Tuesday, November 3, 2009
It was on this day in 2004 that Sergei Zholtok, playing for Riga 2000 from his native Latvia during the NHL lockout, died from heart failure during a game in Belarus at the age of 31.
A ten year veteran of the NHL, Zholtok was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins 55th overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. He spent the majority of his first season in North America of 1992-93 playing with the Providence Bruins of the AHL, appearing in one game with Boston, registering an assist for his first NHL point.
1993-94 was split between Providence (54 games) and Boston(24 games), and saw him score his first NHL goal against fellow Latvian Arturs Irbe.
The Providence Bruins would be his home for the entire 1994-95 season and he would score 23 goals and 35 assists for 58 points in 78 games.
Zholtok would have his breakout season the following year with the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL scoring 51 goals and 50 assists for 101 points in 82 games, all career highs.
He would split the next season between Las Vegas (19 games) and the Ottawa Senators in his return to the NHL, where he would see action in 57 games and collect 28 points. He would again play in Ottawa in 1997-98 for a full campaign, scoring 23 points for the season.
1998-99 saw Zholtok move to the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent, where he would collect 22 points in 70 games. 38 points would follow in 1999-00 and 2000-01 saw him play 32 games in Montreal, scoring 11 points before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers for the second half of the season. It was not a good year for Zholtok, as between the two clubs combined, he would score only five goals in 69 games.
With his value at a low point, he was acquired by the Minnesota Wild for just a 7th round draft choice. The move to the fledgling second year Wild offered Zholtok the chance for a new start and increased playing time, including playing the point on the Wild's first power play unit even though he was a forward.
He seized the opportunity and set a new personal NHL best with 39 points on 19 goals and 20 assists. 2002-03 would see him improve upon that mark with 42 points on 16 goals and 26 assists, as well as being a key part of the Wild's unexpected run to the Western Conference Finals, which included dramatic comebacks from being down 3 games to 1 to both the Colorado Avalanche in round 1, including assisting on the series clinching goal in overtime of Game 7 by Andrew Brunette, and again to the Vancouver Canucks in round 2. Zholtok would total 13 points in 18 games during the Wild's playoff run.
2003-04 saw Zholtok play in 59 games for the Wild, one of only four Latvian players in the NHL that season, scoring 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points in 59 games before being dealt to the Nashville Predators along with Brad Bombardir for a pair of third and fourth round draft picks at the trade dealine. He would play in 11 games for the Predators, followed by 6 playoff games in his final NHL action.
With the players locked out by the NHL owners for the 2004-05 season, Zholtok, a national hero in Latvia and a regular member of the Lativan National Team, would do what many NHL players did and return to his home country to play, bringing former Wild teammate Darby Hendrickson with him.
Zholtok would compete in just six games for HK Riga 2000.
What followed was hinted at in January of 2003, when Zholtok, then captain of the Wild and the first Latvian ever to captain an NHL team, was forced to leave a game due to an occurrence of dizziness and fatigue and was taken to the hospital. Two nights later he skated in the pre-game warmups, but did not feel well enough to play.
The problems returned early in the 2003-04 season when he suffered a fainting spell during the second period of a game. He spent the night in the hospital and was diagnosed with hyperventilation. Additional testing ten days later at the Mayo Clinic revealed an irregular heartbeat. He missed seven games before being cleared by his cardiologist to resume play - exactly one year to the day prior to what happened next.
On the night of November 3rd, 2004, Riga 2000 travelled to Belarus for their game against Dynamo Minsk that night. Zholtok told Hendrickson before the game. "You better have the energy on our line tonight because I don't have it." Late in the game, Zholtok left the bench area to return to the locker room and collapsed. Hendrickson, still in his hockey gear ran to the team bus to retrieve his cell phone and called Minnesota Wild team medical director Sheldon Burns, telling him that Zholtok was having the "same episode as last year." For 20 agonizing minutes Burns communicated instructions through Hendrickson to the paramedics, one of whom spoke English and Russian. At one point Zholtok told Hendrickson "Don't leave." according to Hendrickson's agent Neil Sheehy. They attempted to shock his heart but all their attempts to save him failed and Zholtok died in Hendrickson's arms.
Renowned for being a dedicated family man, Zholtok left behind his wife Anna and his sons Edgar, 14 at the time, and Nikita, then just 4 years old.
