Blue Jackets front office staff on Wednesday confirmed that Matiss Kivlenieks died following an accident Sunday at goaltending coach Manny Legace’s home in Novi, Mich., after celebrating the wedding of Legace’s daughter. Kivlenieks was 24 years old.
“We understand at this point that it was a day and a night of celebrating one of the most cherished events, a wedding, and the daughter of our goaltending coach Manny Legace, Sabrina, was married. It ended in a horrific accident that took the life of a wonderful young man,” said president of hockey operations John Davidson, reading from a prepared statement.
“I ask that you keep the Legace family, who considered Kivi a son and a brother, in your prayers, as they are understandably distraught. I would also ask that you do the same for (Columbus goalie) Elvis Merzlikins, his wife, Aleksandra, who was there too. They were Kivi’s closest friends, and they were with him that night. This is a devastating loss for them and for all of us, and one that will always be with us.”
Davidson also addressed whether there was concern for Legace and Merzlikins, both of whom witnessed the accident as it happened.
“There’s always layers of just terribleness that happens with these things, and obviously, this is about Kivi and his family,” Davidson said, “but it’s about the extended family that we belong to, the Blue Jackets family.”
Coach Brad Larsen traveled to Michigan on Monday morning and was with the families. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen added that professionals are available for anyone who needs to talk, from players to their families and the staff.
“I’ve seen a lot of down faces around here. This kid was available, he made people smile, he was just a great kid, so we’ll do what we can to help anybody that needs it,” Davidson said.
Initial reports indicated Kivlenieks slipped and hit his head on concrete while fleeing a hot tub due to a “firework malfunction” from a mortar-style firework. Following an autopsy by the Oakland County Medical Examiner, the AP confirmed the cause of death was chest trauma caused by a firework mortar blast. He suffered extensive damage to his heart and lungs.
Davidson and Kekalainen also talked about Kivlenieks’ career, and the expectations for him to be an NHL goaltender full time. The pair, along with then-assistant general manager Bill Zito (who was also GM of the AHL team), met Kivlenieks about four years ago in Sioux City, Iowa, when he played for the Musketeers of the USHL.
“We wanted to have him come and be a part of the Blue Jackets organization. You could see the passion in his face, you could hear it in his voice. He had a dream and he lived his dream. That’s when I first met him,” Davidson said in his prepared statement.
“I think the last time I saw Kivi I was on the other end of it with the Rangers. The Blue Jackets had a ton of injuries. Kivi had a chance to play goal, start the game at Madison Square Garden. (He) was fabulous,” Davidson said, pausing as emotions overtook him. “We (lost) that 2-1. We lost, and I felt good for that kid.”
The Blue Jackets signed “Kivi,” as he was known to teammates, as a free agent in May 2017. He made his NHL debut on Jan. 19, 2020, stopping 31 of 32 shots for a 2-1 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. In eight career NHL games, he compiled a 2-2-2 record with a 3.09 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.
He made two starts this season — both against the Red Wings — going 1-1-0 with a .901 save percentage. He posted a 33-35-9 mark, 3.31 goals-against average, .896 save percentage and three shutouts in 85 career games with the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters.
Kivlenieks in May suited up for Latvia at the 2021 IIHF World Championships, where he went 1-2 with a 2.18 goals-against average, .922 save percentage and one shutout in four games. That one win was a 2-0 shutout over the eventual champions, Canada. He stopped all 38 shots he saw.
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