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.
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.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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