UMD's winningest hockey coach takes on some younger charges

The size 10 1/2 skates fit perfectly and Mike Sertich was a coach again. More than five years after his final game behind the bench at Michigan Tech, and eight years since being in charge at Minnesota Duluth, he was coaxed back into hockey by for...

The size 10½ skates fit perfectly and Mike Sertich was a coach again.

More than five years after his final game behind the bench at Michigan Tech, and eight years since being in charge at Minnesota Duluth, he was coaxed back into hockey by former Bulldog Bill Grillo.

Grillo provided a pair of his own skates, which Sertich was lacking, and together they directed the Hermantown Bantam A team last winter.

"I called Mike the last few years, about coaching, and he declined, but I wore him down," said Grillo, a UMD defenseman from Hibbing in 1980-84. "I know how much he loves the game, and that he's a rink rat at heart, and what a great teacher he is. This year, when he said, 'I don't even own a pair of skates,' he gave me an opening. That's all I needed to hear."

Grillo, 48, put a Hermantown baseball cap, windbreaker, warm-up pants, whistle and the skates in a box.


He gave the parcel to Sertich's wife, Audie, who works in accounting for Northern Business Products in Duluth, where Grillo is a sales manager.

The package was delivered and the former NCAA Division I coach of the year was hooked. He borrowed some practice plans from Virginia coach Keith Hendrickson, another former UMD defenseman, and was in charge again, this time handling about 35 youngsters ages 14 and 15.

"I wouldn't have done this except for a former player or good friend," Sertich said. "What I found were kids who were so eager to learn. It was so refreshing, extremely rewarding and so much fun."

Sertich, 62, had last coached on March 15, 2003, when Michigan Tech lost in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs at Minnesota. He walked away after three years in Houghton, Mich., with two years left on a contract. He became the winningest coach in UMD hockey history in 18 years through 2000. In 21 college seasons he was 375-397-53.

Yet his stats, his four WCHA Coach of the Year awards, his success as an assistant under Gus Hendrickson at Grand Rapids High School and his work with USA Hockey were unknown to the Hermantown bantams.

One of the first team meetings was in a Hermantown High School classroom. Sertich talked about the importance of team unity. He talked about selflessness and selfishness.

Grillo's son, Billy, 15, a Hermantown freshman, was in his second year as a defenseman on the team.

"We usually have one of the player's dads coaching us and now here was someone we didn't recognize," Billy Grillo said of Sertich. "He's a big guy, who looked intimidating to us, but was so friendly. He would take you aside before practice and just talk to you about everyday things, like fishing.


"He had a game plan and kept things simple, and was very positive. He always asked, 'What can we do better?' He never gave us a pep talk before a game because he had the confidence we knew what to do."

One of the players, whose curiosity got the better of him, asked Sertich if he'd ever played the game. Sertich, himself a one-time Virginia High School and UMD defenseman, could only laugh.

If he was new to the bantam players, coaching in the youth ranks was new to Sertich. Some practices were at 6 a.m., so the coach had to rise by 4:30 a.m. and drive 20 miles from his home near Island Lake, arriving at the rink with a cup of coffee. Rules require coaches to wear helmets at practice and there is zero tolerance when dealing with referees during games. Sertich, who had two sons play hockey, was ejected from his first two games for engaging in conversation with officials. Not swearing or berating, just a few verbal jabs.

He was quiet the remaining 38 games.

Practices, however, weren't quiet. For the coach, they were the highlight of a season that ran from October through March.

"Through all of my years in coaching, I never developed a liking for the games," Sertich said. "What I liked was being on the ice for practice, and my only regret this winter is that our practices only lasted an hour."

Coaching did limit one of Sertich's serious avocations -- fishing. He figures he missed about 47 days of ice fishing on Lake of the Woods near Baudette, Minn., where he has an ice house. He's back on the water this spring, is following auto racing, and remains a scholar of anything concerning the death of John F. Kennedy. He recently visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, known in 1963 as the Texas School Book Depository.

Will Sertich be back coaching next season?


Billy Grillo will be trying out for the Hermantown High School team as a sophomore, so his dad expects to help with the peewee team of younger son, Jon, 12, a sixth-grader.

"Mike was so enthusiastic and had so much energy working with our team," Bill Grillo said. "He still has so much passion for the game; you could see he was happy walking into the rink.

"After the season he said he'd box up all his gear and return it. But so far I haven't gotten my skates back, so I'm not counting him out yet."

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