“My first question was: Who the hell is this guy?” Merzlikins says. “I had never heard about him, never knew about his existence.”
That goalie was Matiss Kivlenieks, who got here to America when he was 16 with goals of making it within the NHL. He labored his approach up via junior hockey, bouncing from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa earlier than signing with the Blue Jackets in 2017.
Merzlikins, married and three years older than Kivlenieks, established himself by taking part in professionally in Switzerland. He was NHL-ready by the point he joined the Blue Jackets in 2019.
Latvia is a rustic of fewer than 2 million bordering the Baltic Sea; it homes 19 indoor ice rinks and has roughly 7,500 registered hockey gamers. Only 25 Latvians have ever skated within the NHL. That the paths of Kivlenieks and Merzlikins converged, in Ohio of all locations, to type the NHL’s first all-Latvian goalie tandem, felt karmic.
“For them, being in the US and being able to speak Latvian with one another, they just felt like family from the immediate moment where they met,” Merzlikins’ spouse, Aleksandra, says. “And I think that’s why they became so close. Like, there was no other way.”
When it grew to become obvious Kivlenieks would be sticking round, Merzlikins invited the rookie to stay with him and Aleksandra. Kivlenieks was on a minor league wage and Merzlikins had an additional room anyway. Kivlenieks helped round the home; he walked Koby, the household canine (a cavapoo), with out being requested, and by no means let soiled dishes go unattended.
But what did Kivlenieks look after probably the most? His beloved BMW. “I’m not joking, he was cleaning that car every three days,” Merzlikins says. “He was vacuuming. He was cleaning out inside. He was cleaning the outside. He was going to the tank. There was nothing to clean.”
Kivlenieks was a perfect roommate. After years of begging her husband to watch horror motion pictures, Aleksandra lastly had somebody to get pleasure from them with. “He’s a psychopath like my wife,” says Elvis, who, afraid, would cover in his workplace when Matiss and Aleksandra watched.
“We didn’t just become best friends,” Merzlikins says. “He was really my little brother.”
Kivlenieks’ first Blue Jackets begin got here on Jan. 20, 2020, at Madison Square Garden. He was 23, and making his NHL debut on the world’s most well-known area. At the primary business break, Kivlenieks was clearly nervous. He skated over to Merzlikins on the bench, as he was taking part in backup that evening. “You’re good,” Merzlikins advised his teammate. “Everything you’re doing is great. Just relax, and have fun.”
“And then that’s what happened,” Merzlikins says.
Kivlenieks made 31 saves to lead Columbus to a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers. On the aircraft journey residence, Kivlenieks was thanking everybody: the gamers who blocked pictures for him, the defensemen who clogged lanes.
“I’m not saying it was like winning a Stanley Cup, but he was really, really happy,” Merzlikins says. “That was awesome to see even how the team reacted. He was in really good hands. We were taking care of him. It was really beautiful to see that happiness in him.”
Kivlenieks’ profession was on the ascent. In May, he performed for the Latvian nationwide staff on the world championships, which Latvia was internet hosting. On the opening day of the event, he surprised Canada, making 38 saves for Latvia’s first win towards the world hockey energy. Management in Columbus started speaking about how Kivlenieks may be included into the 2021-22 plans.
“His future in the NHL,” Merzlikins says, “it was just starting right now.”
Merzlikins is sitting in his front room within the suburbs of Columbus as he is speaking. It’s the primary week of September, one month earlier than the 2021-22 season is about to start. Merzlikins is right here to inform a narrative, one which he is nonetheless having a tough time coming to phrases with.
“This is the story of my summer,” Merzlikins says. “I’m sorry, but I would call it the story of my f—ed up summer.”
AFTER THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS, Kivlenieks stayed in Latvia to spend time with family and friends. He deliberate to return to the United States for the summer season, and Merzlikins was pestering his good friend for particulars. Kivlenieks was welcome again on the home in Ohio, however with Aleksandra pregnant and due in August, they wanted time to put together the visitor room.
“I don’t know,” Kivlenieks advised Merzlikins over the cellphone. “But for sure, I’m going to be here for the Fourth of July because that’s Manny’s party. We have to go. It’s going to be sick.”
Kivlenieks had been speaking about this social gathering for months. “I brought him to Pilates once,” Merzlikins mentioned. “And he was just talking about the Fourth of July to my Pilates teacher. So yeah, all the time he was talking about the Fourth of July.”
