Denfeld News

July 15, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

Sertich puts aging on ice
By Kevin Pates

Don’t phone Mark Sertich between 10:30 p.m. and midnight because you’ll get a busy signal. He’s on his computer, on the Internet, checking the latest news and sending e-mails.

That’s his routine before bed.

Then he’s up at 6 a.m.

Four times a week during the winter, and twice a week during the summer, he’s on the ice at 8 a.m. at Mars Lakeview Arena with the Duluth firefighters hockey team. They’re youngsters.

Sertich is 85. He’ll turn 86 on Wednesday while competing in the 31st Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament in Santa Rosa, Calif. He’s the oldest player in the tournament.

“He’s a modern marvel,’’ says Steve Sertich, 54, one of Mark’s four sons.

“He’s going to be one tough act to follow,’’ said Mark Sertich Jr., 60, another son.

Indeed. The Mark and Virginia Sertich clan, which includes seven children, 18 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, is led by a longevity icon.

Although such records aren’t kept, it’s possible Sertich is the oldest American playing competitive hockey. He also skates in the NorthShore Inline Marathon each September and ran Grandma’s Marathon five times in the early 1980s starting at age 59.

Youth hockey coach

Mark Amil Sertich, one of four children of Yugoslavian immigrants Marco and Josephine Sertich, was born July 18, 1921, four months after his parents arrived in America. The family moved into a home off of 40th Avenue West in 1927, and Mark Sertich has remained there for all but a few years of his life.

Although he received his first pair of skates by placing second in a coffee company contest as a youngster, there was no varsity hockey at Duluth Denfeld before he graduated in 1939. He married in 1942, the same year he joined the U.S. Army and served as a high-speed radio operator with the 11th Armored Division during the Battle of the Bulge under Gen. George S. Patton.

Out of the Army in 1945, he returned home and resumed his job at the Peavey Co. (now ConAgra) in the Board of Trade building, retiring in 1983 as office manager after 42 years there.

“I’d take the bus to work most days, but my back got so sore from sitting, I started to walk the four miles home,’’ Sertich says of his fitness beginnings.

Walking led to running (he started in loafers before finding suitable footwear), which allowed him to keep up with his children. Sertich was active as a coach and organizer in youth hockey and helped start a program at Merritt Park, two blocks from home.

His own playing days as an offensive centerman began in the 1980s when he approached the Duluth firefighters’ team. He’s been with the group for more than 20 years and was granted a lifetime membership, allowing him to skip a $5 fee for the 90-minute games. The oldest firefighter on the team is 60.

“His energy is incredible. His attitude is incredible. He’s been an inspiration to all of us,’’ says Dane Youngblom, 51, who’s been in charge of the firefighter hockey program for more than 15 years. “Mark is a slight guy, but he wears all the hockey gear and skates and shoots very well. He can easily hit the top shelf of the net. He can easily skate with 60-year-olds.’’

While the games are no-check, there is contact. Sertich has broken his left shoulder and left hand, cracked his sternum and suffered concussions. The biceps in both arms have been torn and arthritis is creeping into some fingers.

Yet the 5-foot-8 Sertich is sturdy. He lifts weights, does pushups, mows the lawn, shovels the walk (no snowblower for this guy) and, while he no longer runs, he inline skates regularly on the Munger Trail.

Handlebar mustache

A full head of hair with almost no graying would be enough to distinguish Sertich from most people in their 80s, but a handlebar mustache is his real trademark. He’s had it the past 35 years, much in the likeness of his father.

“Wherever you go in town, everyone knows him,’’ said son Tim Sertich, 48, of Duluth, a wholesale liquor and wine sales representative. “When someone knows my name they usually ask, ‘Is your dad the hockey player with the handlebar mustache?’

“When you’re active, you believe you’re going to be healthy. He’s one of those special people and we’re so darn proud of him.’’

The folks at the Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament certainly know him. Sertich (no relation to former Minnesota Duluth coach Mike Sertich) has missed just one tournament since playing in the event for the first time in 1983. He’ll play this week on a team captained by Ben Baker of Portland, Ore., one of four teams in the 70-and-older division. There is no 80-and-older division.

Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schulz, a St. Paul native, started the tournament for those 40 and older. Sertich skated on the same line with Schulz for 12 years and, at one point, was presented a cartoon strip by Schulz with Snoopy wearing glasses and a handlebar mustache. Schulz died in 2000 at age 77.

“He had a great sense of humor and was one heck of a guy,’’ Sertich said of Schulz in a 2005 story in Minnesota Moments magazine. “My main job was to set him up and see if he could score a few goals.’’

Tom Lindahl of New Hope, Minn., has been organizing no-check games the past 37 years and has a 65-and-older team in the Snoopy’s tournament. Lindahl, 72, said the oldest active hockey player in the Twin Cities is Wendell Anderson, 74, a former U.S. Olympian and Minnesota’s governor from 1971-76.

And then there’s Sertich.

“There are very few in the state over the age of 70 who are playing, and I don’t think there’s anyone over 80, except for Mark,’’ Lindahl said. “He has a great stride and great hands, he doesn’t miss a shift and he’s a gentleman’s gentleman.’’

It’s believed that only one hockey player in the United States has more seniority — John Burnosky of Clinton Township, Mich. He’s 96 and has a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records bestowing the title of World’s Most Durable Hockey Player.

The native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, came to the Detroit area at age 18 to try out with the Detroit Red Wings and stayed, said Buddy Williams of Walled Lake, Mich. Williams, 60, plays with Burnosky on a team sponsored by Bruno’s Dive Shop, owned by Burnosky’s son, Jerry.

In his most recent action, John Burnosky played in a tournament in April in Flint, Mich. He typically takes the faceoff at the start of each period and then spends about 20 seconds on the ice, Williams said.

“He still has the enthusiasm and mental capacity to know what to do when he’s out there,’’ Williams said of Burnosky, who is 5-4 and 125 pounds. “Because of his age, we go out of our way to watch out for him and make sure the game is enjoyable for him.’’

The family’s best

Who’s the best hockey player in the Sertich family?

Mark Sertich says the distinction goes to grandson Andy Sertich, who was named best defenseman and rookie of the year by the Utah Grizzlies of the East Coast Hockey League in 2007. Andy’s dad, Steve, of Grand Rapids, played for St. Scholastica and later coached the Saints.

All four Sertich sons played high school hockey at Denfeld or Duluth Cathedral (now Duluth Marshall).

Tim Sertich’s daughter, Abby, will be a senior winger with Duluth’s cooperative high school girls team in 2007-08.

But it all started with a late-blooming skater, now an octogenarian.

“I don’t know if it’s worth trying to keep up with now,’’ said son Mick Sertich, 58, of Alborn, a terminal manager for Peavey Grain Co. in Superior. “Most of us have half our hair missing and dad’s just very determined to keep working out. He doesn’t ask for much help. He’s very self-sufficient.’’

The family life span record is 88, set by Mark Sertich’s late sister, Mary. Another sister, Katherine Gasman of Duluth, is 83. Their mother lived to age 86.

“His children always came first when we were growing up. He stood in a lot of snowbanks watching us play,’’ said Mark Sertich Jr., co-owner of a commercial refrigeration company in Grand Forks, N.D. “I’ve got a picture on the wall of him finishing his first Grandma’s Marathon in 1981. That was just remarkable, and he’s continued to take such good care of himself.’’

Mark Sertich has been on his own the past 3½ years since losing his wife after 61 years of marriage. He has stayed in their four-bedroom house, keeping it particularly tidy, and recently has painted the living room walls. He has most meals at home, with chicken breasts, ice cream, coffee and blueberries among his favorite foods. He weighs about 155 pounds, 10 less than when he left the Army.

The only medication he takes, in addition to vitamin supplements, is a pill for a thyroid condition. He hasn’t had a hospital stay since the 1950s after a collision during a softball game.

“When he was in his mid-50s, dad had a little bit of a paunch and smoked an occasional cigar. Now he has, like, 7 percent body fat. People who don’t know him can’t fathom it,’’ said Steve Sertich, director of operations for Lake County Power in Grand Rapids.

Aging is taking its time with Mark Sertich.

On Friday with the firefighters, in his final tuneup for the three-game Snoopy’s tournament, the octogenarian scored five goals.

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