Olympic "Miracle" hockey star and Iron Range sports legend Mark Pavelich was found dead Thursday in a central Minnesota residential treatment center, bringing to an end the life of a man who reached the pinnacle of international sport and hit the depths of legal and psychological distress.
Pavelich, who turned 63 a week ago, died at Eagle's Healing Nest, according to the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office. He had received mental health treatment there for the past several months. At the time of his death he was under civil commitment for a violent assault on a North Shore neighbor nearly 1½ years ago,
Sauk Centre police said they were called to the center about 8:30 a.m. Thursday on a report of a death. Emergency dispatch audio disclosed that Pavelich had not been seen since 8 p.m. Wednesday, and responding personnel said he appeared to have been dead for several hours.
His body was taken to the examiner's office in Anoka, which said it has yet to determine a cause and manner of death.
Pavelich's hockey resume is pure Minnesota gold in itself. He was a speedy and crafty standout for the Eveleth High School Golden Bears. In college, he led the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in goals in the last of his three seasons.
Then came his significant role in Team USA's "Miracle on Ice" defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics before they went on to win gold. Success followed Pavelich into the NHL, where he scored more than 30 goals in his first two seasons with the New York Rangers with "Miracle" head coach Herb Brooks behind the bench.
But after hockey, Pavelich's quiet life in near-seclusion along the sparsely populated North Shore came to a shocking halt when he was charged in Cook County District Court with beating his neighbor James T. Miller after the two went fishing in August 2019. Pavelich suspected that Miller, 63, spiked his beer. That unfounded notion left Miller with cracked ribs, a bruised kidney, a fracture to one of his vertebrae and other injuries.
Pavelich, a land developer and longtime Lutsen resident, faced four felony counts, including two assault charges and two illegal weapons charges after authorities found firearms with altered serial numbers on his reclusive property.
In December 2019, District Judge Michael Cuzzo ruled that Pavelich was incompetent to stand trial because he was mentally ill and dangerous. The judge ordered him committed to a state-operated secure treatment facility in St. Peter.
Two clinical psychologists who examined Pavelich before the order found him to have post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other conditions. Both found that he lacked insight into his mental illness and was opposing treatment.
However, he then showed enough progress in treatment to win release late this past summer from St. Peter to the less restrictive treatment center in Sauk Centre, where he had been living until his death.
One of Pavelich's attorneys in connection with his civil commitment, Carolyn Bruno, said, "Our firm is heartbroken that we have lost our friend and legend. … Recently Mark was filled with hope and renewal for the future. He had been thriving at the new facility since leaving St. Peter."
Pavelich was due in court Tuesday for a review of his civil commitment and the granting of a six-month extension of his time at Eagle's Healing Nest.
"Mark was dedicated to his recovery and had made great progress," Bruno said. "Mark's legal matters were moving in a positive direction."
In recent years, family and friends have said, they watched the public-averse Pavelich become confused, paranoid and borderline threatening. They said they came to believe that he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy — commonly known as CTE — caused by repeated blows to the head while playing hockey as a tenacious, undersized forward.
Pavelich's sister, Jean Gevik, told the Star Tribune soon after the assault that the family is convinced that "all the concussions and the blows he had in the NHL" left him suffering from CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to erratic behavior and deaths among hockey and football players and others in sports that inflict trauma to the head.
"Mark is the most kind and gentle person you'd ever know," said Gevik, who would spend summers near Pavelich's home on property that her brother gave her. "This is a totally different guy."
The NHL reached a court settlement in 2018 with hundreds of retired players who claimed harm from head injuries while playing, but the NHL admitted no fault or wrongdoing. Each player opting in would receive $22,000 and could be eligible for up to $75,000 in medical treatment. Pavelich never made a claim, his sister said.
For all his success at every level of hockey, Pavelich will always first be remembered for winning gold in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
He assisted on Mike Eruzione's winning goal in a stunning David-Goliath upset of the heavily favored Soviet Union in their medal-round game, which was referred to as the "Miracle on Ice" and inspired the Hollywood hit movie "Miracle" in 2004. Team USA then defeated Finland to win the gold.
Pavelich played with the Rangers for five seasons and briefly joined the Minnesota North Stars and San Jose Sharks. In 355 NHL games, he tallied 137 goals and 192 assists.
In a statement of condolence, the Rangers front office said Pavelich's "determination, passion, and dazzling playmaking ability earned him the adoration of Rangers fans. … Mark helped inspire a nation through the integral role he played on the "Miracle on Ice" team in the 1980 Olympics."
Out of the game since 1992, Pavelich lived quietly in Cook County. His wife, Kara, died at age 44 in an accidental fall from a second-story balcony at their home in 2012. Two years later, Pavelich sold his gold medal for $262,900 at auction, explaining that he was not in financial trouble and just wanted to provide financial security for his adult daughter.
The medal was bought by a hockey fan who knew Pavelich well. As an Eveleth grade-schooler, Brian Raduenz was a devoted hockey fan and went to many of Pavelich's high school and college games. He also remembered Pavelich as a tireless skater who spent countless hours on the Ely Lake rink that Raduenz's father tended to and flooded regularly.
The aerospace CEO and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel living in San Diego recalled Friday sitting on his parents' bed, getting in his hockey gear and listening on the radio to Pavelich and the rest of Team USA defeat the Soviet Union.
Knowing that Pavelich was on that team was "part of why I felt excited to have his medal," said Raduenz, who at times fought back tears less than an hour after learning of his childhood hero's death. He also remembered crossing paths when Pavelich was back in Minnesota in the early 1990s and said, "'I get hit too much. I'm going to retire from the Rangers and play in Europe.' "
Raduenz said he believes Pavelich "would be happy knowing I have the medal, rather than someone else. It wasn't that we had some kind of personal bond. I just followed him and knew the whole story."
Star Tribune staff writer Pam Louwagie contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482