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Merzlikins, Kivlenieks have made Latvia proud with their play

Blue Jackets' goalies have made history representing their home nation in Columbus

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

One of the most popular things to watch in Latvia right now generally starts at 2 a.m., but that hasn't seemed to matter when it comes to ratings. 

The show is Blue Jackets hockey, and Elvis Merzlikins and Matiss Kivlenieks are the stars.  

The two Latvian goaltenders -- one a burgeoning star, the other an unheralded underdog -- have made history this season by being just the fourth and fifth goaltenders from their country ever to play in the NHL, an improbable feat that has made alarm clocks across their home nation ready to buzz in the dark of night.  

"There are people that are waking up to see the games; some aren't even going to sleep and just waiting for the puck drop," said Aivis Kalniņš, a freelance hockey writer who lives in Limbazi, a town of close to 9,000 residents about 80 kilometers from the capital of Riga. "We love our hockey and we love our athletes, so we try to support them as much as possible." 

It's a sports-mad country in the Baltic region of northern Europe, with a population of just under two million. As fans have started to fall into Elvis-mania in Columbus, the Ohio capital with a metro population the same size as the entire country of Latvia, residents of his home nation are doing the same.  

While Nationwide Arena is starting to fill with No. 90 jerseys, Elvis Presley wigs and songs from the legendary crooner, Latvians might need a little coffee to handle the early mornings, where a 7 p.m. puck drop in Columbus is a 2 a.m. faceoff in Riga. 

But the support is there, a fact that leaves Merzlikins thrilled considering just how closely he holds his home country. 

"I love it," he said. "That is my priority, to defend my country and make it proud and give that name for the world to know because there are a lot of people who don't even know where Latvia is. For me, it is very important to push the name of the country as far as we can so the people know where I am from." 

A hockey nation 

Latvia is located on the Baltic Sea, whose shores form the western border of the country of 64,589 square kilometers (about the size of West Virginia). It shares a northern border with Estonia, a southern border with Lithuania, and an eastern border with Russia. Finland and Sweden are not terribly far away, the former via land and the latter by boat across the Baltic. 

After centuries of Swedish, Polish and Russian rule, the Republic of Latvia was established in 1918, but it was soon occupied by the Nazis during World War II and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Finally, the nation achieved full independence in 1991, and sports has been at the forefront of the nation's efforts to carve its niche on the world stage. 

NBA star Kristaps Porzingis and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko are some of the more notable athletes from the country, but hockey has always been the country's first love.  

The country's hockey program has been part of the flight at the IIHF World Championships since 1997 and is currently led by former NHL head coach Bob Hartley. Currently, Dinamo Riga, the top club team in the nation, is a member of the KHL, the top league in Europe and Russia. Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and goalie Arturs Irbe were among the first wave of notable Latvians to reach stardom at the NHL level in the 1990s.  

At the moment, Latvia's national team is ranked 10th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, with five players from the country -- Merzlikins, Kivlenieks, Buffalo forward Zemgus Girgensons, Pittsburgh forward Teddy Bleuger and Ottawa forward Rudolfs Balcers -- having played NHL minutes this season. 

But Merzlikins' ascendance is the one that has captured the hearts of a nation, for a variety of reasons. His star power is undeniable, as Columbus fans have come to realize, and given Merzlikins' long stint with the Latvian national team, his name recognition is off the charts in his homeland. 

"Everyone knows who he is," Kalniņš said. "The kids love him, the adults love him. He's a rock star. His personality has made him this big thing in Latvia, and he is also (very) good at the hockey. There are fan accounts of him. If there is a public event the longest line for an autograph would probably have him standing in front of it, signing away pucks, shirts, whatever you can imagine that can be signed." 

Though Merzlikins moved to Switzerland first when he was 8 years old and then permanently at 15, where he settled in Lugano and became a professional standout, he's remained Latvian to the core. He was born in Riga and has worn his national team's colors since playing for the Under-17 national team in 2010-11.  

That has included two appearances at the World Juniors as well as four different appearances in Latvian colors at the World Championships. In 2018, he helped backstop the team to an eighth-place finish at the Worlds, one of the best tournaments in the nation's history. His colorful Latvia-themed pads and athletic performances turned heads not just across the world but with a Latvian public that treats the annual World Championships as a nationwide party. 

"Whenever April/May comes around, Latvians get crazy because of the IIHF World Championships," Kalniņš said. "It's just two weeks of full-on madness, people gathering together to watch games and cheer on the Latvian National Team. Those that travel to the tournament are often the loudest people at the rink. You can always hear them, which is why people often refer to Latvians as the best fans in the world." 

