Injuries can end a season or career for a hockey player in their teens or 20s, but just weeks after Mark Sertich broke a rib and punctured a lung in an on-ice collision, he was out on the rink Wednesday - at age 94.
Three to four days a week for the past 30 years, the retired office manager and World War II veteran has been joining a group of Duluth firefighters for friendly games of hockey. To celebrate Sertich's 94th birthday, which was last Saturday, family and friends gathered Wednesday for a game at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center. Upon his arrival at a post-game lunch, members of the Duluth Fire Department and his family gave Sertich a standing ovation.
"I really enjoy getting out there with the guys and the companionship and the chance to get to mingle with younger people - that's important for me," Sertich said.
Sertich has lived independently in his West Duluth home since his wife, Virginia, passed away in 2004. He still cooks, mows, shovels and drives for himself. Although his seven children don't need to check on him constantly, they'll stop by for coffee from time to time, said his son Mick, 60.
Each year, Mark Sertich attends the Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament in Santa Rosa, Calif., to play with guys in their 70s or a little older. That's where he met and befriended the late Charles Schulz, the "Peanuts" cartoonist and Minnesota native who also was a devoted hockey fan. Despite his injury last month, Sertich played in the tournament again earlier this month.
"He's not just doddering around out there; he's actually playing a pretty good game," Dane Youngblom said Wednesday. Youngblom, a retired Duluth firefighter, organized the group more than 30 years ago. Although Sertich, who was 60 at the time, was never a firefighter, he joined the group as a way to get more ice time.
"He's played so many days in a row that he's gotten really good over the years," Youngblom said, describing Sertich's puck-handling skills
The group hosted a similar party for Sertich 14 years ago, when he turned 80. They held another event for him four years ago for his 90th birthday. Not even his children in attendance Wednesday thought he'd still be playing today. Sertich doesn't rub it in that he still plays hockey while three of his sons, who he used to coach, sat in the stands Wednesday.
"No, I want to keep getting those birthday cards," he said with a laugh.
Youngblom said he believes Sertich could be the oldest hockey player in the world, and has been trying to get the Guinness Book of World Records to confirm that fact. Sertich's sister, Katherine Gasman, calls Youngblom every so often hoping Youngblom will lobby the Hockey Hall of Fame to let her brother in.
In a short film produced by the Minnesota Wild in 2011, the team "recruited" Sertich, who was 90 at the time.
Under his signature handlebar mustache, Sertich has lost a number of his teeth, like any seasoned hockey player.
"In fact, he's lost teeth out there on the ice when we've been playing and he just spits them out and says, 'Ah, didn't like that one anyway,' and keeps on playing," Youngblom said.
Sertich has had his fair share of injuries, but it doesn't take him long to recover. At mile 13 of the 2009 NorthShore Inline Marathon, he fell and broke his middle finger.
His children recalled a surgeon's conversation with Sertich as he was lying on the stretcher. The surgeon told him his finger might have to be amputated, but his son Steve remembers his dad's response: "Just have them bend it enough to where it can go around a hockey stick."
"What are you gonna say to him? He's 94; you can't say 'You can't go on the ice,' " Mark's grandson Andy Sertich said of his grandfather's most recent injury. "He's gonna do what he wants."
Andy Sertich, 32, now plays professional hockey in Norway, but skates with his grandfather whenever he's home.
Mark Sertich said he hopes his longevity on the ice will inspire his 18 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren to also embrace an active lifestyle.
"I tell them that I hope that they can be playing at the same age that I am, and then to keep in shape," Sertich said. "And if you do, there's a good possibility that you will be able to do that.
"I hope I'm going to be somebody that they're going to say, 'Gee, I wanna be like Great-Grandpa or Great-Great-Grandpa."
What's the hardest part about being 94-year-old hockey player?
Nothing, Sertich said. It's still just fun for him.