When Mark Sertich turned 80, the firefighters he plays hockey with gave him a lifetime membership that forever waived the $5 fee for their daily games at Essentia Heritage Center.
"You know what they were thinking - 'Well, this isn't gonna last that long,' " Sertich's son, Steve, said.
"We were absolutely thinking that," laughed Dane Youngblom, a retired firefighter and member of the morning hockey club.
Seventeen years later, it remains the gift that keeps on giving. Nobody could have known then that Sertich was headed for a Guinness World Record as the oldest hockey player. He's 97 now and still going, though a hip injury last fall, coupled with a bum ankle, has curtailed his participation.
Not even the most durable hockey players are immune from the injured reserve list. Sertich has dealt with countless calamities over the years.
Funny story: Sertich was in St. Cloud to watch grandson Andy, then a prep star at Greenway, compete in a select tournament. Sertich's face resembled the night sky - mostly black, with a splash of dark blue. So when ex-Minnesota Gophers coach Don Lucia, who was recruiting Andy, happened upon the family, Steve (Andy's dad) had to introduce him to the patriarch. Lucia was caught off guard.
Whoa, what happened to you?
"I want your grandson on my team!" Lucia shot back. Sure enough, Andy joined the Gophers.
Then there was a nasty spill in the NorthShore Inline Marathon. Sertich snapped his middle finger back. In the emergency room, a doctor thought he might have to amputate. When a surgeon indicated that the finger could be set and salvaged, Sertich had one request.
"My dad said, 'Steve, make sure they bend it so I can hold a hockey stick,' " Steve recalled. "I told the surgeon that and he laughed, and I said, 'Ya know, I don't think I'm joking here.' "
Sertich, who will be inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame on May 16 with five others, plans to play hockey until he's 100. Or 90 years since he first, and fortuitously, fell in love with the sport. Then 10, Sertich entered a contest selling something or other. The winner would receive a bike. Second place got a pair of speed skates.
Sertich was second.
Beyond the ice
Last week at his West Duluth home, the same one he was raised in and the one where he and his late wife, Virginia, brought up seven children, he talked about hockey, sure. But to dwell on a single topic with Sertich would be to deprive oneself of so many events and anecdotes that comprise a remarkably rich life, which began shortly after his parents immigrated from the former Yugoslavia.
The conversation drifted to running, inline skating, World War II and cartoonist Charles Schulz. Sertich was wearing blue jeans and a gray sweater. His handlebar mustache, the one that inspired a personalized comic strip from "Peanuts" creator and St. Paul native Schulz, was as flawless as ever.
Steve was down from Grand Rapids, which turned into a blessing for the reporter whose interviewee doesn't relish talking about himself. Steve was happy to click off his father's myriad accomplishments, and who could blame him?
"He's a proud guy, but not a boastful guy," Youngblom said.
Sertich played all kinds of hockey throughout his youth. But not at Duluth Denfeld. Ray Peterson, who's featured in a Heritage Center mural as one of the city's hockey founders, didn't launch the Denfeld program until 1940, according to Sertich, a 1939 graduate.
The same year Sertich finished high school, his father died. Sertich went to work at the old Peavey Co. in the Board of Trade building and took care of his mother until, in 1942, he joined the U.S. Army and headed off to World War II. A high-speed radio operator with the 11th Armored Division, he served under Gen. George S. Patton during the Battle of the Bulge.
Sertich's division also helped to liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Austria. About eight years ago, Sertich returned to the site while in Austria with family to watch Andy play professional hockey.
Last week, Sertich referred to Mauthausen as a "death camp."
"If you got to Mauthausen, that was the end of it," he said, pausing to wipe his eyes.
One can only imagine the emotions that flooded Sertich as he stood on the same ground almost 70 years later.
"I've seen him cry twice - once when my mom died and the other time was over there," Steve said.
All in, all the time
Arriving back home from the war in 1945, Sertich immersed himself into West Duluth's hockey scene. He got a rink built at Merritt Park, doing much of the legwork to secure funding and materials, then went around the neighborhood building momentum and drumming up interested youngsters, who he'd coach. His players never went without.
"He'd drive around in his station wagon and pick kids up who couldn't otherwise get to the game," Steve said of his dad, who would become president of the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association.
That's just how Sertich has always been. If he was going to do something, he was going to do it right. And he expected the same from his children.
"He instilled in us kids that if you're gonna do something, you better doggone well do it to the best of your ability," Steve said.
Steve's sister, Carole Fosness-Janke, agreed.
"If you didn't, he'd let you know," she said.
Never a fitness fanatic, Sertich used to ride the bus to and from his job as office manager at the Peavey Co., where he retired in 1983. At some point, maybe in his 30s, he decided to start walking home. That turned into jogging, which turned into running.
Eventually, Sertich was reaching his house on 40th Avenue West only to change clothes, head back out the door and peel off more miles. The running bug had bitten him. Sertich finished "five or six" Grandma's Marathons, plus another 11 NorthShore Inline Marathons.
Steve remembers taking his dad, then in his 60s, to hit golf balls at a driving range. Sertich was a natural. He laced each shot straight ahead. Steve suggested they go play an actual round. No thanks, came his dad's reply.
"That's not enough exercise for me," Sertich told his son.
Friendships forged at the rink
It was in the 1980s that Sertich hooked up with the firefighters, lobbying his way into an exclusive fraternity comprised of current and retired members of the department. Initially, he played five days a week before cutting back to three. Sertich, a strong skater and deft passer with terrific hand-eye coordination, relishes the camaraderie and the competition.
As his ice time has waned because of injuries - a temporary setback, he hopes - the firefighters have encouraged Sertich to keep showing up at the rink, where the banter is lively and the friendships are enduring. They look after him, often dropping in for coffee after the games end. During their visits, they'll notice something around the house or yard that needs attention, and take care of it.
"He always calls them his hockey family, and it really has been," Fosness-Janke said. "They keep an eye on him, and they love my dad."
Sertich won't ever ask for help. Hates putting people out. So the firefighters don't wait for him to ask.
"There isn't one day that passes by that they don't ask me if I need anything," Sertich said.
Starting in 1983, Sertich has traveled to Santa Rosa, Calif., every summer but one for the Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament, another Schulz creation. The two struck up a friendship, which is how Sertich landed his own comic strip, with Snoopy sporting a handlebar mustache.
Other athletic exploits include participation in the U.S. National Senior Olympics, plus myriad age-group records for his running and inline skating. In 2008, he covered the NSIM course in 1 hour, 58 minutes and 30 seconds to win the 85-89-year-old division. Then again, there couldn't have been an abundance of entries in that age group. Sertich is a rare breed.
In a question he must field frequently, Sertich was asked what his secret is. How, three months shy of 98, is he still playing hockey, still mowing his lawn, still shoveling his walks? He remains sharp as a skate's blade and gets around effortlessly.
What's his secret?
"Somebody asked me that out in California and I said, 'Well, that's a secret,' " Sertich said through a sly smile. "What I'm gonna do is write a book, and you can read it in the book."
DECC ATHLETIC HALL OF FAME
What: 27th induction ceremony
When: Thursday, May 16
Where: DECC Horizon Room
Inductees: Bob Davidson, Willard Ikola, Tom Kurvers, Lori Ogren, Mark Sertich, William Wirtanen
Schedule: Social hour, 6 p.m.; dinner, 7 p.m.; awards presentations, 7:30 p.m.
Guest speaker: Olympic ski jumper Jim Denney
Tickets: $40, DECC ticket office (218-727-4344)