DULUTH – Mark Sertich sat inside the hockey locker room early Thursday, fumbling with an arthritic finger to tighten the laces on his skates.
He had torn a tendon in his right hip while skating several months earlier, and the injury had been hard to shake. Doctors told him surgery likely wouldn’t help — not at age 97.
So Sertich had been toughing it out, unwilling to give up the game that has kept him young at heart for so long, the game that led him to a “great bunch of guys” and teammates who now feel like family.
“I hope it gets better,” Sertich said under his gray handlebar mustache as he reached to pull on his jersey. “It takes time I guess.”
Teammate Butch Williams, a former NHL right wing, couldn’t resist a little dry ribbing:
“Some of those nagging injuries can last into your hundreds,” he quipped, the room erupting in laughter.
Hours before the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center would induct Sertich into its Athletic Hall of Fame at a dinner Thursday evening, his teammates — a few less than half his age — couldn’t help but gush with amazement over Sertich amid the teasing.
“A wonderful, wonderful man,” Williams called him.
“Unbelievable,” said another teammate, noting that Sertich will turn 98 in mid-July.
When the team awarded Sertich a lifetime achievement certificate and free ice time fees on his 80th birthday, nobody thought they’d be covering his expenses for the next 18 years.
“They gave me a good deal,” Sertich said. “I’ll stick with that as long as I can.”
The players, many of whom are retired or active firefighters, have seen “Sertie” lose teeth in the rink, break his ankle, puncture a lung and bloody his face in a fall.
Despite the bumps and bruises, he keeps bouncing back.
Maybe it’s less surprising once people understand that Sertich is a guy whose Army division liberated a concentration camp in Austria and served under Gen. George Patton in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge; who raised seven children with his wife and coached their youth hockey teams; who took up marathon-running and has a lifetime entry into the NorthShore Inline Marathon.
For a few years now, Sertich has been beating his own achievements as the Guinness World Record-holder for oldest ice hockey player.
But it’s the friendships formed through hockey that help keep him going, Sertich says.
Teammates often gather for coffee at Sertich’s kitchen table after their 8 a.m. games, walking unannounced through the back door of his West Duluth home and helping themselves to a cup.
They talk about hockey, sure, but they also talk about current affairs, their families, their health.
Team organizer Dane Youngblom, 63, helps Sertie arrange appointments with the VA hospital for hearing aids and other medical needs.
“My doggone hearing is just shot,” Sertich said.
Some of the guys helped replace the back door after the wind ripped it off, and were surprised when they showed up one day and saw that Sertich had used his woodworking skills to add all the trim.
Teammates care about Sertich, who lives alone and cooks for himself in the four-bedroom house where he grew up after his parents emigrated from Croatia, and are quick to help him with whatever he needs.
“I often say to myself, ‘If it wasn’t for these guys I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,’ ” Sertich said.
On the three mornings he drives to the rink each week, Sertich rises at 5 a.m. so he can get in a few exercises before playing: a couple dozen push-ups, a few lifts of 18-pound weights, leg stretches.
“It’s kind of nice to be in shape,” he said, though he noted, “when I was young I did a lot more.”
He still has game
Now, Sertich says, he’ll take whatever he can get.
He couldn’t fully stroke his right leg on his skates because of his injury, but, he said, “you do what you have to do.”
Straddling the boards to glide onto the ice Thursday morning, Sertich nimbly handled the puck with his stick, his hand-eye coordination still strong. He can still stop pucks with his skate blades and work them into stickhandling position, one player noted.
The team put him at center ice for the opening faceoff, where he and his opponent tapped their sticks three times before vying for the puck.
“Look at that!” a teammate marveled from the bench.
Players tend to give Sertich a little bit of a berth. That’s what you do for a revered fixture at the rink.
“You don’t want to be the guy that knocks him over,” one player admitted. “You’d be banned here for life. This is supposed to be all in fun.”
Sertich knows it, but he still teases them back. They’re afraid, he says with a smile, that he might get the best of them.
After a few shifts up and down the ice, Sertich, wearing No. 15, positioned himself in front of the goal as a teammate fed him the puck.
He hesitated a bit, changing his rhythm to try to throw off the goalie.
Then he swung his stick, lifting the puck into the air and safely into the net.
“He got a goal!” someone said from the bench.
A few minutes later, Sertich returned the favor, feeding the puck to a teammate for a goal.
“Nice pass Sertie!” a player yelled.
As Sertich rested on the bench while others rotated onto the ice, teammates congratulated him on his day’s accomplishments.
“Pretty lucky,” Sertich said with a nod. “Pretty lucky.”