Military Appreciation Night

Unfortunately for Nicholas Saunders, the life he's chosen means death has been all too common a theme.
The retired Marine and Army National Guardsman wears two bracelets on his arms, bearing the names of 37 friends who paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country. One of those names, Gregory S. Stultz, belonged to one of his best friends until Stultz was killed in action in Afghanistan more than 12 years ago.
That's just part of the deal when you go the military route, but that still doesn't make it any easier. It's made Saunders a different person, one who realizes how fleeting life can be.

Which explains why he was so moved this summer when he heard the story of Matiss Kivlenieks. The CBJ goaltender passed away in July in a fireworks accident, and when Saunders heard the news, he couldn't help but be moved by Kivlenieks, who sacrificed himself so that others -- including fellow Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, Merzlikins' then-pregnant wife Aleksandra and their soon-to-be-born son Knox -- could survive.
"He did the most selfless act a human can do," Saunders said. "He gave his life to save somebody else's. It was a split-second decision -- he goes left or he goes right. One way, he saves himself; one way, he saves everybody else.
"To see that kind of human sacrifice when he didn't have to -- he was still young, but to have that kind of mind and maturity and be like, 'I'm OK with this,' in that split-second … I never got to see him play, but he was amazing. He had a great legacy he was building. It's just who he was. He cared more about other people than himself."
Which brings us to January, when the Richlands, N.C., resident went to the store and bought a simple piece of poster board. With the Blue Jackets due to make their first trip of the season to Carolina to play the Hurricanes in mid-January, Saunders felt an urge to reach out to Merzlikins at the game in hope to get his new Kivlenieks jersey signed.
That led to exchange of messages on social media and a connection that resumed during the next CBJ trip to Raleigh. After the game, Saunders and his girlfriend Carlyn Wynne were able to meet with Merzlikins, and now Saunders will be in Nationwide Arena for tonight's game vs. Philadelphia when Columbus celebrates its annual
Military Appreciation Night presented by Elk + Elk
He's become a full-blown Blue Jackets fan, but the trip is about more than just hockey. The story is not an easy one to tell, as it's about sacrifice and honoring those who make it, memories that make you smile yet bring back the pain of loss.
Saunders and Merzlikins are from different worlds, but each has had to learn to live with loss, forming a connection that is tangible yet hard to explain. Which is why it's come to pass that Kivlenieks' jersey now hangs on Saunders' office wall, the memory of the late CBJ goaltender occupying a spot alongside those who have played a key spot in the veteran's life.
"I wanted to put that up on my wall where my grandpa's shadowbox, my dad's shadowbox and my best friend's shadowbox hang," Saunders said. "My grandpa was World War II, my dad was Vietnam and my best friend died in Afghanistan. That's my wall of heroes."

A Military Life

Saunders now lives in southeastern North Carolina but actually was born in Colorado. He was a Washington Capitals fan at first -- hockey is, after all, an integral part of this story, and he was a fan of the game even before the Colorado Avalanche arrived in the Rockies -- but his true passion was service.
As Saunders said, both his father and grandfather were members of the military, and from the time he was a little kid he remembers having an interest in following in their footsteps. And if he was going to do it, he was going to do it the best way he knew how, and that was to try to make it in the Marine Corps.
"When I graduated boot camp, my dad shook my hand and he was like, 'You've earned my total respect,'" Saunders said of receiving his Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem. "That's all I wanted as a kid."
He ended up going all over the world, with deployments in such faraway places as Japan and Hawaii, then decided to go a different route by joining the Army National Guard in North Carolina. But in 2016, he was medically retired because of post-traumatic stress disorder, pain brought on as the result of a traumatic brain injury, and injuries to his back, nick, hip and knee.
Stultz wasn't so lucky. The two were fast friends from their days in boot camp, even if there were ups and downs, before Stultz was killed in action Feb. 19, 2010, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, while serving as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"It shook me to the core," Saunders said. "It made me realize when he died what life is really about. It's not about all the medal you can earn, it's not about all the degrees, it's not about all the money. Everything that is materialistic, that stopped existing for me.
"It's more about life and how you sit here every day and never take it for granted. Where one moment can be good, the next moment is gonna be bad, but they both will pass."
Since leaving the service, Saunders has remained in North Carolina, earning both his bachelor's degree and master's degree. Things aren't always easy, though, and that's where another passion has helped Saunders over the past two years --- the sport of hockey.
While he'd always watched the sport, he didn't even know how to skate until he bought blades and started teaching himself the finer points of the game during the early days of the pandemic. He's now a member of the NC Warriors disabled veterans hockey team, and while he lives far enough from a rink that he can't skate as much as he wants, he points to the sport as one of his saving graces.
"Hockey literally saved my life when I lost my first service dog in June 2020," Saunders said. "My world just collapsed. I started picking up hockey, went to my first tournament in September and ended up winning the whole thing. I have told (Wynne) so many times, if we could live with a rink within 10-15 minutes, you'd have to yell at me like a little kid -- 'The streetlights are on, come home!'"

Forging a Connection

When Saunders first saw the headline that Kivlenieks had died, he expected the story to be about a professional athlete recklessly playing with fireworks at a holiday celebration. When he read the details, though, he immediately thought of his friends and colleagues who paid the ultimate price while protecting others.
"I looked to my girlfriend and said, 'I need to get a Kivi jersey,'" he said. "I bought the jersey, and she is a Canes fan. When I saw the Blue Jackets are coming, I was like, 'Do you think we could get Elvis to sign my Kivi jersey?' I was like, somebody who was that selfless to sacrifice their life for somebody else, that spoke volumes to me."
The sign Saunders brought to the game read "As a veteran I consider Kivi 1 of my heroes," and he was able to catch the attention of Merzlikins, who would post a 6-0 shutout win in the game. A subsequent social media connection allowed Saunders to send the jersey to Columbus to get signed by Merzlikins, and Saunders included a note explaining just why the Kivlenieks story resonated so deeply with him, plus the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem he received upon completion of boot camp.
Columbus then returned to Carolina for a game in late February, a contest in which Merzlikins served as the CBJ backup. While Saunders at first was hoping simply to get his Kivlenieks jersey signed or, with just a little luck, speak to Elvis about Kivlenieks, he and Wynne instead were greeted by Merzlikins after the game for a chat.
Merzlikins wanted to return the original Kivlenieks jersey that he had signed, plus added a signed jersey of his own, a signed stick and a hand-written letter.
"I was just hoping for a signature," Saunders said. "That would have meant the world to me. I never thought it would get this far or all this would happen. I'm so appreciative. I still wake up and think to myself, or I'll look at the jersey or the note or look at where one of the patches is sewn, and I think, 'I can't believe this. Did this really happen? I'm still waiting to wake up from it. It's truly a surreal moment."
There was one final request from Saunders at the meeting, asking Merzlikins if he could change his number with the NC Warriors from No. 8 to No. 90. Merzlikins quickly said yes.
Saunders will now wear that number when he takes part in the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival in Pittsburgh this weekend, and he's making a side trip to Columbus for tonight's game on a night the Blue Jackets will celebrate the military.
He's never been to the capital city, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of one player, he's become a Blue Jackets supporter.
"Since meeting Elvis, the Blue Jackets have become my favorite team," Saunders said. "The people with the Blue Jackets organization, the fans, it's not like every other team. It's just a really awesome fan base, and for Elvis, what he did, that meant the world to me. He went above and beyond."

Interested in learning more about 2024-25 Ticket Plans? Please fill out the form below and a Blue Jackets representative will reach out with more information!