Blue Jackets confirm goalie died at wedding celebration for assistant coach’s daughter

Des Bieler
 |  Washington Post

The Columbus Blue Jackets confirmed Wednesday that Matiss Kivlenieks was at a residence belonging to assistant coach Manny Legace celebrating the wedding of the coach’s daughter when the young goaltender died Sunday in an incident involving Fourth of July fireworks.

A fireworks mortar explosion caused fatal chest trauma to Kivlenieks, 24, as he and others were in a hot tub, police in Novi, Mich., said Monday. Kivlenieks, a native of Latvia, was pronounced dead at a hospital after emergency personnel went to Legace’s home in suburban Detroit.

“There was a day and a night of celebrating one of the most cherished events – a wedding – and the daughter of our goaltending coach Manny Legace, Sabrina, was married,” Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. “It ended in a horrific accident that took the life of a wonderful young man.”

A spokesman for the team subsequently confirmed to The Washington Post that the celebration took place at Legace’s home.

Davidson, who led the Blue Jackets’ organization from 2012 to 2019 and returned in May after being fired by the New York Rangers, was visibly emotional while making an initial statement before taking questions. He asked that fans and others “keep the Legace family, who considered Kivi a son and a brother, in your prayers, as they are understandably distraught.”

The Blue Jackets have brought in grief counselors and other specialists to help address the “far-reaching effects” and “layers of terribleness” emanating from the tragedy, said Davidson.

“This was Manny’s daughter’s wedding, and all those people were there when this tragedy happened,” he told reporters. “So we’ve got to deal with it in the right way, which I’m very confident we are.”

Among those at the event were Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, a fellow Latvian, and his wife. Davidson described them as Kivlenieks’s “closest friends,” who suffered a “devastating loss.”

Kivlenieks was signed by Columbus as a free agent in 2017, when he earned Player of the Year honors from the USHL, a top junior league. He was initially assigned to the Blue Jackets’ minor league affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, with whom Legace was serving as goaltender coach. Legace was soon promoted to the same position with the Blue Jackets, and Kivlenieks followed the next season. The young Latvian made his first NHL start in February 2020, and he impressed with 32 saves in a 2-1 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

With Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo splitting the bulk of the work in goal this season for the Blue Jackets, Kivlenieks made his only two appearances at the end of the regular season. He started a pair of contests against the Detroit Red Wings – the team most closely associated with Legace’s NHL playing career – and got a win in what would be his final game.

On Wednesday, Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen recalled Kivlenieks as someone who “came to the rink with a smile on his face, whether he was playing or being a backup, or just trying to get better every day.”

Noting that numerous members of the Blue Jackets have cited Kivlenieks’s positive attitude in recent days, Kekalainen said, “I think that speaks volumes of his character, when all his teammates have basically had the same message about him.”

An investigation into the incident, in which Kivlenieks was initially said to have suffered a fatal head injury as he tried to scramble out of the hot tub, is ongoing. 

“As we try to get our arms around this unspeakable tragedy that occurred Sunday night,” said the team president, “our focus has been on family, both Matiss’s in Latvia and our own Blue Jackets family here. We’re doing everything we can to support everyone.”