The social gathering was hosted by Manny Legace, the Blue Jackets’ goaltending coach. But Legace was greater than that to his gamers. Elvis and Aleksandra have had numerous meals with Legace and his spouse, Giana.
“I see him as like my father figure,” Aleksandra mentioned of Legace. “And I feel like that brought us all together as one big family.”
Manny and Giana took to Kivlenieks, too; ever since he joined the group, Kivlenieks spent summers residing with the Legace household in Novi, Michigan.
But neither Latvian goalie had ever skilled July Fourth within the United States. And this celebration was going to have one thing additional. During the day, Legace’s daughter, Sabrina, was getting married on the home. Then the social gathering of a couple of dozen individuals would prolong into the evening.
July 4 was a sizzling, sunny day. Kivlenieks was so pleased. He would go off and socialize, then all the time come again to test in with Merzlikins. Each time, he’d include a present: a beer, a shot or a cigar.
In the night, they all organized a basketball sport within the pool. Then got here a staple of Legace summer season events for the previous 17 years: yard fireworks. Everyone bought out of the pool when the fireworks started, and Merzlikins realized he misplaced observe of Aleksandra. He discovered her standing by the grill. Merzlikins stood behind his spouse and hugged her pregnant stomach as they watched the fireworks collectively.
“He’s stupid,” Aleksandra mentioned.
“Why?” her husband requested. “What’s wrong?”
She pointed to Kivlenieks, who was sitting in entrance of them, alongside 4 others on the sting of the new tub. Aleksandra had advised Kivlenieks she did not like how shut he was sitting to the fireworks.
“Don’t worry, Ali,” Kivlenieks advised her. “Everything is going to be all right.”
THE LAST IMAGE MERZLIKINS remembers seeing is Kivlenieks pointing up to the sky, trying on the fireworks.
“And the next moment I took down my head to give a kiss to my wife on the neck,” Merzlikins mentioned. “Then I see all is green color, coming on us.”
There was a second of panic. Partygoers bumped into the home. Merzlikins realized Koby, their canine, was lacking, so he ran again exterior to discover him. He noticed any individual mendacity on the bottom. He may inform it was Kivlenieks by his tattoo.
“The first thing I see, he was still totally fine,” Merzlikins mentioned. “Nothing. He had a little broken lip because he fell onto the ground, but that’s it. No broken leg, fingers, nose, whatever. Everything was fine.”
But it shortly grew to become clear Kivlenieks was in shock. He was struggling to breathe. Sabrina Legace, a nurse, rushed over to assist. Somebody else referred to as 911.
Sabrina Legace helped Merzlikins stabilize Kivlenieks’ neck by resting it underneath some towels. Merzlikins tried to keep calm. He was holding Kivlenieks’ head, scratching him, kissing him. Since English was their second language, Merzlikins thought it was finest to speak to his good friend in Latvian.
“You’re totally fine,” Merzlikins advised him in Latvian, realizing his good friend’s largest worry would be whether or not he may play hockey once more. “You might have a concussion, maybe because you fell from the hot tub, but you have nothing else.”
“I keep talking to him, keep talking to him,” Merzlikins mentioned. “I see he’s trying to breathe in each time.”
The ambulance arrived 4 minutes, 38 seconds after the 911 name. Merzlikins tried to soar into the ambulance with Kivlenieks. The paramedics kicked him out.
“I had a feeling that he’s going to talk in Latvian because he is under shock,” Merzlikins advised the paramedics. “Do you understand Latvian? No. So I’m your only help right now.”
His pleas did not work, so Merzlikins adopted the ambulance to the hospital in his personal automotive. In the ready room, he was joined by Manny and Sabrina Legace and Legace’s son.
The physician got here out to meet them and started asking questions. And then the physician delivered the information: “He passed away right in the ambulance before we took off,” he mentioned.
Merzlikins stood in shock. “I couldn’t breathe, I wanted to throw up,” he mentioned. “In my hands, I had his wallet and I dropped it.”
And then one other wave of nausea: They had to inform Kivlenieks’ mother. It was early morning in Latvia when Merzlikins reached Kivlenieks’ mom, Astrida Meldere, who was on her approach to work. He may inform that she was driving, so he requested her to pull over. “Do you speak any English?” he requested.
She responded no. Merzlikins did not know what to say. He had requested the police officer if he may ship the information as a substitute, however Meldere would not perceive the officer. It had to be Merzlikins.
At this level Meldere was panicking. “What is it, Elvis?” she requested. “What is going on?”
