COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — One year has passed since the death of Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks, who died of chest trauma from an errant fireworks mortar blast on July 4.
Kivlenieks, 24, was in Novi, Michigan, attending a gathering at the home of goaltending coach Manny Legace, whose daughter was getting married that weekend.
Kivlenieks’ best friend and fellow Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins was at the party when Kivlenieks was hit with the mortar blast. Merzlikins, who’s also from Latvia, said Kivlenieks saved countless lives when he was struck.
“He wasn’t my friend. He was my little brother,” Merzlikins said at Kivlenieks’ memorial service. “He saved my son, he saved my wife and he saved me. … He died as a hero.”
On Aug. 24, Merzlikins and his wife, Aleksandra, announced the birth of their first child — Knox Matiss Merzlikins. At Kivlenieks’ memorial service, Merzlikins had promised to give his son the middle name Matiss.
Merzlikins has been open about the emotional trauma he experienced, and continues to experience, since losing his best friend who lived with Elvis and Aleksandra when Kivlenieks first moved to Columbus.
During a postseason interview, Merzlikins was asked about the emotion of having to play without his “brother” by his side.
“Before Christmas period, I wasn’t here. I wasn’t here mentally because I felt Christmas coming closer and Matiss was always with us at Christmas and New Year,” Merzlikins said. “I know we played [January] 1st. … I just knew I couldn’t play that game because I knew there was going to be fireworks and if I heard them it’s going to be a problem. I remembered I walked to Manny, and I just started crying.”
Merzlikins said there were games leading up to December when he didn’t care about playing because of the grief.
“I’m going to be honest there were a couple games I was just going out there and I didn’t care because I wasn’t there,” he said. “I was playing hockey, the guys are coming at me and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, last year he was here with me, and this year there’s going to be an empty seat at my table.’ It was hard.”
Merzlikins experienced another traumatic trigger when the season began.
“The opening night … when I heard the cannon I felt it first. We all know what happened to [Matiss] and when I heard the cannon my heart, I felt my heart like I never heard before in my life,” Merzlikins said. “The next three-four games when I heard the cannon, even when we scored the goals, I was closing the eyes and getting myself ready for nothing.”
He said he was able to make it through those dark times because of Legace and head coach Brad Larsen, who drove to Novi the next morning on July 5 to be with Legace and Merzlikins.
“They helped me a lot to go through that. Manny helped me a lot to go through that,” Merzlikins said. “It’s always nice when you have somebody with you who can cry together and that hug is helping you.”
The Blue Jackets established a memorial fund in honor of Kivlenieks to benefit youth hockey initiatives. The Matiss Kivlenieks Memorial Fund supports youth hockey initiatives in both Columbus and Kivlenieks’ home country of Latvia.