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Center collapses after excusing himself from game

RIGA, Latvia -- Latvian hockey players, officials, and fans were saddened Thursday after national star Sergei Zholtok died while playing in Belarus.

Zholtok left the game between Riga 2000, the club he was playing
for during the NHL lockout, and Dinamo Minsk about five minutes
before it ended on Wednesday night. He went back to the locker room
where he collapsed and died, Riga 2000 president Viesturs Kozioles
told The Associated Press in Riga.

Paramedics at the arena tried to revive him but were
unsuccessful. Zholtok, who was known to have an irregular
heartbeat, was 31.

"He was one of the greatest all time players in Latvian hockey
history," said Guntis Keisels, a sports reporter with the
country's leading newspaper Diena. "Ten years in the NHL is quite
an achievement. He was the best goal scorer, the best forward,
Latvia ever produced."

An autopsy was scheduled for later Thursday.

Zholtok missed games twice last year while playing with the
Minnesota Wild, and suffered from dizziness and fatigue.

After leaving a game in January 2003, he was kept in a hospital
overnight for observation. He was diagnosed with an irregular
heartbeat, or arrhythmia. After missing seven games, he was cleared
to return to the lineup.

Zholtok was a key forward for the Wild during their unexpected
playoff run that spring.

"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," said Wild general
manager Doug Risebrough.

Everyone associated with Latvian hockey was shocked and saddened
by the news, said Kozioles, who broke down crying while talking
about the star forward's death.

"I was really honored to have him on the team," Kozioles said.
"He was a patriot for his country and for hockey who never took a
shift off and always devoted time to trying to make our young
players better. He was one of the best players Latvia ever had, and
he was a brilliant person, a brilliant character."

Zholtok was popular with Latvian fans, who are among hockey's
most passionate. While many NHL players skip the World
Championships that are held each spring, Zholtok regularly suited
up for Latvia.

Zholtok, along with goaltender Arturs Irbe and defensemen Sandis
Ozolinsh and Karlis Skrastins, was one of a handful of Latvians to
have a lengthy NHL career.

Called Zholi by his teammates, Zholtok scored 111 goals and had
147 assists during his NHL career. He had a career-best 26 goals
for the Canadiens in 1999-2000.

Zholtok was a member of the Latvian team that won silver at the
1994 world championships, and in subsequent tournaments helped his
country retain its position in the top flight of international
hockey. He was on the Commonwealth of Independent States team that
won gold at the 1991 world junior tournament.

Zholtok was traded from Minnesota to the Nashville Predators in
March. He was drafted by Boston in 1992, 55th overall, and played
588 NHL games with the Bruins, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton,
Minnesota and Nashville.

"We are all saddened and shocked to hear of Sergei's sudden
passing," Nashville general manager David Poile said in a
statement released by the club. "He was a hardworking player who
was well-liked by his teammates and coaches.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to the Zholtok family, his
wife, Anna, and his sons, Edgar and Nikita."

The Predators originally announced that Zholtok had died in
Latvia.

Three years ago, Zholtok and Irbe helped set up an online
auction of hockey memorabilia to benefit abused children in Latvia.
They arranged to have pucks, sticks and equipment autographed by
more than 115 NHL players sold to the highest bidders.