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ноября. Ex-Wild teammate returns home, recalls Zholtok's death in Belarus
// St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Darby Hendrickson is trying to resume life with the searing vision of his best friend, Sergei Zholtok, dying at his side half a world away after playing the game both love.
It is a chaotic blur of paramedics yelling in Russian, chest compressions and the horror on Zholtok's father's face as his son fought for his life on the concrete floor of a hockey arena in Minsk, Belarus.
Hendrickson somehow draws strength from that devastating scene. He remembers the man whose calming encouragement during dark times forged a bond that made them more than just teammates, whether it was playing for the Wild in Minnesota or for Zholtok's hometown team in Riga, Latvia.
"As difficult as it was, I'm glad I was there," Hendrickson said. "I know he would have wanted me there. I know he would have wanted his father there. He's a guy I loved. I don't relive my final moments with him. I relive the unbelievable moments I shared with him."
Describing Zholtok, Hendrickson borrowed the line by warrior William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson, in the epic film "Braveheart."
"Every man dies, but not every man really lives. When you look at Sergei and the way he lived his life, he was someone who was a wonderful family man, a guy who loved his country. He was true to who he was as a man."
Heart failure killed Zholtok, 31, who died Nov. 3 and was buried in Riga on Monday as his nation mourned.
Hendrickson recounted his harrowing experience during a telephone interview Wednesday evening. It was less than 24 hours after he returned to his family in the Twin Cities, too grief-stricken to continue living alone in a hotel room and riding out the NHL lockout in a suddenly cold and lonely country.
Theirs was a friendship at its peak. Hendrickson recalled Zhotok's encouragement two years ago when he was rehabilitating a broken wrist as the Wild roared through the first half of a season in which they improbably would come within one round of the Stanley Cup Finals.
They grew closer after the Wild traded them--Hendrickson to Colorado and Zholtok to Nashville. Last summer, they commuted together to skate at a local rink and spent hours talking over lunch about hockey, family and fishing.
"Sergei changed my life in lot of ways," Hendrickson said. "He saw life in a way that was good when you were dealing with the challenges you face every day in life. He was one of those guys you were drawn to. He just got it."
After the lockout began, Latvia beckoned Zholtok, whose credibility within the hockey community there convinced Hendrickson to accept his friend's invitation to join him.
During that fateful game, Hendrickson centered Zholtok's line for two periods. Late in the third period, Zholtok left the ice and went to the trainer on the bench.
The game stretched into overtime, and Zholtok and the trainer went down the corridor. Moments later, Zholtok collapsed, gasping for air. Medical personnel and teammates swarmed.
"I kept telling him, 'I'm here, Sergei. I'm here,' " Hendrickson said.
Paramedics performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They attempted to shock Zholtok's heart. During the chaos, Hendrickson kicked off his skates and bolted to the team bus to retrieve his cell phone. He punched the number for Wild physician Sheldon Burns, who was familiar with Zholtok's medical history.
But nothing could be done.
"You go from walking to the rink with your best friend, and all of a sudden, he's not breathing," Hendrickson said. "It's the most helpless feeling I can describe."
In December 2002, Hendrickson accompanied Zholtok to a St. Paul hospital after Zholtok hyperventilated during a game at the Xcel Energy Center. After a similar incident last year, Zholtok was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with heart arrhythmia but was cleared to play.
Hendrickson said Zholtok would not have resumed playing if he believed his health was at risk.
Hendrickson and his wife, Dana, grew close to Zholtok's wife, Anna, and his two sons, Edgar, and Nikita, who are left to cope without a husband and father. They are the ties that forever bind Hendrickson to Riga, a city he barely knew but will never forget.
"I know I'll be back," he said. "Whether it's to play hockey in a month or visit Sergei's grave with my son, I will be back. Without a doubt."
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