"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 at Kivlenieks' memorial service Thursday in Upper Arlington, Ohio. "He saved my son, he saved my wife, and he saved me."
Merzlikins' wife, Aleksandra, is in her third trimester, and Merzlikins said their son's second name will be Matiss in honor of his teammate. Kivlenieks was living in Ohio with Merzlikins, who called his fellow Latvian player "my little brother."
Kivlenieks died from chest trauma with major damage to his heart and lungs after being hit with an errant firework at a July 4 backyard party at the Michigan home of Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace. The party was also a wedding celebration for Legace's daughter, Sabrina.
In saying Kivlenieks died a hero, Merzlikins noted, "That's not just what I said. That's what the doctor said. ... And as Sabrina said, he saved his last puck."
"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."
While fighting back tears, Legace said Kivlenieks "got to become one of my family. He got to be a brother to my daughter and my son, a great friend to our nephew."
"Michigan was his second home," Legace said. "A lot of you guys don't know, but 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 brought some humor to his eulogy, noting that former Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella was in attendance.
"Look how many lives you've touched, Matiss. Look how many lives you've touched," Legace said. "Torts even flew in, and he hates goalies."
"That's the funniest thing you ever said," Merzlikins quipped to laughs from the crowd.
Legace thanked everyone who came to the service and lauded Matiss' mother and father "for raising a beautiful child."
"You guys don't know Kivi. He wouldn't want this," Legace said. "He'd want everyone to just have a beer and go on their way. But you guys in the Blue Jackets organization have gone overboard, so thank you."
Many Blue Jackets players and coaches flew in for the memorial service, as did friends and teammates from Minnesota; Kivlenieks began his career in North America with the Minnesota Junior Hockey League in 2014.
Kivlenieks, who signed with the Blue Jackets as an undrafted free agent in 2017, started in two games for Columbus in 2021 but was expected to have a larger role next season. He appeared in the hockey world championship for Latvia earlier this year and posted a shutout over heavily favored Canada.
The Novi (Michigan) Police Department has turned over its investigation into Kivlenieks' death to the Oakland County prosecutor's office for review. The police department is still considering the death as accidental and did not request any criminal charges.
Said Legace: "I got to play golf with him every day in the summer. 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."