Over lunch in Winnipeg on Sunday, Brian Mach was busy talking.
The Little Falls native and Chanhassen resident is the only full-time official in the NHL born and bred in Minnesota. He was sharing NHL stories that spanned 16 years when Devin Berg, Mach’s fellow linesman that night for the Wild-Jets game, interrupted.
“This is cool,” Berg, 26, from Tavistock, Ontario, said. “What? What?” Mach asked.
“You’re three games from 1,000 and I’m working my third. This is cool,” Berg told Mach.
Berg’s words hit Mach like a slapshot to the melon.
“I thought … ‘This was me 16 years ago,’ ” Mach, 41, said. “I mean, how cool to see it come full circle through him.”
Later that night and Monday night in Chicago, Mach worked with Berg.
“He’s asking all the questions I asked,” Mach said. “It brought me back really quick to what it was like first cutting my teeth in the league.”
Mach worked his 999th NHL game Wednesday night in Ottawa. Friday will be the most special night of his career, when he will be honored before he works the lines during his 1,000th game, a contest between the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. Watching will be wife Andrea; children Brandon (12), Addison (10) and Nathan (8); and mom Kathy, dad Tom, sister Molly and brother David.
Mach, who wears No. 78, will become the first Minnesotan to officiate 1,000 NHL games. Longtime linesman Ron Foyt, an International Falls native who now works Wild home games as video goal judge, worked 1,000, but that was between the NHL and old World Hockey Association.
“I wake up every day excited because my office space changes, and I don’t have to get in a rat race like everyone else with a regular job,” Mach said. “Every night I go on the ice, my heart is pounding like it’s my first game. I smile every time I hit that ice.”
Not bad for a guy whose aspiration when he first started was to work the state high school hockey tournament.
A big man
After high school, Mach tried out at the University of North Dakota. He was the last walk-on cut. Mach wanted to stay connected to the game as he worked toward a degree in psychology, so he started attending Minnesota Hockey Officials Association camps. He met Steve Tatro, now the Minnesota district referee-in-chief.
“I was so green and had no idea what I was doing, but Steve saw something special and told me, ‘Hey, there’s more than just Minnesota hockey out there,’ ” Mach said.
Mach began working high school games in North Dakota, then the United States Hockey League. He attended a USA Hockey officials’ development camp, and former NHL referee Andy Van Hellemond wanted to hire Mach on the spot to work in the East Coast Hockey League because of his size.
Mach is 6-4, 235 pounds. In 1997, at age 23, he moved to Pensacola, Fla., so he could be in the vicinity of the Ice Pilots and Tallahassee Tiger Sharks.
“It was ‘Slap Shot’ hockey — just fights every night,” Mach said, laughing. “That first weekend, I called home and said, ‘I’m coming home.’ I didn’t know what I got myself into.”
Today, Mach’s favorite part of his job is when the “games get gnarly” and he’s busy breaking up skirmishes and fights.
A few years later, he called American Hockey League executive Jim Mill and asked if there were any openings. Mill told him, “We’ll give you a couple games,” and those “couple” became about 75 AHL games.
In the summer of 2000, at age 25, Mach returned to Minnesota and decided he would call games one more year. But Van Hellemond left him a voice mail offering him a full-time job. Mach thought his buddies were playing a practical joke until he returned the call and discovered it was NHL headquarters.
“I didn’t plan to do this my entire life,” Mach said. “I thought, the ECHL, ‘What a great adventure,’ but I thought I’d give myself four years, then re-evaluate, get my master’s and go get a real job.
“But 16 years and 1,000 games later, holy cow, this was like winning the lottery.”
There are more hockey players registered in USA Hockey from Minnesota than any other state. Yet, Mach is the only full-time NHL official.
As prideful as he is about that, Mach thinks that’s a real shame. So he gives back by trying to teach young Minnesotans at MHOA camps and Breakaway Hockey AAA camps and working with Breakaway Academy in Chaska.
“I try to help any kid I can help because I’d love to see more Minnesota officials,” Mach said. “In fact, the NHL just hired [Detroit Lakes’] Jake Brenk as a referee, and I had him in an MOHA camp that I instructed. I saw him at [NHL officials] training camp, and he gave me a big hug. I said, ‘I’m getting old.’ ”
NHL officials are impartial no matter where they’re from, but the Wild has been a meaningful part of Mach’s career. His second NHL game on Oct. 11, 2000, was the Wild’s first home game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
He worked the 2010 NHL Premiere Series between Minnesota and Carolina in Finland, and Sunday he and Berg had their first coach’s challenge when Wild coach Mike Yeo felt Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler was offside before an Andrew Ladd goal. Mach and Berg decided he wasn’t.
“I looked like an idiot. I tried to put the headset over my helmet and couldn’t figure out why it didn’t fit,” Mach said, laughing.
But Friday’s Wild game will be the most special. He got to pick his fellow zebras:
• Referee Dan O’Rourke: Mach worked one of the last games O’Rourke played in the ECHL, and when O’Rourke first started as an NHL linesman, he and Mach worked some of their first games together.
• Referee Ian Walsh: Mach and Walsh went through the USA Hockey officiating program together and have been joined at the hip since.
•Linesman Tim Nowak: Nowak instructed Mach in the USA Hockey program and was Mach’s partner for his first NHL game on Oct. 7, 2000 (Washington at Carolina).
“He helped groom me and was a mentor,” Mach said of Nowak. “In the ECHL, he used to come on his off-days and watch me work just to give me pointers.”
Friday will mostly be special for his family. His kids — a peewee, squirt and mite in the Chaska-Chanhassen Hockey Association — “are stoked. They cannot wait to stand on that carpet and shake the hand of [captains] Mikko Koivu and Jonathan Toews. They are fired up.”