Columbus Blue Jackets’ Elvis Merzlikins tries to move on after death of Matiss Kivlenieks

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WHEN ELVIS MERZLIKINS Read the Columbus Blue Jackets had an additional Latvian goalie in the business, he was fired up — but also perplexed.

“My initially issue was: Who the hell is this male?” Merzlikins claims. “I had never ever listened to about him, under no circumstances realized about his existence.”

That goalie was Matiss Kivlenieks, who came to America when he was 16 with goals of making it in the NHL. He labored his way up by way of junior hockey, bouncing from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa in advance of signing with the Blue Jackets in 2017.

Merzlikins, married and 3 years older than Kivlenieks, founded himself by enjoying professionally in Switzerland. He was NHL-prepared by the time he joined the Blue Jackets in 2019.

Latvia is a country of much less than 2 million bordering the Baltic Sea it houses 19 indoor ice rinks and has about 7,500 registered hockey gamers. Only 25 Latvians have ever skated in the NHL. That the paths of Kivlenieks and Merzlikins converged, in Ohio of all areas, to form the NHL’s first all-Latvian goalie tandem, felt karmic.

“For them, staying in the US and staying ready to converse Latvian with one a different, they just felt like relatives from the instant second the place they satisfied,” Merzlikins’ spouse, Aleksandra, states. “And I imagine that’s why they grew to become so near. Like, there was no other way.”

When it grew to become evident Kivlenieks would be sticking all over, Merzlikins invited the rookie to live with him and Aleksandra. Kivlenieks was on a slight league income and Merzlikins experienced an excess place anyway. Kivlenieks helped all over the household he walked Koby, the loved ones pet dog (a cavapoo), with out being requested, and hardly ever enable soiled dishes go unattended.

Emily Kaplan will have additional on the tale of Elvis Merzlikins and Matiss Kivlenieks on The Level on Friday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
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But what did Kivlenieks treatment for the most? His beloved BMW. “I’m not joking, he was cleaning that car or truck just about every three days,” Merzlikins states. “He was vacuuming. He was cleansing out inside. He was cleansing the outdoors. He was likely to the tank. There was nothing at all to cleanse.”

Kivlenieks was an suitable roommate. After decades of begging her husband to observe horror flicks, Aleksandra finally experienced anyone to delight in them with. “He’s a psychopath like my wife,” states Elvis, who, afraid, would conceal in his workplace when Matiss and Aleksandra watched.

“We did not just develop into best pals,” Merzlikins states. “He was genuinely my tiny brother.”

Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, his wife, Aleksandra, and Matiss Kivlenieks Courtesy Aleksandra Merzlikins

Kivlenieks’ to start with Blue Jackets begin arrived on Jan. 20, 2020, at Madison Square Backyard garden. He was 23, and producing his NHL debut at the world’s most well known arena. At the 1st commercial split, Kivlenieks was clearly nervous. He skated around to Merzlikins on the bench, as he was enjoying backup that night time. “You might be superior,” Merzlikins informed his teammate. “All the things you happen to be accomplishing is fantastic. Just chill out, and have pleasurable.”

“And then that’s what transpired,” Merzlikins claims.

Kivlenieks created 31 will save to direct Columbus to a 2-1 earn above the New York Rangers. On the airplane trip dwelling, Kivlenieks was thanking everybody: the players who blocked pictures for him, the defensemen who clogged lanes.

“I’m not expressing it was like winning a Stanley Cup, but he was definitely, truly content,” Merzlikins says. “That was brilliant to see even how the staff reacted. He was in actually superior fingers. We were being having treatment of him. It was definitely lovely to see that joy in him.”

Kivlenieks’ career was on the ascent. In May possibly, he played for the Latvian national crew at the entire world championships, which Latvia was internet hosting. On the opening day of the event, he shocked Canada, making 38 will save for Latvia’s 1st get towards the entire world hockey electric power. Administration in Columbus commenced talking about how Kivlenieks could be included into the 2021-22 plans.

“His long run in the NHL,” Merzlikins says, “it was just starting appropriate now.”

Merzlikins is sitting in his dwelling home in the suburbs of Columbus as he is conversing. It’s the initially week of September, one month ahead of the 2021-22 season is established to begin. Merzlikins is here to inform a story, a single that he’s nevertheless owning a tough time coming to conditions with.

“This is the story of my summer,” Merzlikins says. “I’m sorry, but I would contact it the tale of my f—ed up summer.”

Right after THE Globe CHAMPIONSHIPS, Kivlenieks stayed in Latvia to shell out time with mates and relatives. He planned to return to the United States for the summer, and Merzlikins was pestering his buddy for particulars. Kivlenieks was welcome back at the property in Ohio, but with Aleksandra pregnant and owing in August, they necessary time to get ready the visitor place.

“I do not know,” Kivlenieks told Merzlikins in excess of the telephone. “But for positive, I’m going to be below for the Fourth of July mainly because that’s Manny’s get together. We have to go. It truly is heading to be unwell.”

