Monday, October 3, 2011

Memory Monday: Sergei Zholtok (1972-2004)

(During the summer, we ran a series of weekly articles for every day of the week. We moved away from this as training camp and preseason picked up since there was so much else to cover. Now that the regular season is about to get under way, you can find game previews and recaps virtually everywhere on the internet, so we'll return to focusing heavily on original content. But don't worry! We'll remain a one-stop-shop for all your latest news and rumours as well!)

The 2011 NHL off-season was overcast by a dark cloud as numerous current and former professional hockey players tragically passed on at a far too early age. The current season began with numerous tributes to the likes of Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, and more, may all of whom rest in peace. As sad as it was, certainly, it was far from the first time that tragedy struck the NHL family.

Sergei Zholtok will unfortunately be remembered as a casualty of the 2004-05 NHL lockout. On November 3, 2004, forced to return to play in Latvia with the labour strife in North America, Zholtok was playing in a game in Belarus for his hometown Riga 2000 club. With about 5 minutes remaining in the game, Zholtok, feeling ill on the bench, retreated to his club's dressing room. Within moments, he collapsed and was soon thereafter pronounced dead, at the young age of 31.

It is impossible to know if the same fate would have awaited Zholtok had he been able to stay in North America, avoiding the stresses of relocation, travel, and job uncertainty. We do know the heart failure which caused his death was related to a pre-existing condition, a cardiac arrhythmia which had, in years previous, had caused him to miss some NHL games and even once be hospitalized. Perhaps it was just his time regardless of where he was playing.

But Zholtok should be remembered as far more than the player who wouldn't return following the NHL's cancelled season. Considered one of the greatest Latvian hockey players of all time, Zholtok seemed destined for NHL fame. The Boston Bruins took Zholtok with their third round selection, 55th overall, in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. Due to trades, he was only the second player Boston chose that day, showing how highly they regarded him. At 55th, he went ahead of many notable NHL'ers, including Jere Lehtinen, Nikolai Khabibulin, Kirk Maltby, Craig Rivet, Adrian Aucoin, Matthew Barnaby, and Ian Laperriere.

Zholtok was coming off a season where he had won gold at the World Junior Championships, playing with team representing the USSR. He immediately made the jump to North America for the 1992-93 season where he produced instant results, scoring 66 points in 64 games for the American Hockey League's Providence Bruins. Despite continuing to dominate at the AHL level, Zholtok couldn't impress sufficiently during his 25 games of NHL auditions to land a permanent spot with the Bruins, and as such found himself kicking around the minor leagues until the 1996-97 season when he signed as a free agent with the Ottawa Senators.

Over two seasons with the Senators, Zholtok showed he could be a valuable two-way member of a team's third or fourth lines, and so when he hit the free agent market again in the summer of 1998, the Montreal Canadiens were more than happy to add him to their roster.

Zholtok played two and a half seasons with the Habs, setting a then-career high of 38 points - including 26 goals - in the 1999-00 season despite being relegated mainly to a checking role. But talk to any Habs fan about the early 2000s and they will tell you what a horrible period of management and player movement it was for the organization, and so with the team in turmoil, Zholtok was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers just before Christmas time in the 2000-01 season in return for Chad Kilger. He would finish out the year with the Oil who were making a playoff push, but didn't fit into their long-term plans, being traded again to the Minnesota Wild for a 7th round selection during the off-season. The Wild were still a new organization at the time, having just completed their first season in the NHL, and thus this was a big opportunity for Zholtok to take on a larger leadership role.

This is an opportunity he did not let go to waste, either, besting his career high in scoring 39 points in his first season with the Wild, before putting together his most productive year with 42 points in 2002-03. That year, Zholtok was instrumental to Minnesota's Cinderella playoff run, notching an impressive 13 points in 18 post-season games.

With his trade value at its peak, Wild decided to move Zholtok the following season as he and defenseman Brad Bomardir were dealt to the Nashville Predators for third and fourth round draft choices. That 2003-04 season would of course be Zholtok's last in the NHL, but not before he added another playoff goal to his resume prior to the Preds bowing out in the first round.

So now you know more about Sergei Zholtok than just the way he left us. A great career tragically cut short. He will live on forever in the history of Latvian hockey and that of the Minnesota Wild where he had his best moments, and may he rest in peace.

Previously featured on Memory Monday:

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