Kivlenieks died a hero, Blue Jackets teammate says at memorial

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That’s what Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins said to teammates, friends and family at a memorial service Thursday for Kivlenieks, a goalie who died in a fireworks accident at age 24 on July 4.

The hour-long private service was held at a funeral home in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington and was streamed live. Kivlenieks’ parents, sister and other relatives from Latvia were in attendance.

Kivlenieks was in an open, white casket with his framed No. 80 Blue Jackets jersey next to it.

Merzlikins and Kivlenieks were in Novi, Michigan, for the holiday weekend to celebrate the wedding of Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace’s daughter, Sabrina. 

Merzlikins said he and his pregnant wife, Aleksandra, were hugging about 20-30 feet behind Kivlenieks when he was hit in the chest with a stray mortar.

“He saved my (unborn) son. He saved my wife and he saved me,” Merzlikins said. “He saved many lives. … If that wouldn’t have been me, my wife or son, it would’ve been 50 other people. He died a hero. And that’s not me saying it. That was the doctor saying it. If he would just sit, it wouldn’t have happened. … I just wanted to let you know that he was a hero. He saved a lot of lives.”

Merzlikins said he was grateful to spend time with Kivlenieks that day. The goalies were also countrymen from Latvia.

“There were 60, 70, 80 people,” Merzlikins said. “I never looked for him. I was talking to so many people and always he came to me. He looked for me. We had our last beer. Our last shot, more than one. Last cigar.

“Matiss wasn’t my friend. He was my little brother.”

Merzlikins said their son, due in September will have Matiss as a middle name. 

Other speakers included Legace, Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen and forward Nathan Gerbe. A brief video tribute was played.

Former Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella was also in attendance, and Larsen opened his remarks by saying that he did not have anything prepared but Tortorella always told him to speak from the heart.

Larsen mentioned that Kivlenieks, who was undrafted, won his NHL debut against the New York Rangers on Jan. 19, 2020, and earned Latvia’s first win against Canada on the international stage, making 38 saves in a 2-0 victory at the 2021 IIHF World Championships on May 21.

“He’s inspired a country,” Larsen said. “He’s inspired a young generation of goalies. He’s impacted, gosh, so many people.”

Gerbe said Kivlenieks embodied the three things that he taught his own children.

“Respect, good attitude, hard work. Isn’t that ‘Kivi’?” he said.

Legace choked up several times talking about Kivlenieks, who spent his summers at Legace’s home in Michigan since joining the organization in 2017.

“He got to become one of my family,” Legace said. “He was a brother to my daughter and great friend to our nephew. I want to thank his mom and dad for raising [him into] this world for us to share this beautiful child.”

Legace said the humble and always smiling Kivlenieks would not have wanted all the attention at a memorial service.

“He would want everyone to just have a beer and go their way,” Legace said.

Signed by the Blue Jackets as a free agent May 25, 2017, Kivlenieks was 1-1-0 with a 3.40 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in two games this season, and 2-2-2 with a 3.09 GAA and .899 save percentage in eight NHL games (six starts) the past two seasons.

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