Tributes to Zholtok came from all corners of the hockey world and mourners held a candlelight vigil outside the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation in Riga. There is now an annual Sergei Zholtok Memorial U20 tournament held in Riga every year and a permanent display honoring Zholtok at the Minnesota WIld's Xcel Energy Center.
Zholtok, along with fellow Latvian NHLer Irbe, was a board member of the Kids First Fund for abused and abandoned children in Latvia and Moldova. After reading the linked article, if you would like to donate to this cause that Zholtok so strongly believed in, you can do so by clicking here.
On a personal note, while Zholtok was with the Minnesota Wild, we had the opportunity to meet him in person several times, at both Wild practices and various personal appearances. One of our favorite memories is wearing our Dynamo Riga jersey to practice one day, the first professional club Zholtok played for in his hometown of Riga. Shocked to see a jersey from home, 4500 miles away, he excitedly grabbed a teammate and pulled him over to the glass exclaiming "That's from my home town!"
We would make a point of attending his personal appearances of the "question and answer" format, often asking him questions about playing for his country, which he would always answer thoughtfully and with pride. Those were one of the few questions that were not answered with "spending time with my family" or "going fishing".
Another time after practice, we asked him, while he was dressed in his ever present NHLPA gear, to translate a program from a game between the mighty Soviet Red Army Club and Dynamo Riga, which was written in both Russian and Latvian, which he was happy to do for us, although he was quite surprised to see such a document, again, so far from home. "Where did you get this?" he asked. When the reply came "ebay", he could only roll his eyes at the ever shrinking world the internet had created.
Our other favorite shared moment with Zholtok was during the time of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The lower ranked nations of Slovakia, Austria, Latvia and Germany were placed in one group, while France, Switzerland, Ukraine and Belarus were placed in another group called the Preliminary Round. Only the two winners of each group in the Preliminary Round would advance to the main part of the competition, the Qualifying Round, against the likes of Canada, Russia and the United States, etc. to be eligible for the Playoff Round which would determine the medal winners.
Unfortunately for the lower ranked nations, the NHL did not stop their season for the Preliminary Round, forcing countries like Latvia and Slovakia to compete minus their best players, who were still obligated to their NHL clubs at the time. On February 10, 2002, Latvia faced a crucial game versus Slovakia, needing a win to keep pace with Germany for the group lead. We attended the Wild game that evening, wearing our Latvian National Team jersey in support of Zholtok, knowing that he would have his national team on his mind that evening. Standing behind the goal during warmups, Zholtok spotted us as he skated toward the goal, nodded to us and tapped his heart with his fist twice in acknowledgment of our show of understanding and support.
Without Zholtok, Sandis Ozolinsh and Arturs Irbe, who asked to be released by the Carolina Hurricanes for the Latvians crucial final game against Germany and was turned down even though Tom Barrasso was their number one goaltender at the time, Latvia had to stage a comeback to salvage a tie against Slovakia 6-6, leaving them a point behind first place and forcing a must win game against Germany, which Latvia lost 4-1 to end their Olympic participation before their NHL reinforcements could arrive, the same fate that befell the shorthanded Slovaks, who were without such players a Ziggy Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Pavol Demitra, Marian Hossa and Peter Bondra. The Olympic hockey tournament format was amended in time for the 2006 Winter Olympics to prevent such circumstances from happening again.
Todays jersey is a Lutch 2004-05 Riga 2000 Sergei Zholtok jersey, the final jersey of Zholtok's career.
Today's first video was produced by the Minnesota Wild and is from Sergei Zholtok Night at the Xcel Energy Center.
This next video features more highlights from his games with the Latvian National Team.
Here is Zholtok scoring his three goals in the 2004 World Championships against Germany, Kazakhstan and finally Austria, his final World Championships of the six he would compete in for Latvia.
Next is an extensive biography of Zholtok done by the LNT, Latvian Independant Television. It's in Latvian, but still well worth watching.
Finally, the final interview he conducted upon his return to Latvia in late 2004. Again, it's in Latvian, but it has a lot of game footage in all four parts that make it worth watching to see Zholtok in action.
For more pictures and information on Sergei Zholtok, we recommend visiting SergeiZholtok.com.