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Remembering Sergei Zholtok

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild

On Saturday night, the Minnesota Wild organization will honor the memory of Sergei Zholtok shortly before the team hosts the Nashville Predators. The ceremony was scheduled for this game because it features the last two National Hockey League teams that Zholtok played for prior to his passing away just over one year ago.

As a Wild employee who has been with the organization since 2001, I have never looked forward to a game more than this upcoming contest with the Predators. I was an intern the same year that Zholtok arrived, and I didn’t have extensive contact with him. I won’t pretend that I knew him well or shared any profound moments with him like many of his teammates did. But I did talk to him on a number of occasions for various work projects, including feature stories for the Minnesota Wild game program.

Zholtok made work for people like me easy. I came to him with a project in mind, and a list of the least provocative and most innocuous questions one could imagine. I asked him about his career path, and the adjustments he had to make to a new culture and a new style of hockey.

 Sergei Zholtok (right) was often sought out by teammates for advice and comfort. (cr. Bruce Kluckhohn)
Sergei seriously pondered each question before giving a very detailed and thoughtful answer. He spoke in perfect English, a sign of his intelligence, considering he arrived in the United States in 1992 with zero experience speaking the language. He never made our conversations feel like interview with a fresh-out-of-college kid with scant interviewing skills.

Rather, he made me feel as though he wanted to have talk with me. The more I showed him that I was interested in what he was saying, the more he would ask what I thought.

By the end, I had so much good stuff, I should have just written down every one of his quotes and not diluted it with any of my drivel. I’m not the only person to leave a meeting with Zholtok thoroughly impressed. As I found out, he had that effect on everybody.

During last year’s lockout, Sergei Zholtok played for HC Riga 2000, his hometown team in the small eastern European country of Latvia, where his fame bordered on folk hero status. It was no surprise to see him leave the United States for Riga during the extended break, considering how immensely proud he was of his home country, and the hockey that was played there.

What came as a shock was that Zholtok would never return.

During the third period of an HC Riga game, Zholtok began to feel faint, and he left the bench to make his way to the locker room. He didn’t get there, collapsing in the tunnel behind the bench.

By now, the hockey world knows the poignant story told by his friend, and former Wild teammate, Darby Hendrickson, who held his friend’s hand as Sergei struggled to stay alive. The two became close during their time together with the Wild, and Hendrickson would later say that, despite the horror of the moment, he was grateful that he was there in his friend’s final minutes.

Zholtok’s death was determined to be a result of heart failure, ironic considering the 31-year-old’s heart never before failed anybody.

The glowing descriptions of Zholtok vary with each person you talk to: He was a family man. He was the epitome of a teammate. He was one of the few players you would find reading the World section of a newspaper. He was emotional, cordial, thoughtful and intelligent. He was fiercely loyal to his family, his team and his homeland.

 Zholtok’s best NHL seasons came in 2001-02 and 2002-03 when he piled up 39 and 42 points respectively. (cr. Bruce Kluckhohn)
He was a fan favorite in Minnesota, but he was an icon in Latvia because of both his hockey exploits and his devotion to his homeland.

“I don’t think people in North America can understand what Sergei meant to his country,” said former Wild teammate Wes Walz who saw how Europeans treated their athletes while spending four years in Switzerland. “I was told that the country was collectively mourning when he died.”

When he arrived in Minnesota prior to the 2001-2002 season, Zholtok was a somewhat imposing figure. He wasn’t physically intimidating. But his thin, goateed face, his long dark hair, and his deep, intense stare made people wonder if he could be an approachable guy who would fit in on a team filled with accommodating players. 

As an 18-year-old who had absolutely no grasp on the English language, Zholtok struggled to find his niche in North America. He struggled to live up to the expectations of a highly touted, and very skilled second round pick. He bounced all over the North American map, his NHL stops including Boston, Ottawa, Montreal and Edmonton. He missed his family and constantly wondered if he would be better off packing his bags, and heading home to Latvia.

In many cases, a player that is moved around from team to team is treated like a contagious disease. Obviously, one would surmise, there must be something wrong with the player if everybody else is so willing to part with him.

Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough had similar doubts, but still offered Zholtok a free agent contract prior to the 2001-2002 season.

“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

 Few players had the passion of Zholtok. "Very few players played with as much pride as Sergei did," said Doug Risebrough. (cr. Bruce Kluckhohn)
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.”

Risebrough was not the only person in the entire organization that came to adore what Zholtok stood for.

His teammates loved to be around him and sought him out for sage advice.

“In most cases, when somebody passes away, the first thing people say is ‘he was a great guy,’ and whether or not that is the case, only the person that says that knows,” said Walz. “I can tell you from deep down in my heart that not only was this guy a super teammate, he was a good person.”

“When some of the younger guys were down on themselves, they would tell me ‘I talked to Sergei and I feel a lot better about myself and I’m going to be better.’ He worked hard at trying to be the best player he could be, but he also cared about other people and he did his best to help everyone else become better.”

His coaches respected him, honoring him with the captain’s “C” in January of 2003.

“I know that all the guys loved him so much,” said Lemaire. “He never criticized anybody. He worked hard in practices and he always gave everything he had to become a good hockey player.”

The members of the media coveted the chance to talk with Zholtok to get his opinion on anything that surrounded the team.

“He was honest, emotional and a guy that really cared for his teammates,” said Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “If the team played poorly, he said it, and he would explain why, even after the toughest of losses. That is what gained respect for him among the media who covered the team.”

“What endeared him to (the media), as well as his teammates, was the way he wore his emotions on his sleeve. He really loved playing for the Wild and he loved what that team was all about. He had a real appreciation for the fact that he was able to succeed in that environment.”

Sergei Zholtok played 210 games with the Minnesota Wild in just over two and a half seasons with the club. In the life of a hockey player, that’s not a long time, but it was more than enough time for Zholtok to capture the hearts of Wild fans.

 It didn’t take long for Zholtok to establish himself as a Minnesota fan favorite. (cr. Bruce Kluckhohn)

It could have been his cool name. It may have been his canon shot. It might have been his knack for scoring big goals in crucial situations. It could have been his set up of Andrew Brunette on the most memorable goal in Wild history. Zholtok was the player who carried the puck up ice against the Colorado Avalanche and drew two defenders, leaving Andrew Brunette alone to defeat the Avs in Game Seven of the 2003 Western Conference quarterfinals.

But most likely, it was the emotion he showed after a Wild goal, pumping his fist and expressing how much he wanted a win for his team, and for the hometown supporters.

“Sergei was a fan favorite for good reason,” said Wild radio producer Kevin Falness, who hosted several fan promotions that featured Zholtok. “Fans would flock to events when he was there. They loved talking to him, just like everybody else did.”

It was for the fans, the team, and the management to see Zholtok leave for Nashville in a trade, but at least he could still be watched on television. Friends and former teammates could still call him up for more advice. He could still be with his family and watch his sons play the game he loved so much. Tragically, on November 3, 2004 none of those things can happen again.

Most saddening was the fact he left behind his wife, Anna and sons, Edgar (15) and Nikita (5), who both attend schools in the Twin Cities.

Edgar is a hockey player, just like his dad. When he was younger, Sergei used to talk about how crushed his son would be whenever the Wild lost a game. There’s no question that he acquired that passion from his father.

If he acquired Sergei’s other traits, the Zholtok family will be in good hands for many years.

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