Matiss Kivlenieks‘ death on Sunday has had an impact on the entire Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
In an emotional news conference at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday, Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen remembered Kivlenieks as a goalie with a bright future, a positive attitude and an infectious personality that touched everyone he met. He was 24.
“There’s always layers of just terribleness that happen with these things,” Davidson said. “Obviously, this is about ‘Kivi’ and his family, but it’s about the extended family that we belong to, the Blue Jackets family. We as an organization, we’ve worked everything from grief counselors to people phoning, to text, everything from A to Z.
“We’re trying to cover every base possible can because this isn’t just the fact [Kivlenieks died] itself. This has far-reaching effects.”
Davidson and Kekalainen wouldn’t discuss specifics about Kivlenieks’ death or the police investigation into it.
“This, to me, seems like a tragic accident,” Davidson said. “But the police report will take care of that.”
Davidson confirmed Kivlenieks was at a celebration in Michigan following the wedding of Blue Jackets goalie coach Manny Legace’s daughter, Sabrina. He also said Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins and his wife, Aleksandra, were in attendance.
“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 of us, one that will always be with us.”
The Blue Jackets are working with Kivlenieks’ family in Latvia with help from officials from the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation, Kivlenieks’ agent Jay Grossman, Merzlikins and the NHL to arrange a memorial service, but have yet to finalize plans. Davidson said Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen drove to Michigan on Monday to spend time with Legace and his family and Merzlikins before returning to Columbus on Wednesday.
The Blue Jackets have made grief counselors available to their players and their families and team employees.
“I’ve seen a lot of down faces around here,” Davidson said. “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 and Kekalainen recalled flying to meet Kivlenieks for the first time in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was playing in the United States Hockey League, before Columbus signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
“I remember that trip to Sioux City like yesterday,” Kekalainen said. “We watched him play in the USHL and thought greatly of his potential and a big part of it was his attitude. He wanted to get better every day and it’s just so sad he’s gone.”
Kivlenieks worked his way up from Kalamazoo of the ECHL and Cleveland of the American Hockey League to make his NHL debut with Columbus against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 19, 2020. Davidson was president of the Rangers at the time (he returned to the Blue Jackets on May 20) but took some pride in watching Kivlenieks make 31 saves in a 2-1 Columbus victory.
“He passed the test in a tough building, one of the great buildings in the world for sports,” Davidson said. “And that’s something that’s on his resume forever.”
Kivlenieks was 2-2-2 with a 3.09 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage in eight NHL games (six starts) the past two seasons. He spent most of this season bouncing between Cleveland and the Blue Jackets taxi squad before starting Columbus’ final two regular-season games against the Detroit Red Wings on May 7 and 8, going 1-1-0 with a 3.41 GAA and .901 save percentage.
“We had him play those games at the end of the season for a reason because we felt he was going to be a big part of our future and a full-time NHLer,” Kekalainen said. “That’s what we had envisioned when we signed him as a free agent and that’s what we were building towards. He had a bright future.”