Sunday, December 12, 2004

Dec. 9, 2004. 09:07 AM
NHLers pay respects at Zholtok's grave

BILL BEACON
CANADIAN PRESS

RIGA, Latvia - A visit to the grave of former NHL centre Sergei Zholtok was optional, but the entire Worldstars team turned out Thursday morning to pay their respects.

Led by Sergei Fedorov, the 17 locked-out NHL players walked the wet path through the wooded Ivan cemetery in Riga and laid flowers on the grave of one of Latvia's best and most popular players.

No words were spoken as the players stood for several minutes before the grave piled high with flowers and evergreen branches. The only thing moving was a stray black cat that wandered into the group, clearly looking for someone to take it home.

Zholtok, 31, of the Minnesota Wild, died of heart failure Nov. 3 while playing for Latvia's top club, Riga 2000, in a game in Belarus.

The graveyard visit preceded the opening game of the Worldstars' 10-game, seven-country tour of Europe, against Riga 2000 at Sporta Pils Arena.

"It was a time for reflection," said forward Anson Carter, who played briefly with Zholtok with the Edmonton Oilers. "There's a lot tough things going on with CBA talks and stuff like this puts things in perspective for us.

"All the labour battles we're going through don't seem that significant when you're talking about someone's life. Sergei was a great hockey player and a tremendous person and he'll be sadly missed."

Zholtok, who left behind wife Anna and sons Edgar and Nikita, was treated for an irregular heartbeat two seasons ago and missed games twice last season due to heart trouble.

He opted to return home to Riga to wait out the NHL lockout playing in a league made of clubs from Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine.

With about five minutes left in a game against Dinamo Minsk, Zholtok went to the team's locker-room, where he collapsed and died. Paramedics at the rink tried in vain to revive him.

Wild forward Alexandre Daigle said Zholtok may have been saved had he been monitored by doctors with the same attention that players get in the NHL.

"That was the big difference," said Daigle. "He was only 31 years old — nobody's supposed to die that way."

Karlis Skrastins, a Nashville Predators defenceman playing for Riga 2000, said his team is well cared for but doctors hadn't followed Zholtok's medical history as closely as the Wild's medical staff.

"I don't want to say anything bad about our doctors because they didn't know what's inside Sergei and know how to react," he said.

"It was a tough time for us playing the game. It was a big shock not just for the team, but for all of Latvia because he was one of the best players in Latvia's history."

Zholtok played 588 NHL games for Boston, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Minnesota and Nashville. He scored 111 goals and had 147 assists, including a career high 26 goals for Montreal in 1999-2000.

He was also a member of the Latvian team that won a silver medal at the 1994 IIHF World Championship.

It was thought that only a handful of Worldstars players would stop by the grave before their morning practice, but the bus was full when it left the team hotel.

"We realized as a team that it was mandatory," said Carter. ``We didn't have to say anything to anybody.

"Everyone felt obliged to pay their respects to Sergei, who was a heck of a National Hockey League player."

The Worldstars tour was organized by IMG during the lockout.

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