Merzlikins' exploits at HC Lugano, meanwhile, also helped make him a standard bearer among Latvian players. Over six seasons with Lugano, Merzlikins was twice named the Swiss NLA's top goaltender. Since he was chosen by the Blue Jackets in the 2014 NHL draft, fans eagerly awaited when he would make the move to Columbus. 

Finally, when it happened this year, interest was piqued in Latvia. Fans watched as Merzlikins initially struggled out of the gate, then responded with glee over the past 11 games as he has stepped in for the injured Joonas Korpisalo and won nine of those starts with a 1.65 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. 

Video: NJD@CBJ: Merzlikins fuels Blue Jackets' shutout win

Adding the cherry on top is the arrival of Kivlenieks, who was called up to be Merzlikins' top backup when Korpisalo went down. A native of Riga as well who moved to the United States at age 17 to chase his dream, Kivlenieks isn't as well known in Latvia, but his debut win Sunday against the New York Rangers was also notable in his home country. 

"In Latvia sport and especially hockey, fans are very excited about situation in Blue Jackets goal," said Jānis Bendziks, a reporter with Delfi, Latvia's largest online media outlet. "Merzlikins' slow start of his debut season left many of journalists and fans wondering what happened to him. We did not see his confidence; those mistakes were so unusual from him.  

"So when Korpisalo went down with his injury many thought this is his chance. So naturally Latvians are very hyped and happy about him. His attitude towards Latvian national team has been great, and that is really important to Latvian hockey fan." 

A goalie bond 

Irbe was one of the first Latvians to gain prominence in hockey circles across the globe, starting from when he debuted with the expansion San Jose Sharks in 1991. Two seasons later, Irbe starred in one of the biggest upsets in NHL postseason history, playing all seven games in net as a Sharks team that won just 33 games in the regular season beat the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in a first-round series. 

Wearing his trademark white, scuffed pads that he often repaired on his own, Irbe in 2002 led an upstart Carolina team to the Stanley Cup Final, cementing his legacy among Latvian players. He was later dealt to Columbus but never played a game for the Blue Jackets, instead returning to Europe after the NHL lockout.   

"Irbe is one of the reasons why Latvians love hockey," Bendziks said. "Irbe's impact for the hockey in Latvia was huge. Not only did he have a great NHL career, but he played great in the national team. For example, in the year 2000, Irbe was main reason why Latvia beat Russia in the World Championship, which was held in St. Petersburg. That Russian team had Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin and other stars. That is a great moment in Latvian hockey history." 

Later, he was followed into the net by Peteris Skudra and Kirsters Gudlevskis, the other Latvians to suit up in an NHL net before this season. Yet Merzlikins and Kivlenieks took different approaches to making it to Columbus.  

Though they grew up about 40 minutes away from each other, Kivlenieks said, the two goalies who are only two years apart in age didn't really know each other as they honed their games growing up. They first met in 2018 when both made Latvia's World Championships team, though Merzlikins said his interest was piqued when Kivlenieks signed with the Blue Jackets in the summer of 2017. 

"There are a lot of guys on the national team who are asking themselves, 'Who is this guy?' because nobody knew about him," Merzlikins said of Kivleneiks. "When he was really young, he came to America. The first time I met him was in the World Championships in Denmark. When I knew that there was another Latvian goalie in Columbus, I was asking myself, 'Who is this guy and where is he coming from?' 

"Then we met and made a good friendship." 

Video: CBJ@NYR: Kivlenieks shuts the door on Panarin

While the two didn't know much about each other before Kivlenieks' callup this December, they have become fast friends. In Columbus they've bonded over mutual acquaintances they have from their home country, not to mention a shared experience ranging from an upbringing to the unique position in sports they play. 

"He is a good friend of mine," Merzlikins said. "We are all the time joking, having fun around the locker room. He is a little bit weird -- more weird than me. A goalie. But it's fun. At the same time, we are working hard." 

"He is a great person," Kivlenieks said of Merzlikins. "Every person is different, but I like the guy. He is funny and he knows what he wants, and those are good qualities in a person. He's not trying to be somebody he's not." 

From a Baltic nation more than 4,500 miles away from Columbus to central Ohio, two men have bonded together, with their new home and with their homelands. It's a unique story but one that shows the power of sports in a global world.  

"I think it's amazing," Kivlenieks said, "even for a Latvian payer to get to the NHL, and now we have two goalies in this league, especially on one team. It's pretty crazy. I think it's really amazing that people, even though they work in the mornings, still wake up early to watch us play. I think it's pretty incredible." 

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