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Death of a Hero

At 31, Sergei Zholtok had returned to his native ice to play during the lockout

In the harsh light of a tragedy, the salary caps and bargaining chips preoccupying the NHL community during its labor impasse didn't seem so important last week. On Nov. 3 Predators center Sergei Zholtok, a Latvian national hero riding out the lockout with a pro team in his hometown of Riga, left the bench and headed for the dressing room during a game in Minsk, Belarus. He never made it, collapsing in the corridor, dead of heart failure at the age of 31.

A third-liner who played for six teams and scored 111 goals in his 10 NHL seasons, Zholtok had a history of heart trouble. In October 2003, while with the Wild, he missed seven games after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, and twice the previous season he was scratched after complaining of dizziness and fatigue.

Zholtok was revered in Latvia, and fans held a candlelight vigil outside the hockey federation headquarters in Riga last Thursday. One of four Latvians in the NHL, he was a mainstay of his national team and worked diligently on behalf of his economically depressed homeland. "I think he felt like he got lucky and made it big," says Jay Sorensen, president of the Kids First Fund, a charity that aids victims of child abuse in Latvia. "He felt an obligation to give back to his country." --S.C.