kidney, a fractured vertebra, and welts over his legs, arms and back. Nor does he look like the American hero who set up the goal that beat the Soviets in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.”
The judge asks his name. “Mark Thomas Pavelich,” he replies softly. At this hearing today, Nov. 25, 2019, in the Cook County District Court in Grand Marais, Minn., Judge Michael Cuzzo will consider whether Mark Pavelich is mentally ill and dangerous.
Three months earlier, on Aug. 15, Pavelich and his neighbor Jim Miller spent the day on Deeryard Lake behind their houses fishing for walleye, as they had in the past. Only this time, Pavelich accused Miller of spiking his beer and then attacked him. Sheriff’s deputies found the three-foot metal bar outside Pavelich’s house. Inside, they found a shotgun — tucked under a bed — with its stock shortened and the serial number scratched off.
They arrested Pavelich and charged him 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 court-appointed psychologist concluded he was not competent to stand trial; Cuzzo agreed and suspended the charges for three years. The psychologist believes he presents an imminent risk of serious danger to others. After Pavelich’s attorney requested a second opinion, a second psychologist confirmed the first’s findings. Now, the question before Cuzzo at the November hearing is whether Pavelich should be confined to a secure mental health facility.
The 61-year-old hockey star’s life has long been a strange saga, yet friends and relatives do not believe he was destined for violence. His older sister, Jean Gevik, calls her brother a “gentle soul.” More than one friend observed to me that he “does not have a mean bone in his body.” Lou Vairo, director of special projects for USA Hockey, who has known Pavelich for 45 years, echoes many, saying, “This is not the person I know.”
Both court-appointed psychologists believe that the former hockey player suffers from a neurocognitive disorder. The first suggested that the underlying culprit was post-traumatic stress from life trauma, while the second suggested that his disorder was linked to “traumatic brain injury.” The second theory is shared by some members of Pavelich’s family, who believe that he has 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 before someone dies. And so, the events of last summer and the findings of the court have only further magnified the enigma that has long been Mark Pavelich — unquestionably the least understood of the ’80 Olympic heroes, and someone who may have been betrayed by the very sport he loved.
Remember when Al Michaels cried in amazement, “Do you believe in miracles?!” It was Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, N.Y., where a bunch of American kids had just upset the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics and sparked hope amid a recession, the Iran hostage crisis and the Cold War. Two days later, the U.S. hockey team beat Finland to win gold and consummate the nation’s joy. Sports Illustrated proclaimed the victory the 20th century’s greatest sports moment, and Disney immortalized it with the movie “Miracle.”
Mark Pavelich was at the heart of all that. The diminutive dynamo — only 5-foot-7 but with talent far exceeding his size — set up two critical goals, including Mike Eruzione’s game-winner in the semifinal. In the third period, the score deadlocked 3-3, Pavelich outdueled a Soviet defenseman along the sideboards and, while falling, swept a pass behind his back to Eruzione, who converted on the most famous goal in Olympic history. “They would not have won the gold medal without Pavelich,” says John Gilbert, a journalist who followed the team through the Olympics and wrote “Miracle in Lake Placid.”
Thirteen of the team’s 20 members, including Pavelich, parlayed Olympic gold into jobs in the National Hockey League. Post-hockey, the players continued their success as bankers, businessmen, motivational speakers, coaches, a commercial pilot and an oral surgeon. On Feb. 22 this year, exactly 40 years after defeating the Soviets, the miracle makers will be honored in Las Vegas before a Golden Knights game. Everyone is expected to make it except defenseman Bob Suter, who died of a heart attack in 2014. And Pavelich, who remains locked up.
“The team has talked about this,” says Rob McClanahan, another ’80 Olympian and Pavelich’s road roommate with the New York Rangers. “We are wildly supportive. I love Mark Pavelich like a brother.”
The billboard on the road to Eveleth proclaims that the small hilltop town skirted by two open-pit, iron-ore mines on Minnesota’s Mesabi Range is “filthy rich in hockey history.” That’s not hyperbole. Despite averaging fewer than 6,000 residents in the last century, Eveleth turned out a disproportionately high number of hockey players — from Olympians to professionals. They came of age at the Hippodrome, which opened on Jan. 1, 1922, and remains in use. One of the nation’s earliest indoor ice arenas, “the Hipp” was hailed as “the Madison Square Garden of the Northland.” In 1973 USA Hockey put the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame here in “the Capital of American Hockey.”
