Prior to taking his own life in March, Mark Pavelich had his sister, Jean Pavelich Gevik, set up a Zoom meeting with his former New York Rangers teammate, Barry Beck, who lives in Hong Kong.
“He was insistent on it,” Gevilk said of her brother. “I didn’t know what he had planned at the time.”
Mark wanted to talk to both about the organization he and Beck were trying to start called The Ranch — Teammates for Life. It was to be a place for hockey players and veterans to get help for their mental health issues, and Pavelich wanted Beck to be the catalyst to make it happen, said Gevik, recalling the conversation.
“Right before he passed, he pushed us to keep this going and we will,” Gevik said. “We’re going to make this happen.”
The Ranch took a giant step toward becoming a reality over the past week. It started Friday with a groundbreaking ceremony for a facility in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and culminated Monday with a fundraising event at Giants Ridge in Biwabik that featured, players and coaches from all levels of hockey in Minnesota — youth to college to the NHL — gathered together for some golf and a discussion about mental health.
"It's humbling," Gevik said Monday. "Mark, I hope, is smiling. I think he is. This has been really good for the family."
The idea for The Ranch started two years ago after Pavelich — an Eveleth native who went on to play at Minnesota Duluth and on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team — was arrested in August 2019 for allegedly assaulting his neighbor in Lutsen. While awaiting to stand trial, he underwent mental health treatment at Eagle’s Healing Nest — a facility in Sauk Centre that helps military veterans, but with open arms decided to also welcome a hockey player who represented his country.
Pavelich died of suicide on March 4, 2021, at Eagle’s Healing Nest and at the time, the belief was The Ranch had died with him, said Jack Pavelich, president of The Ranch and cousin to Mark and Jean, as Mark was expected to run it someday.
But the Pavelich family was contacted by the hockey community back in Duluth about doing a golf outing to honor him and raise funds for The Ranch. Then ‘The Nest’ offered to donate a building to The Ranch, one the organization could renovate and call its own.
Jack Pavelich, a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, said The Ranch as an organization was two years or more away from being able to start thinking about opening its own facility, but the past week has helped fast-forward the process. It’s helped propel The Ranch in ways they didn’t believe were possible, he said.
“We are more motivated by Mark’s death, by his loss, than when he was alive,” Jack Pavelich said.
‘That’s my dream’
In addition to Jack Pavelich, Gevik and Beck, the board of directors for The Ranch includes former NHLers Tom Gorence and Clint Malarchuk.
Malarchuk, a goaltender, played 10 seasons in the NHL and coached another eight seasons in the league after his playing career ended. He’s known for the jugular vein in his neck getting sliced by a skate in 1989 while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. He nearly died that night, but survived and returned to the ice 11 days later.
He’d face two more near-death experiences later in life due to mental health issues that went undiagnosed for decades.
“I did wear a mask, in many ways — hiding my mental illness and as a goaltender,” Malarchuk said.
Malarchuk battles anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and, ever since getting his throat slit, post traumatic stress disorder. He was contacted via Facebook about joining the effort to start The Ranch, and jumped at the opportunity to be part of the effort.
“I said, that's my dream. If I won the lottery today, I would have The Ranch,” Malarchuk said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this has been what I've dreamt of doing. And now you guys want to do it, too. Let's do it.’”
Malarchuk, who in 2014 authored a book about his life called “The Crazy Game,” gave an emotional mental health presentation Sunday night at the Hermantown High School auditorium as part of a series of events to honor the memory of Mark Pavelich.
He talked in depth about getting his throat slit on the ice, about how he prepared for death and how the incident defined his life for a long time. Malarchuk received no counseling after the incident. None was offered and he said he didn’t think of asking for any. Doctors did advise him to rest and take the rest of the season off. Malarchuk said, “I wish I could have done that.”
“I humbly say I came back in 11 days,” he said. “Right or wrong, I don't know, but that cowboy or hockey player mentality ... I thought, well, the cowboy mentality is if you get bucked off a horse, what do you do? You get back on right away, so I had that mentality. I came back quick, as soon as the stitches came off, I was back playing.
“Coming back that quick, too, kind of made me a hero in Buffalo. … I epitomized everything that blue-collar sports town loved in an athlete — hard-working, courageous, gritty, no talent. The love and support of Buffalo and upstate New York got me through the season.”
