Mark Sertich, the Guinness World Records’ oldest hockey player, died Monday, Aug. 24, from complications of a stroke at the age of 99.
Though known by the public for his age-defying time on skates, the Duluth native with the trademark handlebar mustache meant much more to his family.
“He was a really great dad,” Cynthia Flood, one of Sertich’s seven children, said Tuesday. “He spent so much time with all of us growing up, teaching us simple things. He always had time for us.
“He was a quiet, humble man who had wonderful qualities of self-sufficiency and independence, but mostly he loved his children.”
Sertich, who was still skating up until his 99th birthday in July, suffered a stroke Thursday and died at the same West Duluth home he was raised in surrounded by his family.
“He was an inspiration, he was our leader,” son Steve Sertich said. “He was a good father that you’d want to have and was always there for everybody.”
Funeral arrangements were pending Tuesday morning.
Mark Sertich, a 1939 Duluth Denfeld graduate and a World War II veteran who served as a high-speed radio operator under Gen. George Patton for a time in Europe, played youth hockey but didn’t play in high school. The sport wasn’t even offered at Denfeld until a year after he graduated.
But upon returning to Duluth from the war in 1945, he immersed himself into West Duluth's hockey scene. He helped build a rink at Merritt Park, and then coached players and became head of the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association.
He didn’t return to playing until well into his 60s after retiring from the Peavey Co., where he began working even before World War II.
At around 70, Sertich started skating in a 30-and-older league with firefighters at old Peterson Arena in West Duluth.
“He was sad when he was closer to 80, when because of his safety we said, ‘Maybe it’s time to quit playing in this rough-and-tumble league,’ ” said retired firefighter Dane Youngblom, who became one of Sertich’s best friends. “He was sad about it because he was such a competitor.”
Sertich, however, continued playing with the firefighters, who waived his $5 daily fee at Essentia Heritage Center. Starting in 1983, Sertich traveled to Santa Rosa, California, every summer to play in the Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament, instituted by Minnesota native and "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz. That’s where, a few years ago, Sertich earned the designation as the world’s oldest hockey player. In 2017, he was inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame.
Sertich became a fitness guru, constantly walking around his neighborhood, running seven Grandma’s Marathons and competing in 11 NorthShore Inline Marathons, setting age-group records along the way.
“He walked through his neighborhood all the time and got his exercise and knew all his neighbors,” said Flood, who flew in from Ridgefield, Connecticut, last week after Sertich’s stroke. “He was very quiet but he had a presence in that neighborhood.”
Still, hockey was Sertich’s passion.
“That was one of the things that kept him going so long, he was very competitive and always wanted to be at the top of his game and at the top of his health,” Youngblom said. “And he really took care of himself.”
Even when quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Sertich rode a stationary bike and performed daily calisthenics in his living room.
When Heritage Center reopened in June, Sertich asked Youngblom to set up skating time.
“He was moving around amazingly well for someone who had a major injury in his hip muscle and had ankle problems,” Youngblom said. “He enjoyed scoring goals up until a month ago. He would get close to the net and his legs weren’t working like they used to but he still could move that stick around and score the goals.”
Sertich suffered such maladies as a broken sternum, ribs and ankle from playing hockey over the years but the member of the Greatest Generation persevered.
“He shrugged it off and kept going,” Youngblom said. “It was a resilience that that generation has. They don’t let things bother them, and that’s the way he was.”
Due to COVID-19, Sertich’s annual birthday party was turned into a drive-by gathering of honking horns and waves. His sister said Sertich appreciated the support, but in his usual unassuming way.
“When people were in awe of everything he had done in his life, he would always say, ‘I don’t know what the fuss is all about,’ ” Flood said. “He was very charming and a quintessential gentleman.”
Youngblom plans to organize a 100th birthday party at Heritage Center next July 18 in Sertich’s honor.
“He will be with us in spirit and we’ll be celebrating his life at the place he loved best, the hockey arena,” Flood said.
So what was Sertich’s secret for a long life? Perhaps Sertich said it best himself in a 2017 News Tribune article.
"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."