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Saved by a stranger, Duluth referee back on his feet

Pat Milinovich

The second period had just ended, and Pat Milinovich was skating off the ice at Mars Lakeview Arena behind fellow referee Jeff Stark when it hit.

"About 20 or 30 feet from the glass, I started feeling nauseous and a little light-headed. I grabbed the Plexiglas and I told Jeff, 'I need some help.' "

The next thing Milinovich recalls is coming to with a huddle of concerned people staring down on him.

"Someone asked me: Do you know where you are? I started to smile and said, 'I'm in Crookston.' But I was just being a (smart-alec).

"They all looked worried, so I told them that I knew I was really at Mars Arena."

Milinovich learned a short while later how close he had come to death. He lay pulseless for a few tense minutes as Brad Bushey, an off-duty Duluth firefighter, performed 50-plus compressions on his chest, trying to restart his lifeless heart. The between-periods resuscitation upstaged the Marshall Hilltoppers' 3-1 victory over Crookston that Saturday, Dec. 18.

This week, Milinovich, a physical therapist, returned to work at Interim Health Care for the first time since his heart attack.

"I'm just glad to be above ground," he joked.

Jill Fischer, who works in business development for Interim, said Milinovich's return gave staff a big lift.

"Monday was his first day back, and it felt awesome," she said. "Pat has such a presence. We really missed him while he was gone."

Fischer said Interim received cards and calls from former patients, colleagues and sports acquaintances around the nation wishing Milinovich a speedy recovery.

Bushey said he hasn't seen Milinovich since the night of the game, but he has received a thank-you card from him, as well as notes of gratitude from his mother, brother and daughter.

Milinovich also went out of his way to thank Bushey's father, Larry, for his son's swift actions. The elder Bushey recently underwent bypass and heart valve replacement surgery and was in a cardiac rehabilitation unit. Milinovich, who was also in treatment at the time, visited Larry Bushey and expressed his appreciation,

Now that Milinovich is on the mend, Brad Bushey said he'd welcome the opportunity to meet him again.

Milinovich and Brad Bushey are hardly strangers. Bushey has teenage memories of taking the ice for Duluth Central with Milinovich refereeing. On Dec. 18, Milinovich still was sporting a whistle as Jake Bushey, Brad's nephew, skated for the Hilltoppers.

Under doctor's orders, Milinovich will sit out the rest of this hockey season, but he hopes to return to duty as a baseball umpire this summer. Milinovich calls high school and college baseball and softball, besides refereeing college football. He expects to be back on the ice as a referee next year for his 39th season.

Milinovich said he feels fine and expects to make a full recovery. Doctors attributed his heart attack to a small tear in a coronary artery that resulted in a blood clot. Milinovich said there were no indications of cholesterol problems or other blockages.

Despite his recent brush with death, there seems to be no quit in Milinovich, who will celebrate his 62nd birthday this Sunday.

"I have no plans to retire," he said. "I really enjoy what I do, and I work with a great group of people."