By the time he was 20, Matt Pavelich was referee-in-chief of the Northern Michigan Intermediate League. He had been officiating minor hockey games since he was 14, and had quickly worked his way through the ranks. He began working in the American Hockey League in 1955-56, and his poise so impressed the NHL's referee-in-chief Carl Voss that Pavelich was in the NHL by the next season, making his debut on October 11, 1956. While his older brother Marty had been with the Detroit Red Wings as a player since 1947, the pair was the first such unique tandem in the NHL.
Matt's inauguration into the officials' ranks was particularly unpleasant during a game at the Detroit Olympia in 1956. Red Wings fans had a penchant for throwing octopi on the ice, and this game was no exception, but Pavelich, as the junior of the three officials, was responsible for clearing the ice of the heavy, ugly creature, a task he performed with requisite disgust while his colleagues enjoyed themselves at his expense.
Matt was an NHL official for 23 years, working 1,727 games regular season games as a linesman and 14 more as a referee. He worked the 1957 and 1958 Stanley Cup Finals, and then 19 consecutive Stanley Cup Finals between 1961 and 1979 for a total of 56 Stanley Cup Final games.
Pavelich was once knocked cold while breaking up a fight between Lou Fontinato of the Montreal Canadiens and Earl Ingarfield of the New York Rangers. He stepped into a haymaker from Fontinato and was out like a light. When he was revived by the trainer, waving smelling salts under his nose, all he could hear was Fontinato and Ingarfield arguing over who should get credit for the knockout.
Pavelich's 1,727 career regular season games is second only to Neil Armstrong, and his 245 playoff games is also second-most in the NHL, this time to John D'Amico. Pavelich continued with the NHL for another eight years as a Supervisor of Officials, and at the time of his 1987 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, he had completed 31 years as an official and a supervisor. His commitment to the NHL ended after the 1993-94 season with 38 years of service.
Scotty Morrison stated that Pavelich was always considered an outstanding official. His hard work, dedication and performance resulted in Matt consistently being rated among the league's top two linesmen virtually every season.
Frank Udvari recalled Matt as being a dedicated, conscientious, hardworking official who was instrumental in the development of many of the younger officials during his time as supervisor. While Matt served in that role, he attended the AHL meetings, and along with Gord Anziano, the AHL Vice President, they presented a proposal to the NHL governors to have a trainee program for American referees to help them get started working games in the minor-pro leagues. It was well received, but they thought Canadian referees should also be involved in the program. When it was instituted, many future referees came through that program on their way to the NHL.
When he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987, it marked the first time that the Hall had expanded nominees to include not only referees, but also linesmen.