As we all somehow try to come to terms with the terrible and sudden news of Matiss Kivlenieks passing, I am at least heartened by the fact pretty much everyone who met the Blue Jackets goalie had a similar thought in their tributes to his life.
He always had a smile on his face.
That makes the news even sadder in a lot of ways, but what better way to be remembered than that?
Still, there are no words to describe the feeling of loss that has touched every member of the Blue Jackets organization, not to mention Kivlenieks' family and friends, after his passing way too soon at the young age of 24.
If you knew Matiss, you couldn't help but love the guy, as that ever-present smile always made the day seem a little bit brighter.
I first met Matiss at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in 2017. He had just signed a contract with the Jackets that summer after dominating the USHL, and while wearing his Sioux City gear -- the green pads and Peter Griffin-themed mask certainly made him stand out -- he turned in a great first showing in union blue. Even then, it was obvious from the beginning that he was one of the guys you couldn't help but root for, with his laid back and approachable nature and quick laugh.
Which is why one of the favorite games I've covered since joining the Blue Jackets was his debut win in Madison Square Garden in January 2020. Summoned to get the start against the New York Rangers in one of the most famous arenas in the world, Kivlenieks stopped 31 of 32 shots -- including a point-break, highlight reel denial of a red-hot Artemi Panarin -- to get the victory. How often do you get to watch someone live out their dream and have it go as perfectly as that?
Video: CBJ@NYR: Kivlenieks shuts the door on Panarin
The obvious joy on his face as he received the Kepi hat postgame from his teammates spoke how much that performance meant to him. I'll always remember the ear-to-ear grin he had as he answered questions after the game in the locker room, and part of what made it so special was the long, winding road he took to get to the NHL.
Video: Matiss Kivlenieks on first NHL win
Born in Riga, Latvia, he moved to the United States as a teenager to pursue his dream, starting in a Tier III league in Minnesota, about as far from the top as one can be. Players simply don't make it to the NHL from that level, but Kivlenieks slowly but surely worked his way up, which had to make his debut win all the more sweet.
After that first game, I asked if he could believe that the arduous journey ended up with him making it to the highest level.
"Honestly, everything is possible," he said. "I've pretty much been in every league. You just have to commit and believe it, honestly. I know it's kind of hard, but if you believe it and work hard and keep doing the right things, everything is possible."
Looking back now, there's some symmetry to the fact that Kivlenieks won two NHL games in his eight career appearances. He won his first one in New York City and then his final game, earning the overtime victory in the Jackets' season finale this year. As Elvis Merzlikins so eloquently wrote in Instagram, Kivlenieks saved his last puck, which is sometimes all you can ask.
Coming off an impressive showing with his native Latvia at the World Championships this summer, it felt like there was so much more to come for Kivlenieks. Instead, we're left with the same memory -- of the smile that was always on his face.