This was the culture that inculcated Pavelich, born here to Croatian immigrants on Feb. 28, 1958, the third of five children. His mother, Anne, is a devout Catholic and homemaker who could dress a deer. His father, Tom, was a carpenter who took turns flooding the skating rink behind their house on Ely Lake.
Mark loved to hunt and fish with his siblings, cousins and friends. Most of all, he loved to skate. He played pickup hockey on Ely Lake and on the outdoor rinks in town, four miles away. Often, he skated without laces to strengthen his ankles. When he wasn’t skating, he trekked up Hat Trick Avenue to watch highlight films of Bobby Orr and his other heroes at the Hall of Fame. “My whole life was centered on hockey,” Pavelich said in a 1982 interview with the New York Times.
By high school, where he played three seasons on the Eveleth varsity team, Pavelich had become a phenomenal skater, quick and shifty. It was nearly impossible for opponents to take the puck away from him. He was a dazzling playmaker who made others better with audacious passes. Scott Collins, rink manager at the Hipp, recalls one such pass from a college game. “He started a slap shot, but at the last instant, he made a no-look, behind-the-back pass with the toe of his stick — just turned his wrists and flicked the puck to his teammate,” Collins says. “The goalie froze. It was an easy goal.” Pavelich’s artistry dazzled not only opponents but teammates as well. Recalls his Eveleth teammate Bob Hallstrom: “We’d see him do things on the ice, shake our heads and wonder, ‘How’d he do that?’ ”
Shortly before Pavelich left home for college at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, a tragic accident marked his life. After lunch on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, he went hunting with his brother Dave and neighbors Tom Longer and Ricky Holgers. Ricky was 15; he was Dave’s good friend and their younger sister Carolyn’s boyfriend. The boys walked in the woods near the railroad tracks, scouting for birds. Ricky, dressed in clothing that blended into the dense undergrowth, wandered off, perhaps to get a better shot if they rousted a bird.
When Mark spotted a woodcock, he aimed and fired his .22. The bullet struck Ricky, though Mark and his friends didn’t realize it immediately. They found him lying on the ground, bleeding from the left side of his head. In the chaos that followed, they summoned another neighbor boy, Jim Nyhus, whose mother called for help. The boys loaded Ricky into the Nyhus family station wagon and drove him to the nearest road, where an ambulance brought him to the hospital, about 10 miles away. Ricky died before dinnertime.
Mark locked himself in his bedroom. His parents could not console him. The next day, Jim Rossi, who coached Mark as a Peewee (ages 11-12), talked to him through the door and coaxed him out. The following evenings, after work, Rossi took Mark to the Holgerses’ house, where they sat with Ricky’s parents. They were devastated but did not blame Mark. “I think it helped the healing,” Rossi says.
The Pavelich family carried on blindly. “There was no therapy in the aftermath,” Dave says. “People didn’t know what to do. I was in a state of shock myself. It was a nightmare.” Mark didn’t talk with his friends about Ricky’s death, and they didn’t bring it up. Already quiet and reserved, he became somewhat more withdrawn. “I don’t know if you ever get back to being yourself after something like that,” Dave says.
At UMD, an hour’s drive from Eveleth, Pavelich set the school record his junior year with most points scored in a single season (79) and earned all-American honors. Teammates found him as eccentric as he was talented. Former UMD defenseman Pat Regan remembers Pavelich returning from a fall break with three hay bales in the back of his pickup. Regan asked what they were for. “I’ve got to get my bow dialed in for deer-hunting season,” Pavelich told him and staged a shooting range behind the dorms. “He’d shock you with what he was up to but say it like it was not at all out of the ordinary,” Regan says. “He oftentimes didn’t fit in the norm, but he knew what he wanted.”
That sometimes meant hunting or fishing instead of attending class. It was not unusual for teammates reaching for a bag of ice from the freezer in the trainer’s room to find the breast of a grouse Pavelich had shot that day or a fish he had caught. “The real miracle wasn’t winning the gold medal in 1980,” says Bill Baker, who played for the rival University of Minnesota before he became Pavelich’s Olympic teammate. “It was how they kept Pav eligible for three years.”
