Truth be told, basketball is a passion that had me dribbling about the house as a very young lad, and to be clear, I was dribbling a basketball. But despite that passion, the ‘60s and ‘70s, which framed my youth, turned me into a serious hockey fan too. Really, how can one live anywhere in northern Minnesota without feeling at least a small part of the hockey story?
On a grainy black and white television, I watched as Mark Antonovich and the Raiders from Greenway Coleraine brought home state hockey titles in ‘66 and ‘67. Later, Joe Michelletti and his Hibbing teammates won it all in ‘73. And I was watching still as the Grand Rapids team, with names like Rothstein, Baker, and Casey, won titles in 1975, ‘76 and ‘80. The best high school hockey game I ever saw was the championship game in 1978 in which Grand Rapids lost to Edina in double overtime—broke my heart, but it was great hockey.
At about the same time, the United States Olympic hockey team, half of which were our Northland neighbors heralding from Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth, and Duluth, would go on to win the gold medal. The win over the USSR team, on their path to the gold medal, was perhaps the biggest sports moment of my life and as I said at the start, I’m a basketball guy. That said, I like to skate, so I do my part.
We forward a few decades to a cool September morning in Two Harbors where my daughter and I were lacing up our skates in preparation for the 2009 Northshore Inline Marathon. The marathon is a 26.2-mile race from Two Harbors to Duluth on inline skates which, if you aren’t aware, are hockey skates with the blades removed and wheels installed in their stead.
Skating, both on ice or inline, for me, is a recreational form of physical therapy for knees that have gone under the knife several times. Given this, I don’t care what people might think about a fellow my age doing what appears to some as a “kid thing.”
So, like I said, we’re lacing our skates among a throng of racers when I come across Steve Sertich, a fellow employee who worked at Lake Country Power’s Grand Rapids office and I said, “Hey Steve! I didn’t know you skated too!” I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise since Steve’s son Andy had been a star on yet another great Greenway state tourney hockey team in 2001. But Steve comes back with, “No, I’m not crazy enough to do this inline thing, but my dad is and I’m here to help him get ready.”
Dad? I thought to myself. Now, I’m not a math scholar, but I knew Steve was something near my age and anybody who would serve as a parent to Steve was adding up to someone who would be old enough to be my father too. So, while my mind is asking, “Leo, why on earth are we doing this crazy race?” stepping out of the crowd appears Mark Sertich, Steve’s stoutly built father, with a thick handle bar moustache, deeply-set eyes, and a look of determination that could melt ice. And yes, he was old enough to be my father.
As we were introduced, Mark’s focus was apparent and it contrasted from the nervous energy one could sense among the other racers. Mark, I would find out later, was something of a celebrity who would later be recognized by the Guinness record book as the world’s oldest hockey player, that is, one who was still playing the game. When not on the ice, Mark managed also to set nine different age category records for the Northshore Inline Marathon, many of which will likely never be beaten. And, by his appearance, he was about to beat out another record and me in the process.
Much more could be said about the race, but to make a long story short, I beat Mark Sertich on this day by default as he suffered an injury and was unable to finish. This victory, if you will, won’t make me memorable in Minnesota’s skating traditions, however, finishing ahead of the world’s oldest hockey player and grandfather of Greenway standout Andy Sertich should be worth something. Good grief, he was age 88 with decades of experience and I was only age 54. And did I mention that I’m a basketball player, not a hockey player?
All in all, on that day along the shores of Lake Superior, I learned that I can still consider myself a basketball player if I can muster the same heart that Mark Sertich brought to hockey. Mr. Sertich died of cancer in 2020 at the young age of 99 and I understand his death cut short his training regimen to get back on the ice after sustaining yet another injury earlier in the year. If that doesn’t define heart and the hockey tradition in northern Minnesota, I don’t know what does.
Leo Wilenius lives in rural Cook with his wife Lindy. He is retired from Lake Country Power in Mountain Iron.