COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks died Sunday night as the result of an accident involving fireworks in Michigan, police said.
The Oakland County medical examiner’s office said Monday that an autopsy showed that Kivlenieks, 24, died from “fireworks mortar, chest trauma” after a fireworks accident in Novi.
Initial reports from Novi police, based off eyewitness accounts, said Kivlenieks sustained a head injury in a fall while trying to flee a hot tub during a fireworks malfunction. According to Novi Police Lt. Jason Meier, who is investigating the case, the autopsy showed no signs of head trauma or external injuries to his chest.
The report did show that Kivlenieks had extensive internal injuries.
“There wasn’t a lot of external damage,” Meier said. “He had massive internal damage, so we’re working under the theory that it was the concussive blast of the firework.”
Meier said the accident occurred when a mortar tube tilted toward the hot tub and fired. He said “all indications” are the person operating the fireworks had not been drinking alcohol.
“One fired over their head and they began to flee the hot tub, and then the second one came in and exploded in the vicinity of Mr. Kivlenieks,” Meier said.
Police said nobody else was injured in the incident.
The Blue Jackets released a statement Monday confirming Kivlenieks’ death.
“We are shocked and saddened by the loss of Matiss Kivlenieks, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his mother, Astrida, his family and friends during this devastating time,” Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson said in the statement. “Kivi was an outstanding young man who greeted every day and everyone with a smile, and the impact he had during his four years with our organization will not be forgotten.”
Meier said police were alerted at 10:15 p.m., and that emergency responders arrived 4 minutes, 38 seconds later.
Kivlenieks was transported to Ascension Providence Hospital in Novi, where he was pronounced dead. Meier said there was a large gathering at the home but declined to release the address or confirm that it happened at a residence owned by Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace, who lives in Novi in the offseason.
Kivlenieks and Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins said last week that they were heading to Novi for the weekend to visit Legace.
Legace did not reply to a voicemail Monday.
Kivlenieks, who was soft spoken, was beloved by teammates and coaches.
“‘Kivi’ was the nicest person and always had a smile on his face,” Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson said. “He never, ever complained and would do anything for anybody. It was easy to root for a guy like ‘Kivi’ and a privilege to be his teammate. He will be greatly and sorely missed, but never forgotten. My condolences to his mom, family and everyone who loved him.”
The news spread quickly Monday through social media and teams from across the NHL offered condolences. The NHL also issued a statement from Commissioner Gary Bettman.
“The National Hockey League was saddened to learn of the sudden and tragic passing of goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks,” Bettman said. “On behalf of the NHL family, we extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends and teammates in both the Blue Jackets organization and his native country of Latvia. His love for life and passion for the game will be deeply missed by all those who have been fortunate to have him as a teammate and a friend.”
Donald Fehr, president of the NHL Players’ Association, did the same.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic passing of Matiss Kivlenieks at the age of only 24,” Fehr said. “His passion and drive enabled him to reach the top level of hockey, which included winning his final NHL game on May 8 with Columbus and representing Latvia at the recent World Championship. Our condolences go out to Matiss’ family, friends and teammates during this difficult time. He will be missed by all who knew him.”
Kivlenieks was also honored with a moment of silence prior to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final at The Bell Centre in Montreal, where former Blue Jackets David Savard (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Josh Anderson (Montreal Canadiens) bowed their heads.
Kivlenieks joined the Blue Jackets in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of the United States Hockey League. He signed a three-year contract with Columbus following a standout season in 2016-17 with the USHL’s Sioux City Muskateers. Kivlenieks was 20 at the time and initially was slated to play a small number of games while getting used to professional competition with the Cleveland Monsters.
Injuries changed that plan and he wound up logging 43 appearances in his first American Hockey League season. He was also on the roster for Latvia at the 2018 men’s world championship in Denmark, acting as one of Merzlikins’ backups.
Kivlenieks split 2018-19 between the AHL and ECHL before making his NHL debut with the Blue Jackets in 2019-20 – defeating the New York Rangers 2-1 at Madison Square Garden while stopping 32 of 33 shots. He played six NHL games that season, posting a 2.95 goals-against average and .898 save percentage, and played the final two games for the Blue Jackets this season.
He also played for Latvia in this year’s men’s world championship, which was held in his hometown of Riga, Latvia. Kivlenieks played four games and finished with a dazzling 2.18 GAA and .922 save percentage. He also pitched a 2-0 victory to start the tournament to give Latvia its first-ever victory against Canada.
The tournament was held within a quarantine “bubble” that didn’t allow fans to watch in person, but Latvians celebrated afterward in the streets. They cheered outside the hotel where Kivlenieks and his teammates stayed and many left flowers outside the Canadian Embassy — a Latvian tradition following big international victories.
“It was amazing,” Kivlenieks said last week. “After that game, it was obviously late, but people still came to the hotel and just supported us outside and were really happy. It was huge for our country. It was unbelievable.”
Latvia didn’t qualify for the quarterfinals of the tournament, but Kivlenieks gained a lot of confidence from his performances there. He had one year left on a two-year contract extension signed Oct. 8, 2020, and felt ready to spend a full season in the NHL as the next step in career — possibly as Merzlikins’ backup next season.
Kivlenieks also might have been exposed to the Seattle Kraken in the July 21 expansion draft. Either way, he was preparing for next season after returning to Columbus from Latvia on June 23. The plan was to spend the rest of the summer training here for next season.
“The last two years have been really good and I got (NHL) experience,” he said. “I’m definitely ready for whatever comes my way. … I’ve just got to keep going. There’s still a long way to go, so I’ve just got to keep working.”
Story by Brian Hedger, The Columbus Dispatch