Pavelich liked to play pranks on friends at college and into the pros. He would patiently peel off the cellophane tape near the blade of their sticks, saw halfway through the shaft, replace the tape and giggle when they broke one after the other in practice. He propped a rabbit he had shot in the breezers (hockey pants) of his college roommate John Rothstein, a half-smoked cigarette in its mouth and the Hockey News in its paws. Another day, Mike Sertich, then an assistant coach, opened his locker at the Duluth rink, and a partridge flew out. “It scared the bejesus out of me,” Sertich says. “He was a beauty, I tell ya.”
At a practice in Duluth, coach Gus Hendrickson asked, “Where’s Pav?” Suddenly, a very long stick poked through the door at the end of the rink and kept coming — 50 feet of it — before Pavelich appeared. He had collected broken sticks from the rink manager and taped the shafts together. While his coach and teammates watched in awe, Pavelich dangled a puck around the rink with the oversized stick. “He was artistic in what he would dream up to do,” Regan says. “He had a creative mind — and played that way, too.”
Instead of an encore all-American performance at college, Pavelich was tapped by Olympic coach Herb Brooks to play for the U.S. team in what would have been his senior year. “Herbie knew Mark Pavelich was the living embodiment of all the creative ideas inside his head,” says Gilbert, the journalist who followed the Olympic team. “He trained the others for nine months to do what Pav already did.”
Though he was known for his creativity, Pavelich mostly shied from attention; in the yearbook photo of his high school team senior year, he had stood in the back, the only guy not looking at the camera. After the 1980 Olympics, he skipped dinner at the White House and returned to Eveleth. There, proud locals staged a parade in his honor, but he skipped that, too, though he did show up at the elementary school, where he let students try on his gold medal. “He’s a very private person,” says Ronn Tomassoni, another Eveleth hockey teammate and friend. “People labeled him [as a recluse or loner]. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just who he is.” (Pavelich would, over the years, skip Olympic team reunions — most notably the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where the team lit the cauldron — as well as Brooks’s funeral in 2003, though he did attend the wake the evening prior. Later, he would drive across the country in 2015 for the 35-year reunion in Lake Placid, the last time all the living members were together.)
Despite his all-American year and his Olympic performance, Pavelich did not get selected in the NHL draft. “It hurt,” he told the New York Times. He played for HC Lugano in Switzerland’s top league and scored 73 points in 60 games. But when he ran into Brooks — coaching the Davos team — at a tournament, he confided that he was unhappy. Brooks soon landed the job as the Rangers’ head coach and invited Pavelich to New York.
He did not disappoint, scoring 76 points his first season, which remains the Rangers record for most scored by a rookie. Despite NHL stardom, Pavelich remained true to who he was. The Rangers broadcast team had to bribe him with a fishing rod before he agreed to tape a television interview. (He declined an interview request for this story.) While other players showed up at Madison Square Garden in tailored suits, Pavelich arrived in his tattered Olympics jacket and Sorel boots. The New York Times observed, “He is very much an individualist, a player who often appears rumpled in appearance, with his hair uncombed and his clothes unpressed.” Pavelich was the antithesis of teammate Ron Duguay. Hockey’s Broadway Joe, Duguay sported long blond curls and modeled designer jeans. The two occasionally went out on the town, Duguay in his ankle-length mink overcoat, Pavelich in his nylon windbreaker with “Tuna’s Bar” printed on it. “He wasn’t looking for any fancy glitz or glamour like a lot of them do who get to the NHL,” Jim Rossi says.
Pavelich opens up around those closest to him. During college and after the Olympics, he played guitar in a band that covered Rolling Stones songs. The group performed at an Eveleth bar and at the wedding of another Eveleth teammate when the hired band took a break. “If you got close to him,” Sertich says, “you had a lifelong friend.”
The Rangers replaced Herb Brooks with Ted Sator as head coach in 1985. Sator scrapped Brooks’s improvisational style in favor of a dump-and-chase approach, where players fire the puck from mid-ice into the opponent’s end and chase it. The change stifled Pavelich’s greatest asset: his creativity. “Asking Mark Pavelich to play dump-and-chase is like asking Rembrandt to paint your fence,” John Gilbert says. After being scratched from two consecutive games in early March, a miserable Pavelich skipped two practices and a game. Sator drove out to his condo in Westchester County, but Pavelich didn’t answer the door.
