COLUMBUS – Matiss Kivlenieks was with teammate and close friend Elvis Merzlikins in Michigan for the wedding of the daughter of Columbus Blue Jackets' goaltender coach Manny Legace and a Fourth of July celebration.
The festive weekend ended in tragedy Sunday night when the 24-year-old goaltender from Latvia, who was spending the summer in the United States, was killed in a freak fireworks accident at Legace's house in Novi, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit.
Now the organization for which he played since his professional career began in 2017 is in mourning, working with his family in Latvia to arrange memorial services and making mental health counselors available for those who need it, said John Davidson, the Blue Jackets' president of hockey operations.
“This has far-reaching effects,” Davidson said Wednesday. “This was Manny's daughter's wedding, and all those people were there and this tragedy happened. We've got to deal with it, we've got to deal with it in the right way, which I'm very confident we are.”
Kivlenieks was fatally injured when a he was hit in the chest with an errant firework while trying to get out of a hot tub, police said. A mortar tube tipped and angled toward Kivlenieks, who had been in the hot tub near a swimming pool. The blast hit him in the chest, police said.
The investigation is still being conducted and police have not yet issued a report or said who was in charge of setting off the fireworks. A coroner ruled that Kivlenieks' death resulted from the fireworks blast. Initial reports said he fell and hit his head while trying to exit the hot tub.
Davidson said this has been especially difficult for Merzlikins — who is also Latvian — and his wife Aleksandra.
“They were Kivi's closest friends, and they were with him that night,” Davidson said. “This is a devastating loss for them and for all us, one that will always be with us."
Legace, a 48-year-old former NHL goalie who played mostly for the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues in his 11-year career, coached Kivlenieks for his entire professional career. The young player from Riga signed with Columbus as an undrafted free agent on May 25, 2017.
Kivlenieks played in 85 games for the the the Cleveland Monsters, the team's American Hockey League affiliate, and in eight games for the Blue Jackets in the past two seasons. He was considered the No. 3 Blue Jackets goaltender and a candidate to be No. 2 if Joonas Korpisalo or Merzlikins is traded, which is widely expected.
“I think our players who played with him said it the best, that he always came to the rink with a smile on his face and a great positive attitude,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “We'd watched him play in the (United States Hockey League) and thought greatly of his potential, and a big part of that was his attitude.”
Davidson was hired by the Blue Jackets as president of hockey operations in 2012. He spent the last two years in the same position for the New York Rangers before being fired and then hired back by Columbus. He recalls meeting a wide-eyed Kivlenieks four years ago when the goalie was signed, then watching him come of age in a win over Davidson's Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
With Blue Jackets goalies nursing injuries, Kivlenieks made his NHL debut on Jan. 19, 2020. He stopped 31 of 32 shots to beat the Rangers 2-1.
“It was a special interest to watch the young man play,” said Davidson, a former goalie. “He passed, he passed the test in a tough building, one of the great buildings in the world for sports. And that's something that's on his resume forever."
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