SUN Hockey Pool

A day to remember

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

RIGA, Latvia -- It was a day with so many emotions and sensations in so many different directions that it was boggling for both mind and body.

"After so long with nothing to deal with, it was an amazing amount of things to deal with on one day," said Rob Blake.

For the touring Worldstars of hockey, it started with a trip to the grave of Latvian NHLer and former Oiler Sergei Zholtok. That was followed by a pre-game meal with the Mayor of Riga.

Then they played the first game of the tour, which was actually a game with players diving to block shots and the result mattering to both teams, in what was billed as the biggest sports event in Latvian history.

In the dressing room after the Worldstars' 4-2 win over HK Riga 2000, the wife and mother of Zholtok went around the room to thank the players.

Then they returned to the hotel to hear the news of the league negotiators leaving the CBA talks without rejecting the NHLPA proposal out of hand but not offering any real hope of an NHL game this year, either.

"It was tough to go to the grave," said Anson Carter, who played with Zholtok in his brief time as an Edmonton Oiler.

THINK ABOUT LIFE

"It made you think about life. It really can be short. CBA talks just didn't seem that important after going to Sergei's grave.

"When you play your first game since having a hernia operation at the end of the season wrapped up in there, too ... it was a day I think I'll remember for a long time."

In the morning, the trip to Zholtok's grave turned out to be a powerful emotional experience.

The entire team made the long, lonely walk through the dark woods of the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of the Latvian NHLer who died of a heart attack while wearing the uniform of HK Riga 2000 earlier this year.

The grave was already covered by a mass of flowers and a photo of Zholtok in game action.

Not everybody on the team thought it was something they necessarily should be doing here, especially the way it became very much a Latvian media photo-op.

"The media was too much," said Sergei Fedorov. "But I was glad we went there. I said a prayer. It was something I wanted to do."

When it was over, the players looked in each other's faces and saw it was unanimous that they'd experienced much more, on so many more levels, than they ever expected.

"It ended up to be good to pay our respects," said Alexandre Daigle, a teammate of Zholtok in both Ottawa and Minnesota.

But as much as this was an occasion to say goodbye to Zholtok it was also very much an occasion to celebrate hockey in this city of 800,000 and nation of 2.4 million. "I've never had a pre-game meal with a mayor before," said Blake of having a taste of Latvia instead of his standard spaghetti.

After 14 hours on a plane and playing a game with a lineup of 17 players against a club team which dressed 24 including three goalies and a couple of juniors, the 4-2 win was an experience, too.

"I haven't played since I can't remember when," said goalie Dominik Hasek who like Martin Brodeur allowed a single goal.

HARD, BUT WONDERFUL

"That was harder than anybody thought," said Brodeur, who wore a captain's 'C'. "But it was wonderful, too. The fans here are awesome. The players were so excited to be on the same ice with us."

Luc Robitaille, who along with Fedorov, Rhett Warrener and Barrett Jackman scored the goals, was awarded a bottle of the national drink, something akin to Newfoundland's screech. "It tastes like gasoline. It's awful," said Robitaille, insisting that everybody take a drink. As the bottle was being passed around the room, Zholtok's wife Anna and mother Jania entered the room.

"For the players to do what they did today at the grave and to come to play this game in Sergei's memory touched me deeply," said his wife.

"I was also touched that the Riga team wore his No. 33 on their sweaters over their hearts."

Back at the hotel the team reacted to the CBA situation back home.

"At least they didn't turn it down out of hand," said Blake. "After four or five months of no communication, I think we're just happy that it wasn't rejected immediately."

Brodeur said it's what he expected. "We didn't expect to be flying back to Canada tomorrow."


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