Littlest US hockey Olympian makes a name for himself in the NHL

Those climactic Olympic hockey scenes of 1980 are freeze-framed in our minds now: Mike Eruzione's winning goal against the Soviets, Jim Craig with the flag on his shoulders, the shouts of ''USA, USA!'' at the medal ceremonies. But there were other games and other heroes too, even though most have long since been forgotten by the public. And very high on this list has to be Mark Pavelich, the 5 ft., 7 in. whirling dervish forward who was then the smallest of the Olympians and now looks even more Liliputian plying his trade in the rugged National Hockey League.

Pavelich is no ordinary NHL player either; he's one of the leading scorers and playmakers on a surprising New York Rangers team that finished second in its division and is now battling the Philadelphia Flyers in an opening round Stanley Cup playoff series.

''I knew he could play in this league,'' said Ranger coach Herb Brooks, who of course was also the US coach at Lake Placid. ''People said he was too small. I said, 'Can he shoot? pass? skate? Is he a good player?' They said, 'Yes, yes, yes, but he's too small.'

''Ridiculous! They're Neanderthal! Here we have a great game built on speed and skill, and they want to make it slow and plodding. The game has room for the small guy. It always has, and it always will.''

Brooks wasn't coaching in the NHL last winter, though, and Pavelich's lack of size was unquestionably the main reason he didn't get the immediate chance some of his teammates did. Instead he spent the 1980-81 campaign playing in Europe, and might well still be there - or out of hockey altogether - had not Brooks wound up with the Rangers.

Certainly his skills were never in question. He may have been overlooked by casual fans at Lake Placid, but he was very much in evidence to hockey aficionados. They noticed, for instance, that Brooks had enough confidence in Pavelich to have him on the ice in some of the most critical situations his team faced - and that Mark responded not only by ending up as one of the club's leading scorers but by coming through with some of the biggest plays of the entire tournament.

In the first game, when the USA trailed Sweden 2-1 and pulled its goaltender in a desperate last-minute bid to score, it was Pavelich who made the pass that set up Bill Baker's tying goal with 27 seconds remaining. Mark also scored to break an early 1-1 tie with Czechosolovakia, and later set up the goal by Buzz Schneider that put the USA ahead for good. He made key assists against Norway and Romania, then had a big game when it counted most of all against the USSR.

With the USA down 1-0 near the end of the first period, he got the puck to Schneider to set up his team's first goal. Then in those wild moments midway in the final period when the game was decided, Pavelich got the puck along the boards and - just as he was being hit by a Soviet defender - managed to slide it to center ice where Eruzione picked up the pass and blasted in the winning goal.

Obviously, Mark had a very big role in the games themselves, but he quickly became a bit player in terms of post-Olympic adulation.

''That didn't bother me,'' he says now. ''I didn't want to be a hero. I just wanted to do my job. If people recognized it, fine. If not, that was okay too. Just as long as my teammates, my coach, and I knew. Those were the people I wanted to keep happy.''

After the games Mark went home to Eveleth, Minn., for a rest (''There was a lot of pressure those two weeks'') and to await the NHL offers that never came.

''I got minor league offers, but I didn't want that,'' he said. ''I knew I'd get stuck there. I saw it happen to other guys my size.''

Was he disappointed?

''A little,'' he acknowledged. ''I didn't know if I could make it or not, but I wanted to find out. All I wanted was a shot.''

So he played in Switzerland, then for the USA again in the 1981 world championships.

''He was super - our best player,'' enthused Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson, who coached the US squad. ''Mark has a great sense of the game, and can adjust to any situation. He grabs the puck and goes, he hits, he kills penalties. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's playing so well for the Rangers.''

But NHL scouts were still talking of the minors - and Mark still wasn't interested.

''Then Herbie got the Rangers job and invited me to camp, and I jumped,'' he said. ''If it weren't for that, I'd probably be back in Eveleth now, hacking it in the mines.''

Instead, he has been centering one of New York's top lines, with Ron Duguay at right wing and various people, including former Olympic teammate Rob McClanahan, on the left side. He is used frequently in power play and penalty-killing situations, and his 33 goals and 43 assists for 76 points left him tied with Duguay for runnerup scoring honors on the team behind Mike Rogers.

Furthermore, Mark packs 160 pounds on his relatively short frame, and is a lot more solidly built and rugged than he may appear on the ice - a fact Brooks was well aware of. And of course his motion-oriented style fits right in with the system Herb has installed.

The Rangers came on strongly in the regular season after a slow start, but they have a tough road in the playoffs. They got off on the wrong foot against the Flyers, losing the opener of their best-of-five series. And in any event, the winner of this battle will probably run into the defending champion New York Islanders, Montreal, and Edmonton in subsequent rounds. But even if this team should emulate that other underdog club Pavelich played for and pull off enough upsets to come out on top, could that or any other triumph possibly match the thrill of the gold medal?

''I think so,'' Mark said, noting that the Rangers haven't won it all since 1940. ''A Stanley Cup in New York. People would go berserk. I think that would equal anything.''

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