Blue Jackets, Merzlikins honour Kivlenieks with dominant win over Coyotes

Before the Columbus Blue Jackets started their season they held a tribute for their late goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks.

There wasn't a dry eye at Nationwide Arena as the Columbus Blue Jackets raised No. 80 to the rafters to honour the memory of goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks.

His team came through with a dominant performance against the Arizona Coyotes, winning 8-2 in their season opener.

Wearing Kivlenieks' No. 80, Elvis Merzlikins honoured his fellow countryman stopping 36 of the 38 shots he faced. He even took a moment after the game to acknowledge his former teammate with a gesture to the sky.

Merzlikins admitted that there was a few mental hurdles he had to overcome heading into the game especially with emotion from the pre-game ceremony.

"It was my most important game," Merzlikins told reporters. "I was obviously a little nervous because I didn’t want to embarrass the number for my first and last game that I wear that number here in Columbus.

"...I slept really bad last night, I was really nervous, I knew I would be emotional, it was hard to focus, hard to dial in and be in the moment. On the blue line when I see the family coming out, I started wasn't easy."

During the off-season, the 24-year-old Kivlenieks tragically lost his life in a fireworks accident on July 4. He was, by all accounts, a remarkable human who had grown into being a promising goaltending prospect in the Blue Jackets system, and his death had a far-reaching impact within the organization.

The organization invited members of his family for a pre-game ceremony where they unveiled a banner with Kivlenieks' name and number on it. Over the last few days, there have been numerous tributes for the young netminder.

The Blue Jackets Foundation announced that it was donating $80,000 to the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation for its "Kivi's Kids" initiative. This was started in honour of Kivlenieks with the money going towards clinics and to provide equipment for young goaltenders in his native country.

Behind the home net at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets painted No. 80 and also had his jersey on display in the arena.

No one on the team was impacted more by the death of Kivlenieks than Merzlikins.

Merzlikins invited Kivlenieks to live with him and the two formed a strong bond. Merzlikins often compared Kivlenieks to a little brother and was going to ask him to be his daughter's godfather just before he passed. He recently explained to ESPN's Emily Kaplan that the grief from Kivlenieks' has been tough to process.

"Sometimes you don't control it, it just hits you," said Merzlikins. "I'm totally fine, then I'm sitting outside in patio and drinking my scotch and looking at the sky, and you start thinking about him, and miss him ..."

Going into the season, the 27-year-old said his focus was to honour Kivlenieks by going all-in to be the best goalie in the NHL and win the Vezina Trophy.

Merzlikins wore a purple suit inspired by Kivlenieks' love for the Joker which he had painted on his goalie mask. As he stepped onto the ice for pre-game warmup, Merzlikins was wearing a jersey with Kivlenieks name on the back along with No. 80.

Merzlikins wasn't the only person to pay tribute to Kivlenieks by wearing his number as Pierre-Luc Dubois, the former Blue Jackets centre, changed his number from 13 to 80 this season.

The AHL's Cleveland Monsters, where Kivlenieks played 85 games over four seasons, are also paying tribute with the No. 80 emblazoned behind the net.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.