DULUTH – The world’s oldest hockey player has taken his last skate around his beloved rink.
Mark Sertich, of Duluth, was 99 when he died Monday surrounded by family and friends in the house where he grew up and lived independently up until his last days, suffering from a stroke.
With his signature handlebar mustache, “Sertie” as his teammates called him, was well-known among Duluth’s hockey circles, skating for years on a squad with many retired or active firefighters at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center. A community of fond teammates became his hockey family and watched him bounce back after numerous injuries, including losing teeth at the rink, breaking his ankle, puncturing a lung and bloodying his face in a fall.
Sertich took no painkillers or medicines because he didn’t believe in them, feeling his body would heal itself, said friend and fellow hockey player Dane Youngblom, one of a group of guys who often had postgame coffee at Sertich’s house.
“He was so good at curing himself,” Sertich’s daughter Cynthia Flood said. “He got himself through so many injuries where everybody else said, ‘That’s it, no more hockey,’ and a month later he was back out on the rink.”
Sertich showed strength throughout his life; he served in the U.S. Army in a division that liberated a concentration camp in Austria and served under Gen. George Patton in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. He raised seven children with his wife and coached their youth hockey teams. He took up marathon running and had a lifetime entry into the NorthShore Inline Marathon.
But he was soft-spoken, humble, compassionate and always caring to his family and community members, friends and family said.
For a few years, Sertich had been beating his own achievements as the Guinness World Record-holder for oldest ice hockey player. He had hoped to beat his record again at the Senior World Ice Hockey tournament in Santa Rosa Calif., but couldn’t go because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Flood said.
As he garnered more attention for his endurance on the ice in recent years, Sertich remained gracious but underwhelmed.
“He often said to me, ‘I don’t know what the fuss is all about,’ ” Flood said. To him, staying fit was simply about opening the door, putting one foot out and moving, she said.
Sertich last skated in early July. Though he had some aches and pains, “He wasn’t the kind of guy to let that get in his way,” Youngblom said.
Sertich had continued to drive, cook and clean for himself as his family and hockey buddies checked up on him. When the pandemic shut the rink down for a while, he exercised by riding an old stationary bicycle in his living room and doing calisthenics every day, Flood said.
He worried more about his family members getting COVID than he worried about getting it himself, Flood said.
Friends and family celebrated Sertich’s 99th birthday in mid-July with a drive-by party, and he was feeling great at the time.
“He was so happy. He was waving and just in his prime,” Flood said. “Totally strong and just smiling.”
About a week later, he fell and doctors discovered metastasized cancer on his liver. He suffered a stroke late last week.
Family members took turns watching over him and saying goodbye in his last days, Flood said.
“I’m glad he kept strong right up pretty much until the end,” Youngblom said. “He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”