Former Detroit Red Wings goaltender Manny Legace drew tears and laughter as he remembered Matiss Kivlenieks, who passed away in a fireworks accident July 4 at Legace’s home in Novi.
Legace, the goalie coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets, spoke Thursday at Kivlenieks’ memorial service in Upper Arlington, Ohio.
“Michigan was his second home,” Legace said. “Ever since Kivi joined our organization, he would come up and live with my wife and I every summer. He became a son to us. He lived with us through the pandemic.”
Legace’s quip that he and his wife “quarantined two weeks before he came up,” drew laughter from the people in attendance. The service was streamed on social media and YouTube.
“I got to play golf with him every day in the summer,” Legace said. “Got to hang out with him, play cards. He had that smile that, he was going to get you.
“He got to become one of my family. A brother to my daughter.”
The gathering at Legace’s house was to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, Sabrina.
“He wanted to come to that wedding on July Fourth,” Legace said.
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Legace thanked everyone attending the service, though he noted that Kivlenieks, “wouldn’t want this. You guys don’t know Kivi. He wouldn’t want this. He’d want everyone to just have a beer and go on their way.”
Legace drew laughter again when he pointed out that former Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella attended.
“Torts even flew in,” Legace said, “and he hates goalies.”
That prompted a big smile and laughter from Blue Jackets goal Elvis Merzlikins, who stood next to Legace.
“That is the funniest thing you ever said,” Merzlikins said.
Kivlenieks appeared in two games this season, playing May 7 and 8 against the Wings. He had a 3.09 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in eight career NHL games. He was considered a bright prospect in the organization, and an always-welcome sight.
“Matiss, he wasn’t my friend,” Merzlikins said. “He was my little brother. Before the (NHL playoff) bubble, Matiss was living with me. He was in my guest room. For my wife, he was little brother was well. We played so many board games.”
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Merzlikins painted a picture of a young man who helped with household chores, doing dishes and cleaning the house.
“Who does that? I’m not doing that,” Merzlikins said. “He was helping with everything.
“My wife was worried about our marriage, because she said me and Matiss, we had our bromance. Every single day, I told him I loved him. I told him he’s my brother, not a friend.”
Kivlenieks was in a hot tub when a firework shell misfired. An autopsy concluded Kivlenieks suffered percussive injuries to his internal organs as a result of a fireworks explosion. After a weeklong investigation, the police report was turned over to the Oakland County prosecutor earlier this week, but Novi police have not recommended any charges.
Kivlenieks, a native of Latvia, was 24.
“Just to tell you about the last day,” Merzlikins said. “There were 60, 70, 80 people. I never looked for him. I was talking to so many people. Always he came to me, he looked for me. We had our last beer, our last shot, last cigar. He was always smiling. I think he made me stronger as a man.
“I’m having a little baby coming up. He saved not just many lives, but when it happened, I was standing 20-to-30 feet back of him, and I was hugging my wife. He saved my son. He saved my wife and he saved me. My son’s second name is going to be Matiss.
“He died as hero. He saved a lot of lives. And I’m pretty sure he did that with a smile.”
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.