Mike Modano skated past Bryan Pancich during a game earlier this season.
“Why are you wearing 94?” the respected Dallas Stars veteran quipped toward Pancich, who was sporting that particular number on the back of his NHL sweater. “Is that the year you were born?”
All Pancich could do was laugh.
The fresh-faced linesman, in his first year in the National Hockey League, looks young skating beside the titans of the game.
But Pancich — a 27-year-old graduate of Billings Skyview High School — has grown up in a hurry.
The last seven months have been a whirlwind for Pancich.
Hired to an 80-game professional contract in August, Pancich just finished a season in which he worked 45 NHL games and 35 more in the minors.
Along the way he visited 25 of 30 NHL rinks and rubbed elbows with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Lidstrom.
Not bad for a guy who began his career officiating Billings Bulls games in the old America West Hockey League.
Pancich is the first person from the state of Montana to officiate in the NHL.
“It’s been a blur,” Pancich said recently from Chicago. “I didn’t have many expectations and I didn’t really know what to expect.
“It’s pretty surreal to work in the NHL. I’m a long ways from where I want to be but this has certainly been a step in the right direction. It’s a dream come true. It’s 10 years of hard work that has come to fruition.”
Pancich was born in Great Falls but relocated to Billings with his family thereafter.
He grew up playing in the Billings Amateur Hockey League, and when the time came to hang up his skates, Pancich had no desire to leave the game behind.
So he got involved with USA Hockey’s Officiating Development Program when he was just 17. He started working games in the AWHL and climbed the ladder all the way to the top.
In nine seasons, Pancich earned several assignments including United States Hockey League all-star games, as well as playoff contests in both the USHL and the America Hockey League.
And when the NHL called on his services — thanks in part to some mentoring from Scott Brand, USA Hockey’s ODP coordinator — Pancich became the first official signed directly to the highest echelon of professional hockey from the ODP and the USHL.
When his first regular season in the NHL ended last week, Pancich was assigned to the ongoing AHL playoffs.
Looking back, he remembers exactly when he realized he had reached his ultimate aspiration.
“When it really hit me was probably the second regular season game I worked,” Pancich remembered. “It was the home opener here in Chicago. I had a bunch of family that flew out to watch.
“And to see the excitement and the atmosphere in Chicago was really amazing. It seemed like the building was shaking. It was kind of just, “Wow.’ It meant a lot to share that with my family, that realization that I made it to the NHL.”
Pancich is the second Great Falls native currently in the NHL — Pat Dwyer scored seven goals this season for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Evaluating himself, Pancich said he felt he performed up to his personal standards.
Others did, as well.
“I remember Bryan when he was a youth player,” said Al Bloomer, National Coach-in-Chief for USA Hockey and the Director of Hockey Operations for the Billings Bulls. “He was always a kid that was a good skater. He was a good player but he found his niche in officiating.
“It’s a big deal for him. And he’s a class guy to boot, so that makes it nice. I’m told by the people that I have spoken to that he’s graded out extremely high. So he’s doing well.”
Pancich said his first year in the NHL went on without any negative incidents.
There was one moment during a game in January when Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier accused his faceoff opponent, Washington’s David Steckel, of baiting Pancich into throwing Lecavalier out of the circle before an important draw late in the game.
Lecavalier got a penalty for mouthing off, and that moved the faceoff out of the Capitals’ zone, thus ending any chance for a tying goal, and Washington won the game.
Players and officials have been disagreeing since the inception of organized athletics.
Pancich has zero qualms about any interactions he had this past season.
“The players are great,” Pancich said. “There are 34 linesmen working in the NHL. You get on a first-name basis with the players and they recognize a new face.”
Pancich’s parents, Terry and Linda, still reside in Billings. Though he’ll spend most of the offseason in Chicago, Pancich figures he’ll find his way back here this summer to visit his family before gearing up for another run at the NHL next season.
“I got a lot of positive feedback from my peers and supervisors in the league,” Pancich said. “So we’ll see what happens this summer.
“Hopefully next season I’ll work all my games in the NHL.”