Kivlenieks experienced been conversing about this social gathering for months. “I brought him to Pilates the moment,” Merzlikins claimed. “And he was just talking about the Fourth of July to my Pilates teacher. So yeah, all the time he was conversing about the Fourth of July.”

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The social gathering was hosted by Manny Legace, the Blue Jackets’ goaltending mentor. But Legace was extra than that to his gamers. Elvis and Aleksandra have experienced many meals with Legace and his wife, Giana.

“I see him as like my father figure,” Aleksandra reported of Legace. “And I sense like that brought us all jointly as one major spouse and children.”

Manny and Giana took to Kivlenieks, too ever because he joined the corporation, Kivlenieks put in summers residing with the Legace family in Novi, Michigan.

But neither Latvian goalie experienced ever skilled July Fourth in the United States. And this celebration was heading to have something added. During the day, Legace’s daughter, Sabrina, was finding married at the property. Then the occasion of a several dozen individuals would lengthen into the evening.

July 4 was a very hot, sunny day. Kivlenieks was so happy. He would go off and socialize, then always appear again to look at in with Merzlikins. Every time, he’d appear with a gift: a beer, a shot or a cigar.

In the night, they all structured a basketball sport in the pool. Then arrived a staple of Legace summertime get-togethers for the earlier 17 yrs: yard fireworks. Everybody acquired out of the pool when the fireworks commenced, and Merzlikins recognized he dropped observe of Aleksandra. He uncovered her standing by the grill. Merzlikins stood behind his wife and hugged her pregnant tummy as they viewed the fireworks alongside one another.

“He’s silly,” Aleksandra reported.

“Why?” her husband asked. “What is incorrect?”

She pointed to Kivlenieks, who was sitting in front of them, together with four other people on the edge of the warm tub. Aleksandra experienced instructed Kivlenieks she did not like how shut he was sitting to the fireworks.

“Don’t get worried, Ali,” Kivlenieks informed her. “Anything is likely to be all ideal.”

THE Last Impression MERZLIKINS remembers seeing is Kivlenieks pointing up to the sky, seeking at the fireworks.

“And the subsequent instant I took down my head to give a kiss to my spouse on the neck,” Merzlikins said. “Then I see all is eco-friendly shade, coming on us.”

There was a second of panic. Partygoers ran into the property. Merzlikins understood Koby, their doggy, was missing, so he ran back outside to locate him. He saw somebody lying on the ground. He could notify it was Kivlenieks by his tattoo.

“The 1st detail I see, he was nonetheless fully wonderful,” Merzlikins claimed. “Practically nothing. He had a little broken lip due to the fact he fell on to the floor, but that is it. No damaged leg, fingers, nose, no matter what. Every little thing was high-quality.”

But it rapidly grew to become crystal clear Kivlenieks was in shock. He was battling to breathe. Sabrina Legace, a nurse, rushed in excess of to assist. Somebody else called 911.

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Sabrina Legace served Merzlikins stabilize Kivlenieks’ neck by resting it beneath some towels. Merzlikins attempted to continue to be quiet. He was holding Kivlenieks’ head, scratching him, kissing him. Given that English was their 2nd language, Merzlikins assumed it was greatest to discuss to his close friend in Latvian.

“You are completely great,” Merzlikins told him in Latvian, being aware of his friend’s largest anxiety would be whether or not he could play hockey all over again. “You may possibly have a concussion, perhaps mainly because you fell from the scorching tub, but you have practically nothing else.”

“I keep chatting to him, keep conversing to him,” Merzlikins reported. “I see he is seeking to breathe in just about every time.”

The ambulance arrived 4 minutes, 38 seconds right after the 911 simply call. Merzlikins tried out to jump into the ambulance with Kivlenieks. The paramedics kicked him out.

“I had a sensation that he is going to converse in Latvian for the reason that he is less than shock,” Merzlikins advised the paramedics. “Do you recognize Latvian? No. So I’m your only enable appropriate now.”

His pleas did not function, so Merzlikins followed the ambulance to the clinic in his individual car or truck. In the waiting around space, he was joined by Manny and Sabrina Legace and Legace’s son.

The health practitioner arrived out to fulfill them and commenced asking issues. And then the doctor shipped the information: “He passed absent ideal in the ambulance ahead of we took off,” he reported.

Merzlikins stood in shock. “I couldn’t breathe, I desired to toss up,” he reported. “In my fingers, I had his wallet and I dropped it.”

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And then a further wave of nausea: They had to inform Kivlenieks’ mother. It was early morning in Latvia when Merzlikins achieved Kivlenieks’ mom, Astrida Meldere, who was on her way to function. He could inform that she was driving, so he questioned her to pull about. “Do you talk any English?” he asked.

She responded no. Merzlikins didn’t know what to say. He experienced requested the police officer if he could produce the information instead, but Meldere would not fully grasp the officer. It had to be Merzlikins.

