The Columbus Blue Jackets confirmed the cause and circumstance around the death of goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks.
The 24-year old died after being hit with an errant fireworks mortar blast on July 4, according to an autopsy. He suffered chest trauma and major damage to his heart and lungs.
On Wednesday, Blue Jackets president John Davidson explained the initial confusion surrounding how Kivlenieks died. The Blue Jackets first announced he suffered an apparent head injury in a fall but that assessment later changed.
“We said what we were told, and we said ‘apparent head injury,’” Davidson told reporters. “We didn’t say it was a head injury, we said it [was] ‘apparent.’ Obviously, once they raced to get [Kivlenieks] to the hospital and tried everything they could, with everyone being there, and [Kivlenieks] being supported, they did their work and this is what we found out. We tried to get ahead of it, to tell the truth. It was an apparent head injury and obviously we’ve learned a lot worse since.”
The fireworks blast that led to Kivlenieks’ death occurred at the house of goaltending coach Manny Legace in Novi, Mich., after the wedding of Legace’s daughter earlier that day.
“We understand at this point there was a day and a night celebrating one of life’s most cherished events, a wedding,” Davidson said. “They were [Kivlenieks’] closest friends, and they were with him that night. This is a devastating loss for them and for us, and one that will always be with us.”
Davidson added the team is still calling Kivlenieks’ death “a tragic accident, but the police report will take care of that.” Authorities are still investigating the incident.
A few hours after Kivlenieks’ death, Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen was in his car making the trip to Novi. He wanted to be there so he could support Kivlenieks’ friends and family.
“Going to see them had nothing to do with me being a coach,” Larsen told The Athletic. “You know they’re hurting so bad and there’s nothing you can say to make it any better. I just wanted to be there with them, to hug them and cry with them, and just be there for them, be present.”
And general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who signed the Latvian as a free agent in 2017, commented on the vision he had for the undrafted Kivlenieks.
“We projected him as a full-time NHL goalie, with lots of potential,” Kekalainen said. “His debut in the NHL was a great success. We had him play those games at the end of this season for a big reason, because we believed he was going to be a big part of our future, a full-time NHLer.
“He came to the rink with a smile on his face, whether he was playing or being a backup, to just trying to get better every day with the end goal in mind of trying to be an NHL goalie. He went through some ups and downs, even in Cleveland [with the AHL] but always went through it with a smile on his face, with the right attitude. That’s been said by pretty much every player that has made remarks on the terrible incident. I think that speaks volumes on his character when all of his teammates basically have the same message about him.”
Teammates were distraught over Kivlenieks’ death. Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, 27, who was present for the tragedy, was Kivlenieks’ good friend and partner in the crease.
“My little brother, what to say,” Merzlikins wrote in an Instagram post. “I really loved you. You were a little brother for me that I took care of … Thank you for being such amazing person, always with a smile.”
The Blue Jackets are currently planning Kivlenieks’ memorial service. Kivlenieks’ mother Astrida does not speak English, but Merzlikins, a fellow Latvian, and the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation are helping all parties overcome language barriers and plan an appropriate way to honor the fallen goaltender.
“There’s always layers of just terribleness that happens with these things,” Davidson said. “Obviously, this is about [Kivlenieks] and his family, but it’s about the extended family that we belong to – the Blue Jackets family. We as an organization work everything from grief counseling to phoning to texting, everything from A to Z.
“We’re trying to cover every base we possibly can, this has far-reaching effects. This was [Legace’s] daughter’s wedding, and all of those people were there. This tragedy happened, and we have to deal with it, and we have to deal with it the right way. I’m very confident that we are.”