At the time, the 28-year-old was making the most money he ever had, nearly $200,000 a year. But with 14 games remaining in the regular season, he quit. “You’ve only got one life to live,” he told Gilbert. “There was a point where I really enjoyed [hockey]. But now, the minuses outweigh the pluses.”
That was Pavelich — predictably unpredictable. Before the 1985 season started, he had surprised friends when he married Sue Koski, a 21-year-old from Cherry, 12 miles from Eveleth. “It wasn’t that he didn’t like women but that he seemed to like solitude even more,” sports columnist George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times. Now he surprised his young wife by walking away from a bountiful paycheck. “[My parents] were furious,” he admitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Everyone thinks money is the most important thing, but it’s not.”
In the fall of 1986, the Paveliches headed to Scotland, where Mark wanted to play for the Dundee Rockets with his friend and former high school teammate Craig Homola, but the Rangers would not relinquish his contract. When the Minnesota North Stars acquired his rights later that season, Pavelich returned to his home state to play their final 12 games. That summer, he and Sue had a daughter. Pavelich skated the next two winters with the Italian team HC Bolzano. But when the 1989-90 hockey season began, he was no longer playing, and his marriage was dissolving. Sue filed for divorce in December 1989, citing “an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage relationship.”
Pavelich met Kara Burmachuk in January 1990 when he brought his young daughter, Tarja, to her house for piano lessons. Something of a prodigy herself, Kara had, at 22, learned Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” in a month and played it for a contest in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which she won. She was also pretty.
It took six months of waiting in the living room during the weekly lessons for Pavelich to ask Kara out. He took her fishing. Before long, they fell in love. After his divorce was finalized in the fall of 1991 — and a comeback with the San Jose Sharks ended after two games — he bought land on Deeryard Lake. Pavelich had been making money buying and selling land along the North Shore of Lake Superior. On this property, though, he intended to build a house. The remote location suited him: four miles up the Caribou Trail from Lutsen and another four miles on single-lane dirt roads that wound through thick woods to Deeryard Lake.
He and Kara married in November 1994. He was 36, she was 26. Kara’s father, Brian Burmachuk, a Christian minister, officiated in the Burmachuk home before his wife and Mark’s parents. Mark had wanted it simple.
They lived on the land while they constructed their house. Pavelich knew how to work with wood, having learned from his father. He built the structure and most of the furniture. Kara learned to do the rest: plumbing, wiring and setting stones into the exterior walls. They planted grapes in a raised garden out back lined by rocks about a foot in diameter. Burmachuk marveled at his daughter’s work and called their home “The Seventh Wonder of Cook County.”
Like Mark, Kara loved to be outdoors. They camped and fished together. When his hockey buddies visited before the house was finished, she cooked meals over a campfire. Outgoing and able to talk to anyone, she also played the guitar and sang. “There are not many women who would fit Mark’s ideal of the perfect woman, but she was it,” Homola says.
Mark’s family also liked Kara. Jean and her husband bought the lot across the lane from their place on Deeryard Lake and spent summers there. Their sister Carolyn and her husband bought a lot about a mile away. Kara brought her in-laws pies she had baked with berries picked near her house. “She was an angel,” Jean says. They didn’t have children of their own, but Kara helped Mark raise Tarja, who spent every other weekend with them during the school year and more time during the summers. He wore a T-shirt that said “No. 1 Dad.”
Kara taught herself to paint with acrylics. She spent many evenings decorating rocks, T-shirts and canvases with inspiration drawn from landscapes and wildlife around Lake Superior. She sold her work at galleries along the North Shore and at art fairs. She became a regular Saturday mornings at the Cook County Farm and Craft Market in Grand Marais, earning $10,000 to $15,000 a year. They spent winters in Clifton, Ariz., where Mark had built a small place. Other times, they traveled the country, camping and fishing, Kara sketching in the truck, Mark scouting land to buy. “She really loved Mark,” Brian Burmachuk says. “They had a fantastic relationship.”
Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, broke clear and sunny. Kara and Mark worked on their boat, a gray Boston Whaler. The house, though mostly finished, remained a work in progress, with the utility room waiting for drywall, walls in a spare bedroom only partially painted, and a small deck off Tarja’s second-floor bedroom without a railing — Kara couldn’t decide if she wanted it to be wood or metal.