Growing up he was able to funnel his OCD all into hockey, but the trauma suffered in Buffalo kicked it all into overdrive. Malarchuk found himself up at 3 a.m. cleaning his apartment prior to practices. He was having panic attacks and waking up in the middle of the night sitting straight up, sweating, grabbing his neck after dreaming of that skate blade coming right up to his neck.
Malarchuk couldn’t sleep, so one night he finally took a few extra painkillers — prescribed for his broken thumb — and drank a bottle of scotch. The next thing he knew, he was in the hospital. His heart had stopped.
The overdose led to him seeing a psychologist for the first time in his life. That’s when his OCD was first diagnosed, though it would take three years of seeing numerous doctors, specialists, counselors, medications and a trip to the minor leagues to get it under control.
He was fine for 15 years, but Malarchuk stopped seeking counselling. His brain developed an immunity to the medication he was taking, and then in February of 2008, the neck of Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik was sliced by a skate in an incident similar to Malarchuk’s. It also happened in Buffalo, prompting everyone to reach out to the former Sabres goaltender. Then a coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Malarchuk once again had to relive his trauma through interviews and highlights.
Malarchuk said it caused him to once again spiral out of control, only this time he did more than self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. He shot himself in the head.
“I have heard that suicide is cowardly. I have heard suicide is courageous. It's neither,” said Malarchuk, while fighting back tears and standing before an X-ray that showed the bullet that remains lodged in his head to this day. “It's a sickness. It's a sickness of the mind, of the heart, of the spirit, of your emotions. It's a sickness.”
Malarchuk went into treatment after his suicide attempt, and that is when his PTSD was finally diagnosed, almost 20 years after spilling his blood on the ice in Buffalo.
In addition to seeing a counselor on a more regular basis — no more 15-year stints between visits — Malarchuk has opened up about his life, through his book and by speaking to veterans and the hockey community in presentations like the one he gave Sunday in Hermantown.
Malarchuk said he originally thought he was born to be a hockey player, but it turns out hockey was just there to create a platform for his true purpose of becoming a mental health advocate.
“My goal and my mission is, don't do what I did to get help — put a button in my skull,” Malarchuk said. “Get help now. Get help now. There is this stigma that surrounds mental illness and don't buy into it. It is not a weakness, it is a sickness.”
Proactive, not reactive
Duluth Denfeld assistant boys hockey coach Jake Johnson was in the crowd Sunday in Hermantown. A former Hunter who went on to play four years at Northern Michigan and two years in the professional ranks, Johnson was there with the team to hear Malarchuk speak.
The players were not the only ones impacted by Malarchuk’s message.
“It was a powerful message that Clint delivered and it was something that hit close to home for me,” said Johnson, who retired from playing in 2016. “I had a concussion that ended my career and I went through a lot of the same spiral effects that he did.”
Johnson and fellow Denfeld coaches Ryan Geris and Dale Jago — both former Bulldogs — also took part in Monday’s golf outing. They were joined by the coaching staffs of UMD, St. Cloud State and Bemidji State, Pavelich’s teammates on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, and even veterans he received treatment with at The Nest.
Gevik said it was while receiving treatment at The Nest that her brother realized more resources were necessary to help hockey players like him deal with mental health issues.
“A lot of times, people are reactive. I think we need to be more proactive and reach these people,” Gevik said. “Clint said it in his speech (Sunday) night. They’re big macho hockey players and they don’t want to admit they need help. We want to normalize it so they can say, ‘Hey, I could really benefit from talking to somebody.”
Jack Pavelich said the renovation of the building in Sauk Centre is being overseen by Mark Pavelich’s brother, David, and that veterans from The Nest have volunteered to pitch in on the project.
The future facility will be a learning experience for the organizers of The Ranch, but a valuable one. Thanks to the support received over the last week, the organization is no longer just dreaming of one facility, but a ‘Ranch’ in every state someday.
“There's a lot of Mark Pavelich’s out there, and unfortunately, we lost him, but we got to keep moving and trying to help others,” Malarchuk said. “It's so important because it's not just hockey players and former players. We're doing it for veterans, and we're doing it for anybody in sport. We'll never close the door or turn anybody down.”