“Then it hit me again. I told her your son passed away,” he mentioned. “And then inside of my head, I’m realizing like, holy crap, 45 minutes ago, I was drinking wine. Then I held him, he was dying in my hands. So I was kissing an already dead body and now I have to call his mom and tell her her son was dead, and how would she like the body, and when is the funeral.”
When he hung up with Meldere, he FaceTimed Aleksandra, who was again on the home with Giana Legace. Still crying, he advised them Kivlenieks had died.
“It’s weird to see the people that don’t cry,” Merzlikins mentioned, “because they can’t believe that it’s possible.”
THE BLUE JACKETS HOSTED a memorial service for Kivlenieks on July 15 in Ohio. Nearly the whole staff confirmed up — together with Pierre Luc-Dubois, who had requested a commerce earlier within the season, and John Tortorella, who had mutually agreed to half methods with the staff in May.
“You guys don’t know Kivi. He wouldn’t want this,” Manny Legace advised the congregation. “He’d want everyone to just have a beer and go on their way. But you guys in the Blue Jackets organization have gone overboard, so thank you.”
Merzlikins spoke subsequent. He advised everybody that Kivlenieks died a hero; who is aware of how many individuals he shielded. “He saved not just many lives, but when it happened, I was standing 20, 30 feet back of him and I was hugging my wife. He saved my son, he saved my wife, and he saved me.”
The Merzlikins deliberate to ask Kivlenieks to be the godfather to their son that day. But Kivlenieks was so excited for the Fourth, they determined to let him have his enjoyable and as a substitute ask him later.
Aleksandra gave start to a child on Aug. 20. His identify: Knox Matiss Merzlikins. It’s a wonderful new chapter for his or her household, but it surely would not erase something that occurred.
“We’re not even close to getting over this,” Legace advised Bally Sports Detroit final week.
The post-mortem revealed that Kivlenieks died of blunt pressure trauma to the chest. In the times following Kivlenieks’ death, Novi police officers have mentioned they believed it to be a tragic accident, and the case of a mortar type firework tilting barely and misfiring towards the spectators. However, three months after the accident, an official police report has nonetheless not been launched. The police turned the investigation over to the Oakland County prosecutors workplace, who advised ESPN this week that the case stays underneath overview.
It’s one of the motivations Merzlikins has about sharing his story. He is aware of the tragedy has introduced extra questions than solutions; Merzlikins continues to be in search of solutions himself, however he’d like to inform his reality of the occasions earlier than “people invent stuff.”
He additionally needed to speak about grief. The very last thing he desires is to be handled like a sufferer. He additionally would not need individuals to assume how he ought to really feel.
“I asked Manny, ‘Am I going to be all right for the season?'” Merzlikins mentioned. “Like, this is a lot to take in, holding your little brother that is dying in your hands. And then 10 minutes later, you have to call his mom and ask her how she wants the body of her son. That’s a lot. And so I was worried.”
Grieving hasn’t been linear, and Merzlikins admits he would not all the time know the way he ought to be performing.
“Sometimes you don’t control it, it just hits you,” he mentioned. “I’m totally fine, then I’m sitting outside in patio and drinking my scotch and looking at the sky, and you start thinking about him, and miss him …”
One evening this summer season, Merzlikins started listening to the saved voicemails he had from Kivlenieks.
“It was like having him right there with me,” he mentioned. “And that was the nice, but hard part.”
The most necessary half for Merzlikins will not be ignoring what occurred. Life is about experiencing feelings — all of them, even those which can be uncomfortable. Merzlikins likes to really feel. He likes to cry. Sometimes he even likes to speak to himself. He additionally likes laughing in regards to the good occasions — like how humorous it was to him and Aleksandra to have Kivlenieks FaceTime them from the world championships, solely to ask to see his beloved BMW.
“He asked me, did you turn it on?” Merzlikins recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, four days ago,’ ‘Oh no, you have to turn it on now.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ What did he do? He went on his phone app and he turned on the car from Latvia here in my house.”
In September, Merzlikins signed a five-year, $27 million contract extension. He is grateful for the chance to plant roots in Ohio, to begin his household there, and to proceed his profession.
“I’m going to try to do my best just for him and that’s my hope,” Merzlikins mentioned. “This season is just a season for him. … Not having him anymore here with us, this is the minimum of what I can do. … His spirit [is] with me, I hope, he’s going to be always sitting behind me here and helping me out.”
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