At 11:32 a.m., Pavelich called 911. Kara had fallen off the 4-by-5-foot deck. Her head had struck one of the rocks 15 feet below. The impact split open her skull. Jan and David Morris, friends who lived down the lane, hurried over when someone listening to a police scanner alerted them. Jan, a retired nurse, performed CPR, though Kara was unresponsive. Two Cook County sheriff’s deputies arrived at the same time as the ambulance. They also performed CPR, but the hospital physician who eventually saw Kara determined the blow to her head had killed her instantly. She was 44 years old.
Pavelich told the deputies that after working on the boat he had gone inside to take a nap. When he woke, he found Kara. One of the deputies, Paul Spry, discovered a cellphone on the ground near Kara. The Morrises, who had known the Paveliches for eight years and socialized with them weekly, told him the second-floor deck was the best place to get cellphone reception. Perhaps Kara had gone out to make a call, gotten distracted and lost her footing. Or maybe Chloe, their German shepherd, had bumped her. Or she had tripped over one of their two cats.
The other deputy, David Gilmore, asked the Morrises whether they had noticed anything that would indicate marital trouble or if they were aware of financial problems. “The Morris’ [sic] had nothing but good things to say about Kara and Mark and didn’t say that anything stood out as trouble,” Gilmore wrote in his report. He and Spry concluded Kara’s death was accidental.
Pavelich was distraught. Friends say he blamed himself for Kara’s death, for putting the rocks where she had struck her head. “First thing he did was get rid of those rocks,” his sister Jean says. “He threw them into the woods.” He asked Kara’s father to make the arrangements and preside at a memorial at the Burmachuks’ former house in nearby Tofte. Kara’s and Mark’s friends, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles, filled the house. It was the first time in 54 years his mother had seen Mark cry.
Cook County is a small community. People talk, rumors spread. Some wondered how a woman in her 40s could fall off a deck. They also questioned the thoroughness of the deputies’ investigation. Kara had bought a new Android smartphone a month earlier, but Gilmore did not state in his report whether that was the phone they found by her body. Nor did he note whether the phone had been damaged in the fall. The deputies did not check the phone to see if she had been using it or whom she might have been talking to.
“I was disappointed the police didn’t investigate the death with more scrutiny,” says Jane Howard, who worked as a reporter for the Cook County News Herald at the time and had known Kara and her family since childhood. “I remember asking, ‘Why weren’t the police more suspicious?’ I was thinking they should be looking into this more.”
When asked about this recently, Deputy Gilmore, now working for the Freeborn County sheriff’s office, explained that their conclusion was based on the position of Kara’s body relative to the deck above. “If someone pushed her, she would’ve been farther out on the ground,” he says. “Based on where the body was located makes us think it was a fall.”
Pavelich’s arrest this past August prompted calls for the Cook County sheriff’s office to go back and look more closely at the circumstances of his wife’s death. Sheriff Pat Eliason, who was not sheriff at the time, said he did not plan to reopen the investigation, though he did acknowledge “deficiencies” in it. He says deputies should have checked the cellphone. He also thinks the position of the body is subjective, not definitive. “Maybe she didn’t need to be pushed,” he says. “[Pavelich] could’ve just given her one of these — ” he flicks his shoulder. “For the sake of the family, we need to treat every death as a homicide until we can determine it’s not.”
But the Burmachuks do not believe Kara’s death was a homicide. “Certain people in the county thought maybe Mark pushed her over,” Brian Burmachuk says. “In the 22 years I knew him, he never gave me the impression he was the murdering type. It never, never crossed my mind that he had done that.”
In the more than seven years since Kara’s death, Pavelich has stayed in touch with his father-in-law, calling almost weekly for long chats. Burmachuk and his daughter Dana visited Pavelich in the county jail after his arrest. Dana recalls a time with Kara and Mark at Deeryard Lake. She was still getting to know Mark, and they were on a group hike in the woods through deep snow. Dana kept getting stuck; Mark hung back to help her. She was touched by his compassion and caring. “It brings tears to my eyes,” she says.
After Kara’s death, Pavelich wasn’t known to date, and family and friends worried about him being alone in the secluded house. He picked up his mail at the Lutsen post office but was not seen around Grand Marais. “He’s sort of a ghost, not part of our community,” says Brian Larsen, editor of the Cook County News Herald.
When his German shepherd died, Pavelich got two border collies. He spent months driving around the country with them in his pickup fitted with a camper. He bought 3½ acres near Grangeville, Idaho, a remote location on a trout and salmon river, where he was building himself a place. But his behavior seemed to become more unpredictable.
