The hockey world was shocked on November 3rd, 2004 when former NHL player Sergei Zholtok died of an heart failure during a game in Minsk, Belarus. He was just 31 years old.
Zholtok was playing for Riga 2000 during the National Hockey League lockout season of 2004-05. He was a Nashville Predator at the time, though he was not under contract likely due to the impending labour uncertainty. He was better known for his days in Minnesota and Montreal. The thin-faced Latvian, who arrived in North America not knowing more than a few words of English, also played for Boston and Edmonton.
Zholtok left the bench but collapsed in the hallways leading to the locker room. Close NHL friend and Riga teammate Darby Hendrickson was with him when his heart failed, watching the panicked situation unfold, unable to understand what everyone else was saying.
“As difficult as it was, I’m glad I was there,” Hendrickson said. “I know he would have wanted me there. I know he would have wanted his father there. He’s a guy I loved. I don’t relive my final moments with him. I relive the unbelievable moments I shared with him.”
“Every man dies, but not every man really lives. When you look at Sergei and the way he lived his life, he was someone who was a wonderful family man, a guy who loved his country. He was true to who he was as a man.”
Zholtok had missed games in the past for episodes fainting and fatigue and even frequent flu-like symptoms dating back to January 2003. He was eventually diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat but his allowed to return to the ice.
Zholtok appeared in 588 NHL games from 1992-2004, scoring 111 goals and 147 assists.
``Sergei was a great competitor and a valuable member of our organization for almost three years and will be greatly missed by his teammates and his fans in the hockey world,'' Wild general manager Doug Risebrough said.
“Sergei was a good lesson for me,” admitted Risebrough. “Before Sergei came here I thought he was inconsistent in his play and, at times, it looked like he didn’t care. It was an observation based on what I saw, but not really knowing the individual.
"Jacques (Lemaire) was the one who knew him from his days in Montreal, and he convinced me that what I saw was a lack of a fit, not a lack of caring on the part of Sergei. I completely flipped my thinking because very few players play with as much pride as Sergei did.”
Zholtok was a very popular player in his native Latvia. He and goaltender Arturs Irbe were heavily involved in children's charities in their homeland, often collecting signed NHL memorabilia to have auctioned off.
“ Latvia went through some tough times in the 1990's and many children suffered because of it,” said Zholtok. “Some of these kids have been surrounded by negative things throughout their whole lives. Hopefully, this will give them a chance at a better life.
“I want to be able to talk to these kids. I don't want to call myself a role model, but I think it's very important to be able to communicate with these kids and show we care.”
“I don’t think people in North America can understand what Sergei meant to his country,” said former Wild teammate Wes Walz. “I was told that the country was collectively mourning when he died.”
"He was one of the greatest all time players in Latvian hockey history," said Guntis Keisels, a sports reporter for the newspaper Diena. "Ten years in the NHL is quite an achievement. He was the best goal scorer, the best forward, Latvia ever produced."