Just two weeks ago, the National Hockey League was stunned by the loss of Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Matiss Kivlenieks, who died July 4 after a fireworks accident. At just 24 years old, Kivlenieks' death was as tragic and untimely as they come, which led to an emotional memorial service -- and a noble revelation about the last night of his life -- on Thursday.
During the memorial service in honor of Kivlenieks at Schoedinger Funeral Home in Columbus, fellow Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins revealed that Kivlenieks protected others from the errant fireworks mortar shell that fatally struck him in the chest. Among those who Kivlenieks' act of heroism saved were Merzlikins, his wife, and their unborn child.
"He saved not just many lives, but when it happened, I was standing 20-30 feet back of him. And I was hugging my wife," Merzlikins said. "He saved my wife, he saved my son, and he saved me. ... If that wasn't me or my wife or son, that would be 50 other people.
"He died as a hero. And that's not me saying. That was the doctor saying. ... And as Sabrina said, he saved his last puck. I just want to let you know that he was a hero. He saved a lot of lives. And I'm pretty sure he did that with a smile, because it's true."
Kivlenieks was attending a backyard party at the home of Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace, which was being held to celebrate his daughter Sabrina's wedding. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Kivlenieks had been attempting to flee a hot tub after a mortar-style firework inadvertently flew over the tub, but he was struck by another shell that fired seconds later. Kivlenieks suffered extensive and fatal damage to his heart and lungs. Police stated that no illegalities were discovered in their investigation, and that Kivlenieks' death is being considered a "tragic accident."
Mezlikins revealed during his comments that his unborn son will be named Matiss in honor of his fallen teammate and fellow Latvian. Kivlenieks had been set to contend for a job as backup goaltender for the Blue Jackets after starting the final two games of the 2020-21 season.
In conjunction with Kivlenieks' memorial service, the Blue Jackets announced the formation of the Matiss Kivlenieks Memorial Fund, which will support youth hockey initiatives both in Columbus and in Latvia. The Blue Jackets and the McConnell family have pledged $80,000 -- in honor of Kivlenieks' No. 80 -- to match every donation to the fund.