Matiss Kivlenieks won't ever be able to play again for the Blue Jackets after his tragic passing this summer, but the fallen goaltender will never be forgotten by the team or its fans, in particular his best friend, fellow Latvian goalie Elvis Merzlikins.
And thanks to Merzikins, Kivlenieks' No. 80 will still be on the ice this year in Columbus colors. Yesterday, Merzlikins debuted one of the two new masks he will wear this season, a helmet whose mask art has been created in memory of Kivlenieks, who passed away on the Fourth of July.
"I want him close to me," Merzlikins said. "I always want him with me. I know he is going to always be with me and he is going to look on from up there and help me. That's the minimum of what he can do for me because he is not here with anymore with us. The passion and love that he had for this game, that is what he is going to do, and I believe that."
Video: Elvis Honors Kivi with New Mask
The mask -- painted by Merzlikins' usual artist, David Gunnarsson of DaveArt -- features a number of tributes to Kivlenieks, including his sweater No. 80 with angel's wings on either side on the front of the mask below the cage, where most other goalies would have their own number or nickname.
The rest of the mask is painted similarly to the helmet Kivlenieks wore in 2019-20 when he made his debut for the Blue Jackets. Most notably, the left side includes a rendering of Heath Ledger's Joker character from Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series of Batman movies. A fan of pop culture who had Family Guy's Peter Griffin on his USHL mask, Kivlenieks memorably had a menacing version of Ledger's Joker on the same spot on his mask two seasons ago, while the other side of Merzlikins' new cage also features a depiction of the CBJ cannon, just as Kivlenieks' mask did in 2019-20.
The mask also features a quote from Sabrina Legace, the daughter of CBJ goaltending coach Manny Legace. Merzlikins and Kivlenieks were celebrating Sabrina's wedding at the Legace household the night of Independence Day when an errant firework struck Kivlenieks in the chest, leading to his passing.
At an emotional memorial service in the days after the tragedy, Merzlikins detailed how Kivlenieks was standing between Merzlikins, his then-pregnant wife Aleksandra and a group of others, preventing the shell from causing more damage, including to their unborn baby.
Aleksandra has since delivered the baby, a boy named Knox Matiss Merzlikins, and Sabrina Legace pointed out in the days after the incident that by taking the brunt of the impact, Kivlenieks made the last stop he could. As such, the phrase "You saved the last puck, little brother," also appears on the mask.
The mask -- which also includes references to Merzlikins' family members on the back plate -- is a tribute in a difficult situation, yet Merzlikins wanted the design to be more inspirational than somber.
"It's not dark, it's light," he said of the coloring. "I told them to play more with the red and the white and the blue, not to make it be dark. … I wanted it to be a really, really similar mask to what he had. He was my little brother. He's always going to be with me."
Before his passing, Kivlenieks was expected to carve out a bigger role this upcoming season with the Blue Jackets. After working his way up through the minor leagues, he had started eight games in his Blue Jackets career over the past two seasons, winning two -- his NHL debut in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers in January 2020 as well as the Jackets' last contest, an overtime victory against Detroit to finish the season this past May after which Merzlikins raced down the player tunnel at Nationwide Arena to embrace Kivlenieks on the ice after the victory.
Merzlikins, meanwhile, returns for his third season in Columbus after starring with HC Lugano in Switzerland for six years. A native of Riga, Latvia, like Kivlenieks, he is expected to battle for time in net with fellow veteran Joonas Korpisalo, as the two have shared games over the past two seasons.
In that time, Korpisalo has started 66 games while Merzlikins has started 54, with the latter posting a 21-21-13 record, 2.54 GAA and .920 save percentage. The two will report for CBJ training camp when it begins the week of Sept. 20, ready to again push each other between the pipes for the Blue Jackets.
And it's Merzlikins' hope to dedicate his performance this upcoming season to Kivlenieks, going as far to say that he has focused his energy in an effort to win the Vezina Trophy -- given to the league's best goaltender each year -- in memory of Kivlenieks.
"That is my goal," Merzlikins said. "I worked my ass off because when it happened, I had this goal right away in that moment. I worked my ass off this summer, and that is my goal. I don't make any promises because I don't know how many games I am going to play. The season can go each way, but this is my goal and mind-set that I have and I am going to do anything I can to reach it."