Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sergei Zholtok Autographed Card

Keeping with this Olympic spirit...

One player who would be in this year's Olympics if he could is Sergei Zholtok (Latvian: Sergejs Žoltoks, Russian: Сергей Жолток), manning the Latvian wing despite his 37 years of age, but a heart condition and sub-par medical facilities in professional hockey rinks of the former-U.S.S.R. have ensured he is no longer among us.

Unlike many NHLers, Zholtok didn't develop an interest in hockey until he was 8 years old, watching a Canada-U.S.S.R. game from the 1980 Olympics on TV, but as soon as he saw it, he wanted to take part in it. He and his grandfather begged the local club to let him practice and learn to skate with them until he was eventually good enough to actually make the team.

By 1989, he was already a member of the Soviet Union team that captured the silver medal at the European Junior Championships, gathering 6 goals and 10 points in six games. A year later, it was silver at the World Juniors, and in 1992, World Junior gold.

He had made enough of an impression with the Boston Bruins to become their third-round pick (55th overall) at the 1992 NHL draft (a draft that yielded 15 All Star players including Nikolai Khabibulin, Sergei Gonchar, Roman Hamrlik and Valeri Bure, as well as fellow third-rounders Brent Gretzky, Manny Fernandez, Kirk Maltby, Craig Rivet and German star Stefan Ustorf). However, he didn't make a good enough impression to last with the Bruins, who only let him play 25 games in three seasons in the NHL, spending the rest of his time with their AHL affiliate in Providence.

Zholtok needed a change of scenery, and he got it with the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder. In his first season there, 1995-96, he amassed 51 goals and 101 points in 80 games (plus 20 another points in 15 playoff games), and he started the 1996-97 campaign scoring 13 goals (and 27 points) in a mere 19 games before the Ottawa Senators called on him to finish the season with them, where his 28 points in 57 games propelled them to their first-ever playoff appearance. The following season, despite his statistics dropping somewhat, the team still managed to make it to the second round.

1998-99 saw him traded to the Montréal Canadiens, where again his statistics would decline (on a terrible team) with only 7 goals in 70 games and a short stint in the AHL with the Fredericton Canadiens, but by the time the season ended, he took part in his third World Championships for Latvia. It must have instilled some confidence in him, because the next season, he scored a team-high 26 goals for the Habs that heightened both the fans' and management's expectations of him. His lone goal in the 2000-01 season's first 32 games, however, were more than disappointing, so the Canadiens sent him to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Chad Kilger, who had a tremendous stretch of success upon arriving in Montréal, while Zholtok put up 20 points in 37 games to lead the Oilers to the playoffs.

His play with the Oilers had caught the eye of Minnesota Wild management, and they called upon him to lead them in their sophomore season in the NHL, and he came up with 39 points in 73 games. The next year, the team made the playoffs and went on a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, as he followed a 42-point regular season (78 games) with a strong showing in the playoffs - 13 points in 18 games. He was even named team captain in January 2003.

In 2003-04, in what was his final NHL season, he was traded by the Wild to the Nashville Predators as they, themselves, were making their playoff push, which they managed despite Zholtok barely collecting a goal and an assist in 11 regular season games, and a mere goal in 6 playoff games.

During the lock-out 2004-05 season, he elected to go back home to Riga, Latvia to play with former Wild teammate (and good friend) Darby Hendrickson for HK Riga 2000 in the BHL, the team that is currently the KHL's Dinamo Riga farm club. He had 7 points and was playing in his sixth game when, with 5 minutes remaining in a game against HC Dinamo Minsk, he left the ice to head to the dressing room, feeling ill. As he collapsed, Hendrickson ran down the hall to help him; by the time medics arrived, he had already passed away, his friend by his side. They listed the cause of death as being heart failure.

His NHL career might have been uneven, but his international career, however, is laden with success; the medals playing for the Soviet team, and the 6 times playing with Latvia at the Worlds, including many surprising showings and quite a few unexpected wins as everyone's favourite underdog country can surely attest to that.

This card (#659) is from the 1991-92 Upper Deck High Number Series set, back in the day when Upper Deck made only one hockey set, split in two: the ''regular numbers'' in time for the start of the season, and the ''high numbers'', updated with players who had been traded, rookies, or, at times, international players on their way to the NHL, at mid-season, near the All Star break.

I actually prefer these old Upper Deck sets to the newer ones; sure, the first three sets had basically the same simple, white-border design, but there was a big, clear picture at the back that added class, in addition that Upper Deck usually tried to have both team jerseys (home and away) appear on the card - in this case, the front is the red ''away'' CCCP jersey, while the back sees Zholtok sport the white ''home'' one.

Notice how Zholtok even signed the back of the card? I found that awesome. The card was signed in black ball-point pen - no one had a sharpie at hand - while he was a member of the Wild; it was less than an hour after a game, I was with a friend who was wearing a Zholtok Habs jersey, and even though he was rushed by Wild staff to get on the team bus, he took a bit of time to talk to us about Montréal, its fans, its restaurants, and life in general. A class act, really.

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