He had lent his gold medal to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, but in 2014 he auctioned it for $262,900 and split the money with his daughter, now married and a mother. “You’re limited to what you can do with these things,” he told a reporter at the time. “You can’t put them in a house because it could burn or get stolen, and it’s just gone and useless.”
After his arrest in August 2019, word spread in newspapers across the United States, Canada and Europe. “I was surprised by the fight,” Regan says. “When I heard the explanation” — Pavelich’s suspicion that Miller had poisoned him — “that didn’t surprise me. We’d heard it before.” (Miller did not respond to requests for comment.)
Those closest to Pavelich had noticed him becoming increasingly confused, forgetful, irritable and paranoid since Kara’s death in 2012. They suggested he get psychological help or take medication. He insisted nothing was wrong and further isolated himself. He complained to the Cook County sheriff’s office that someone had tampered with both of his trucks, dumping gravel into the gas tank of one and putting “cutup tin foil” into the other. He accused his son-in-law of trying to poison him. He suspected a neighbor had given him cookies laced with poison. In fact, he claimed to know of at least half a dozen people intent on poisoning him.
In 2016, someone slashed the tires of Jean’s RV while it was parked on her lot across the lane from Mark’s house. She was convinced Mark had done it. One of the wildlife cameras on her property had captured an image of him about the time of the incident. Not long after, Pavelich accused his neighbor John Zattoni of pouring sludge into his fuel tank. Zattoni later reported to the sheriff’s office that someone had bludgeoned holes into the bow of the boat parked on his property. He suspected Pavelich but was afraid to press charges. Around that time, Jean sent the sheriff’s office two time-stamped photos from her cameras of someone she identified as Mark. “It’s proof that he has been terrorizing me after his threats to me the prior year,” she wrote in an email.
“Mark was angry at us for trying to get him help,” Jean says. “I didn’t approach it right. We asked the sheriff to talk to him. If you don’t think you have a problem, you don’t want someone accusing you of having one.”
After the incident with Miller led to his arrest, Pavelich called friends, including those he’d shut out, and asked for money to post the $250,000 bail. But his family spread the word, saying in effect, “Please don’t. He’s sick and needs help. Now he can get it.” They feared if he got out, he might slip into the woods and disappear.
Some family members are convinced he suffers from CTE. “When I read about CTE, I could tell that’s what it was,” Jean says. “I would stake my life on it. You just don’t see that big a personality change in someone in just a few years.”
Diagnosing CTE requires a brain autopsy; it is the only way to provide proof of the excessive tau protein buildup that crashes the brain’s neurons. Brain imaging and spinal taps in living people can offer clues but ultimately are insufficient for a definitive diagnosis. Most often patients are screened when they exhibit a combination of cognitive, behavioral and mood symptoms. In the presence of symptoms — commonly confusion, memory loss, short temper, depression, paranoia — and after ruling out other neurological conditions that could be their cause, the strongest predictor of CTE is the total amount of brain trauma sustained at the subconcussive and concussive level, according to Robert Cantu, co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University. “Concussions count, but the subconcussive blows are driving the bus,” Cantu says. “They are more important because they are more frequent. Someone can receive a thousandfold more subconcussive blows than concussions.”
Not everyone, however, agrees on the role of sports in causing CTE. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared in 2016, “The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown.” He was responding to a lawsuit filed by a group of ex-NHL players charging the league was negligent in allowing their head injuries to occur, and he remains firm in his position. The NHL settled the claim with 302 players, paying each approximately $22,000 and up to $75,000 for medical treatment, but admitted no fault. (Bettman declined a request to comment specifically on Pavelich’s case.)
Though Pavelich did not sign on to the lawsuit, he certainly received his share of blows to the head during his hockey career. There’s documentation of one concussion from February 1984. He sat out one game and played four days later. He may have suffered more. When Pavelich played, in the ’70s and ’80s, concussion protocols weren’t as rigorous as they are today. “Back then, we just got the smelling salts and looked at the scoreboard,” Craig Homola says. “If you could tell the score or how much time was left, you went back in.”