At this position Meldere was panicking. “What is it, Elvis?” she requested. “What is likely on?”

“Then it hit me again. I instructed her your son handed absent,” he mentioned. “And then inside of my head, I’m noticing like, holy crap, 45 minutes back, I was drinking wine. Then I held him, he was dying in my fingers. So I was kissing an currently useless physique and now I have to call his mom and tell her her son was dead, and how would she like the overall body, and when is the funeral.”

When he hung up with Meldere, he FaceTimed Aleksandra, who was again at the dwelling with Giana Legace. Even now crying, he advised them Kivlenieks experienced died.

“It’s strange to see the folks that really don’t cry,” Merzlikins explained, “mainly because they can not feel that it’s doable.”

THE BLUE JACKETS HOSTED a memorial provider for Kivlenieks on July 15 in Ohio. Just about the full staff showed up — like Pierre Luc-Dubois, who experienced asked for a trade before in the season, and John Tortorella, who experienced mutually agreed to element means with the staff in May perhaps.

“You fellas will not know Kivi. He would not want this,” Manny Legace told the congregation. “He’d want every person to just have a beer and go on their way. But you men in the Blue Jackets group have long gone overboard, so thank you.”

Lovers created a memorial for Matiss Kivlenieks at Nationwide Arena following his demise on July 4. AP Picture/Jay LaPrete

Merzlikins spoke future. He explained to every person that Kivlenieks died a hero who is familiar with how several people today he shielded. “He saved not just numerous lives, but when it transpired, I was standing 20, 30 toes back again of him and I was hugging my wife. He saved my son, he saved my spouse, and he saved me.”

The Merzlikins planned to talk to Kivlenieks to be the godfather to their son that day. But Kivlenieks was so fired up for the Fourth, they decided to enable him have his enjoyment and instead talk to him afterwards.

Aleksandra gave start to a newborn on Aug. 20. His identify: Knox Matiss Merzlikins. It really is a attractive new chapter for their spouse and children, but it doesn’t erase just about anything that transpired.

“We’re not even close to having about this,” Legace explained to Bally Athletics Detroit previous week.

The autopsy exposed that Kivlenieks died of blunt pressure trauma to the upper body. In the days adhering to Kivlenieks’ dying, Novi police officers have claimed they believed it to be a tragic incident, and the scenario of a mortar design and style firework tilting slightly and misfiring toward the spectators. Nonetheless, 3 months after the accident, an formal law enforcement report has nevertheless not been released. The police turned the investigation around to the Oakland County prosecutors workplace, who informed ESPN this 7 days that the circumstance continues to be less than overview.

It truly is a person of the motivations Merzlikins has about sharing his tale. He is aware the tragedy has introduced more queries than solutions Merzlikins is even now hunting for solutions himself, but he’d like to convey to his fact of the situations ahead of “persons invent stuff.”

He also desired to discuss about grief. The last factor he desires is to be handled like a sufferer. He also will not want folks to presume how he must come to feel.

“I requested Manny, ‘Am I likely to be all suitable for the season?'” Merzlikins said. “Like, this is a whole lot to just take in, keeping your very little brother that is dying in your arms. And then 10 minutes later on, you have to get in touch with his mom and talk to her how she wishes the system of her son. That is a ton. And so I was worried.”

Elvis Merzlikins admits he doesn’t generally know how he must be performing in the wake of his friend’s demise. “This period is just a season for him,” he stated. Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

Grieving has not been linear, and Merzlikins admits he isn’t going to generally know how he ought to be performing.

“Often you never handle it, it just hits you,” he explained. “I am completely wonderful, then I’m sitting down outside in patio and consuming my scotch and searching at the sky, and you get started imagining about him, and overlook him …”

One night time this summer season, Merzlikins started listening to the saved voicemails he had from Kivlenieks.

“It was like obtaining him correct there with me,” he reported. “And that was the good, but hard portion.”

The most significant aspect for Merzlikins is not ignoring what took place. Life is about suffering from feelings — all of them, even the ones that are awkward. Merzlikins likes to experience. He likes to cry. In some cases he even likes to converse to himself. He also likes laughing about the very good periods — like how humorous it was to him and Aleksandra to have Kivlenieks FaceTime them from the planet championships, only to ask to see his beloved BMW.

“He requested me, did you turn it on?” Merzlikins recalled. “I claimed, ‘Yeah, 4 times ago,’ ‘Oh no, you have to flip it on now.’ I mentioned, ‘No, I am not likely to do it.’ What did he do? He went on his telephone app and he turned on the motor vehicle from Latvia listed here in my household.”

In September, Merzlikins signed a 5-year, $27 million contract extension. He is grateful for the prospect to plant roots in Ohio, to commence his family there, and to keep on his career.

“I am heading to test to do my best just for him and which is my hope,” Merzlikins said. “This season is just a time for him. … Not acquiring him any more right here with us, this is the minimum amount of what I can do. … His spirit [is] with me, I hope, he’s heading to be always sitting down behind me here and helping me out.”