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Friends, teammates gather to remember Kivlenieks at memorial service

Tributes to the CBJ goalie included love, laughter; Merzlikins says Kivlenieks 'died as a hero'

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Fittingly, between the tears, there was plenty of laughter. 

To hear former teammates and coaches tell it, that's the way Matiss Kivlenieks would have wanted it.  

Known for his beaming smile and relentlessly positive nature, the Blue Jackets goaltender was eulogized at a private memorial service Thursday in Columbus, 11 days after his tragic passing. 

While the sadness of the occasion was notable, as friends, teammates and even family from his native Latvia gathered to remember a life taken at just 24 years old, those who spoke at the hourlong service couldn't help but reminisce about the good times. 

"He'd be mad," Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace said of the ceremony. "He wouldn't want this. If you guys didn't know Kivi, he wouldn't want this. He'd want everyone to have a beer and go on their way." 

Which is why it seemed fitting that Legace, CBJ goalie Elvis Merzlikins, Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen and former teammate Nathan Gerbe told stories parsed with laughter, remembering fondly Kivlenieks' surly nature before his morning coffee, his perfectionism when it came to everything from washing his car to hitting the links, and his proclivity for playing pranks on the people he loved. 

Of those who spoke, Kivlenieks was closest to Legace and Merzlikins, living with the former during the offseason in his first few years in the Blue Jackets organization and essentially moving in with the latter this summer upon his return from backstopping Lativa to a historic win over Canada at the World Championships this summer. 

"He got to become one of my family," Legace said. "You were my son and you were a great friend to everybody here." 

"He wasn't my friend," Merzlikins said. "Matiss was my little brother." 

The two Latvians got off to a rocky start, at least in Merzlikins' mind. The 2014 draft pick of the team was long billed as the Blue Jackets' goalie of the future, but he couldn't help but become concerned when Columbus signed Kivlenieks in 2017 after the latter's dominating season in the USHL. 

"In my head, I was thinking I have a future with the Blue Jackets -- 'Who the hell is that guy?' " Merzlikins remembered. "I had never heard his name. I saw that the Blue Jackets seriously took him, and I was really worried about that. My first year coming here to Manny's house, I was happy that I'm going to Manny's house, and there is this Matiss Kivlenieks living in the house. I was really worried again. 

"Obviously, I had to send him a message. I called him, he was out in the city, I said, 'I'm hungry, buy me food.' I didn't say, 'Can you?' I said, 'Buy me food,' because he is younger than me." 

But from those inauspicious beginnings, the three would go on to become almost inseparable, sharing as much time on the links golfing and at Legace's home telling stories as they did pushing one another on the ice. Recently, Kivlenieks was helping Merzlikins and his wife Aleksandra prepare for the birth of their first child, even assisting the pair in assembling the baby's crib. 

"He was helping my wife more than I am doing," Merzlikins said. "He was doing everything. He was doing dishes, he was cleaning the house. Who does that?" 

Merzlikins also spoke of the Kivlenieks' last day, the Fourth of July, when all were gathered at Legace's home in suburban Detroit to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. It was there that an errant firework set off as part of the celebration struck Kivlenieks, leading to his untimely passing. 

Merzlikins noted he was standing behind Kivlenieks with Aleksandra and said that Kivlenieks got in the way of the fireworks to save others.  

"He saved my son," said Merzlikins, who noted his son's middle name will be Matiss. "He saved my wife and he saved me. He died as a hero." 

As Merzlikins put it, "he saved his last puck," just as he did throughout his arduous journey to the NHL. The Riga, Latvia, native was a highly regarded young goalie in his native country but moved to the United States in 2013 to chase his NHL dream. Kivlenieks started in the Tier III Minnesota Junior Hockey League, a humble beginning that made his rise to the world's best league more than improbable. 

Yet he did it with an insatiable work ethic that matched his talent and athleticism. After his standout year in 2016-17 with Sioux City of the USHL, when he was named not just the league's top goalie but it's best player as well, Kivlenieks was courted by a number of NHL teams but signed with the Blue Jackets. 

He spent most of the past four years with Cleveland of the AHL, playing in 85 games, but suited up eight times with the Blue Jackets, earning a pair of wins - his NHL debut in January 2020 in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers as well as his last start, an overtime victory over Detroit on May 8 that ended the Jackets' season. 

Kivlenieks' offseason kicked off in grand fashion, as he started Latvia's World Championships opener in his home country against Canada and made 38 saves to highlight a 2-0 victory. It was Latvia's first-ever win against Canada at the Worlds and sent many of his countrymen to the streets in celebration of the proud country's accomplishment, much to the chagrin of Legace. 

"He made us so proud on and off the ice," Legace said. "You beat Canada. It was hard for me, but you made us proud. You made a country proud." 

He did it all with a smile on his face, an unassuming nature and a friendly personality that made him a quick fan favorite in both Cleveland and Columbus. He was also a respected member of the locker room wherever he played, which showed by the number of Blue Jackets and Monsters players who made the trek to Columbus for Thursday's service. 

"The first time I met Kivi, we had a three-hour car ride," Gerbe said. "What better way to meet someone than that? I arrived in Cleveland one game before the All-Star break and was gonna head home to Michigan to go see my family. Billy (Zito), our GM at the time, asked if I was going to see my family. I said yes. He said, 'Could you drive Kivi to Manny's house?' I said, 'Who's Kivi? Point which kid is Kivi to me and I'll take him.' 

"I get in the car ride with Kivi and spend three hours with him. If you know me, I probably asked him 300 questions and got to know him pretty well. I remember just dropping him off and being so impressed and saying, how good of a kid is he?" 

Kivlenieks' mother, Astrida, as well as his stepfather, sister and uncle traveled to Columbus earlier this week for the ceremony, which was held in Upper Arlington. The Blue Jackets and Monsters front offices and support staffs also attended. 

"He inspired a country," Larsen said in an emotional tribute to Kivlenieks. "He inspired a young generation of goalies. He's impacted so many people. I want to thank the family for sharing Kivi with the whole Blue Jackets family. Thank you so much because he truly, truly was a gift." 

The Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation has established the Matiss Kivlenieks Memorial Fund to support youth hockey initiatives in Columbus and his native Latvia. In tribute to the Blue Jackets' No. 80, the organization and McConnell family have pledged $80,000 to match every donation made to the fund in Matiss' memory. All contributions that have already been made to the Foundation in his name will be directed to this fund. 

For more information or to make a contribution to the fund, individuals may visit www.BlueJackets.com/Kivi.   

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