Mark’s mother, Anne, also believes CTE has contributed to her son’s problems. She tells the story of Herb Brooks confiding in her more than 20 years after the fact that Pavelich had gotten hit so hard in one game during the U.S. team’s run that he didn’t think Pavelich would be able to play again in the Olympics. (Several teammates, the team doctor and three authors who wrote books about the team, however, could not pinpoint when that might have been.)
NHL opponents may have targeted Pavelich for being an American in the predominantly Canadian league, or for the attention he won along with the gold medal. Others went after him simply to neutralize his skills. Jean has a videotape of a game from Pavelich’s rookie season, when one player from the Philadelphia Flyers who had five inches on Pavelich harassed him throughout a game — seemingly intent on taking him out — until Pavelich finally dropped his gloves to defend himself. It was his first NHL fight. “Here, they call it assault,” says Jean, in the hallway outside the courtroom during her brother’s hearing. “There, they call it hockey.”
It’s undeniable that the NHL has created a culture of violence that has affected its players. “It’s a full-contact sport where you’re trying to hurt each other at times,” says Barry Beck, who played 10 seasons in the NHL and was Pavelich’s teammate for five. Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner, described the consequences of this culture on its players in an email he sent to Bettman in 2011: “Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.”
The accumulated subconcussive blows may be the root of Pavelich’s personal tragedy. In the NHL’s brawling days, he didn’t back down, fighting at least nine times in five years with the Rangers. He was unafraid to go into corners, where larger players swung their elbows at the height of his head. W. Norman Scott, the Rangers’ team physician during that time, cannot recall a specific concussion or punishing hit from so many years ago but says, “Did he get whacked in the head? I’d bet the ranch on it. They’d have injuries and you wouldn’t know about it.”
Though Cantu has not examined Pavelich, he thinks he could be suffering from CTE. “I’ve read the reports of his cognitive difficulties and his paranoid ideation,” he says. Given the length of his career, “it’s teetering toward CTE without question, but we wouldn’t be able to definitively diagnose it until we had his brain.”
Pavelich’s behavior left some residents of Cook County unsettled. “I know a few neighbors up there [by Deeryard Lake] who are more comfortable that he’s not around,” says Gail Thompson, who owns the Clearview General Store in the six-shop, log-cabin-looking strip mall that makes up Lutsen’s commercial district. “You should be able to sleep at night.”
Pavelich did not speak at the November hearing other than to state his name and date of birth. Nine days later, Judge Cuzzo, declaring Pavelich mentally ill and dangerous, ordered that he be committed to the Forensic Mental Health Program in St. Peter, about 60 miles southwest of Minneapolis. He expressed concern that Pavelich’s violence had escalated from property damage to physical harm and determined there was “a substantial likelihood” that Pavelich might harm someone else.
A hearing is scheduled for this month to review whether the commitment should be extended indeterminately. The average length of stay for mentally ill and dangerous patients at the St. Peter hospital, from commitment to provisional discharge (the civil equivalent of parole), is about six years. For a provisional discharge, the court must determine Pavelich no longer poses a threat. At that point, he could still face the criminal charges if the Cook County prosecutor opts to renew them beyond the three-year suspension.
For the time being, he remains confined in the hospital. He has reportedly taken comfort in visits from family, cards from well-wishers across the country, and the dark chocolate Dove bars sold in the canteen. But he has also expressed concerns about fights on the ward, which he told a friend happen “on a regular basis.”
Barry Beck, captain of the Rangers when Pavelich played, calls his former teammate almost daily despite the 14-hour time difference between Hong Kong, where he coaches the national team, and Minnesota. Beck sympathizes. He figures he suffered at least a dozen concussions himself and experiences depression as a result. “I can tell you from my own experience with concussions, they take their toll,” Beck says.
He knows how tough it is for players used to pushing through injuries to ask for help, especially with the stigma attached to mental illness. He’d like to see the NHL set up a mental health hotline. “A lot of players are suffering, but they do it in silence,” Beck says. “When a player is desperate and down to his last choice, he needs to make that call to someone he trusts.”
Beck has formed a group of eight retired NHL players who envision a ranch where hockey players suffering 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 Mark Pavelich Ranch, with Pavelich’s blessing, and have set up a GoFundMe page that by early February had raised $12,723 toward a $17,000 goal. “Mark’s actions aren’t indicative of who he is,” Beck says. “There are a lot of other players out there like Mark.”
John Rosengren is the author of eight books, including “Blades of Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win.”
Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Christian Font.