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Zholtok's body to be taken home to Latvia // St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The body of Sergei Zholtok will be returned to his native Latvia on Friday as relatives plan for his funeral and await test results that could determine how the former Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators center died after a game this week in Belarus.
Diplomats from both countries were arranging to transport Zholtok's remains Thursday after coroners in Belarus completed their autopsy, the Latvian news agency LETA reported.
Mourners held a candlelight vigil outside the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation in the capital city of Riga while the shock of Zholtok's sudden death continued to reverberate throughout the hockey world. Condolences poured in from former teammates and officials within the Latvian and National Hockey League communities.
"I am in tremendous grief and shock over the loss of Sergei. He was a very dear friend and I just can't imagine the pain his family is feeling over this loss," said Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Arturs Irbe.
A funeral is scheduled for Monday in Riga, where Zholtok was born. He had been living there with his wife, Anna, and two sons since joining Riga 2000 last month with former Wild teammate Darby Hendrickson to ride out the NHL lockout.
General manager Doug Risebrough, team physician Dr. Sheldon Burns and left wing Matt Johnson, who organized card games with Zholtok on the team plane, have arranged travel to the Baltic state to represent the Wild at the service.
Hendrickson is expected to return with them to his home in Minnesota. The horror of watching a friend die at his feet and the prospect of being alone in a foreign country are too much to handle, according to his wife, Dana Hendrickson.
"It's too traumatic for him to stay in Riga," she said. "He's ready to come home."
Zholtok, 31, was pronounced dead after collapsing outside the dressing room of a Minsk arena following Riga 2000's game Wednesday. He had complained about shortness of breath during the third period, a symptom he twice had experienced playing for the Wild before a Mayo Clinic cardiologist diagnosed him with heart arrhythmia last year.
Investigators are focusing their postmortem on Zholtok's heart and his history, said his New Jersey-based agent, Todd Diamond, who has been in contact with Anna Zholtok.
"It sounds like some kind of cardiac event," Diamond said.
Zholtok, who was traded to the Nashville Predators by the Wild in March, maintained a house in the Twin Cities and hoped to re-sign with the team for which he finally broke through after six nondescript NHL seasons with four other teams.
A third-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 1992, Zholtok scored a career-best 19 goals during his first season in Minnesota in 2001- 02 and followed that with 42 points as a key contributor to the Wild's surprise run to the Western Conference finals in 2003.
Teammates heralded "Zho" for his competitiveness and camaraderie. Defenseman Willie Mitchell recalled how the coaches mistakenly lumped Zholtok with a group of players being punished with extra skating drills for breaking curfew on the road.
Zholtok had been in bed that night, not out reveling.
"Zho wasn't the type of guy to say he wasn't out late. He was a team guy. And if the guys were out skating, he was going to skate," Mitchell recalled.
Zholtok maintained deep roots in Latvia. He played on several national teams, including this spring at the world championships. Zholtok and Irbe also were instrumental in raising awareness and money for abused women and children in Latvia.
"He loved his home country, and he never forgot who his friends were," Diamond said.
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