- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
The Columbus Blue Jackets confirmed that the errant fireworks mortar blast that killed goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks on July Fourth occurred at the house of goaltending coach Manny Legace — and followed the wedding of Legace’s daughter earlier that day.
In a news conference on Wednesday, team president John Davidson said the team is still considering Kivlenieks’ death “a tragic accident, but the police report will take care of that.” The investigation into the incident, which occurred in Novi, Michigan, is still ongoing.
Initially, the Blue Jackets said the 24-year-old Kivlenieks suffered an apparent head injury in a fall. An autopsy revealed Monday that Kivlenieks died from chest trauma, with major damage to his heart and lungs after being hit with a firework.
“We said what we were told, and we said ‘apparent head injury.’ We didn’t say it was a head injury, we said it ‘apparent,'” Davidson said. “Obviously once they raced to get Kivi to the hospital and tried everything they could, with everyone being there, and Kivi 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 team found out about the incident late on Sunday night. On Monday morning, Columbus head coach Brad Larsen drove to Michigan, and spent three days there offering support.
Davidson asked that people keep the Legace family, “who considered Kivi a son, and a brother, in your prayers, as they are understandably distraught.” Davidson asked for the same for goalie Elvis Merzkikins and his wife, Aleksandra.
“They were Kivi’s closest friends, and they were with him that night,” Davidson said. “This is a devastating loss for them and for us, and one that will always be with us.”
In an Instagram post on Tuesday, Merzlikins called Kivlenieks “the little brother for me that I always took care of.”
“I really love you, I’ll miss you, we had our last basketball game in the pool and we enjoyed before you left me right after,” Merzlikins wrote.
The Blue Jackets are in the process of arranging a proper memorial service for Kivlenieks, who was born in Latvia and signed with Columbus as a free agent in 2017. Kivlenieks’ mother, Astrida, does not speak English. Davidson said Merzlinkins — who is also Latvian — and the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation have helped bridge language barriers and are assisting in arrangements.
“There’s always layers of just terribleness that happens 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 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 Manny’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.”
Kivlenieks played in eight career NHL games, including two last season, though Columbus GM Jarmo Kekäläinen said the goalie had “a bright future.”
“We projected him as a full-time NHL goalie, with lots of potential,” Kekäläinen 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.”
Kekäläinen said that Kivlenieks made a big impression on the organization in his short time with the team.
“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,” Kekäläinen said. “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.”
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