WHEN ELVIS MERZLIKINS HEARD the Columbus Blue Jackets had another Latvian goalie in the organization, he was excited -- but also confused.
"My first question was: Who the hell is this guy?" Merzlikins says. "I had never heard about him, never knew about his existence."
That goalie was Matiss Kivlenieks, who came to America when he was 16 with dreams of making it in the NHL. He worked his way up through junior hockey, bouncing from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa before signing with the Blue Jackets in 2017.
Merzlikins, married and three years older than Kivlenieks, established himself by playing professionally in Switzerland. He was NHL-ready by the time he joined the Blue Jackets in 2019.
Latvia is a country of fewer than 2 million bordering the Baltic Sea; it houses 19 indoor ice rinks and has roughly 7,500 registered hockey players. Only 25 Latvians have ever skated in the NHL. That the paths of Kivlenieks and Merzlikins converged, in Ohio of all places, to form the NHL's first all-Latvian goalie tandem, felt karmic.
"For them, being in the US and being able to speak Latvian with one another, they just felt like family from the immediate moment where they met," Merzlikins' wife, Aleksandra, says. "And I think that's why they became so close. Like, there was no other way."
When it became apparent Kivlenieks would be sticking around, Merzlikins invited the rookie to live with him and Aleksandra. Kivlenieks was on a minor league salary and Merzlikins had an extra room anyway. Kivlenieks helped around the house; he walked Koby, the family dog (a cavapoo), without being asked, and never let dirty dishes go unattended.
But what did Kivlenieks care for the most? His beloved BMW. "I'm not joking, he was cleaning that car every three days," Merzlikins says. "He was vacuuming. He was cleaning out inside. He was cleaning the outside. He was going to the tank. There was nothing to clean."
Kivlenieks was an ideal roommate. After years of begging her husband to watch horror movies, Aleksandra finally had someone to enjoy them with. "He's a psychopath like my wife," says Elvis, who, afraid, would hide in his office when Matiss and Aleksandra watched.
"We didn't just become best friends," Merzlikins says. "He was really my little brother."
Kivlenieks' first Blue Jackets start came on Jan. 20, 2020, at Madison Square Garden. He was 23, and making his NHL debut at the world's most famous arena. At the first commercial break, Kivlenieks was clearly nervous. He skated over to Merzlikins on the bench, as he was playing backup that night. "You're good," Merzlikins told his teammate. "Everything you're doing is great. Just relax, and have fun."
"And then that's what happened," Merzlikins says.
Kivlenieks made 31 saves to lead Columbus to a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers. On the plane ride home, Kivlenieks was thanking everyone: the players who blocked shots for him, the defensemen who clogged lanes.
"I'm not saying it was like winning a Stanley Cup, but he was really, really happy," Merzlikins says. "That was awesome to see even how the team reacted. He was in really good hands. We were taking care of him. It was really beautiful to see that happiness in him."
Kivlenieks' career was on the ascent. In May, he played for the Latvian national team at the world championships, which Latvia was hosting. On the opening day of the tournament, he stunned Canada, making 38 saves for Latvia's first win against the world hockey power. Management in Columbus began talking about how Kivlenieks could be incorporated into the 2021-22 plans.
"His future in the NHL," Merzlikins says, "it was just starting right now."
Merzlikins is sitting in his living room in the suburbs of Columbus as he's talking. It's the first week of September, one month before the 2021-22 season is set to begin. Merzlikins is here to tell a story, one that he's still having a hard time coming to terms with.
"This is the story of my summer," Merzlikins says. "I'm sorry, but I would call it the story of my f---ed up summer."
AFTER THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS, Kivlenieks stayed in Latvia to spend time with friends and family. He planned to return to the United States for the summer, and Merzlikins was pestering his friend for details. Kivlenieks was welcome back at the house in Ohio, but with Aleksandra pregnant and due in August, they needed time to prepare the guest room.
"I don't know," Kivlenieks told Merzlikins over the phone. "But for sure, I'm going to be here for the Fourth of July because that's Manny's party. We have to go. It's going to be sick."
Kivlenieks had been talking about this party for months. "I brought him to Pilates once," Merzlikins said. "And he was just talking about the Fourth of July to my Pilates teacher. So yeah, all the time he was talking about the Fourth of July."
The party was hosted by Manny Legace, the Blue Jackets' goaltending coach. But Legace was more than that to his players. Elvis and Aleksandra have had countless meals with Legace and his wife, Giana.
"I see him as like my father figure," Aleksandra said of Legace. "And I feel like that brought us all together as one big family."
Manny and Giana took to Kivlenieks, too; ever since he joined the organization, Kivlenieks spent summers living with the Legace family in Novi, Michigan.
But neither Latvian goalie had ever experienced July Fourth in the United States. And this celebration was going to have something extra. During the day, Legace's daughter, Sabrina, was getting married at the house. Then the party of a few dozen people would extend into the night.
July 4 was a hot, sunny day. Kivlenieks was so happy. He would go off and socialize, then always come back to check in with Merzlikins. Each time, he'd come with a gift: a beer, a shot or a cigar.
In the evening, they all organized a basketball game in the pool. Then came a staple of Legace summer parties for the past 17 years: backyard fireworks. Everyone got out of the pool when the fireworks began, and Merzlikins realized he lost track of Aleksandra. He found her standing by the grill. Merzlikins stood behind his wife and hugged her pregnant belly as they watched the fireworks together.
"He's stupid," Aleksandra said.
"Why?" her husband asked. "What's wrong?"
She pointed to Kivlenieks, who was sitting in front of them, alongside four others on the edge of the hot tub. Aleksandra had told Kivlenieks she didn't like how close he was sitting to the fireworks.
"Don't worry, Ali," Kivlenieks told her. "Everything is going to be all right."
THE LAST IMAGE MERZLIKINS remembers seeing is Kivlenieks pointing up to the sky, looking at the fireworks.
"And the next moment I took down my head to give a kiss to my wife on the neck," Merzlikins said. "Then I see all is green color, coming on us."
There was a moment of panic. Partygoers ran into the house. Merzlikins realized Koby, their dog, was missing, so he ran back outside to find him. He saw somebody lying on the ground. He could tell it was Kivlenieks by his tattoo.
"The first thing I see, he was still totally fine," Merzlikins said. "Nothing. He had a little broken lip because he fell onto the ground, but that's it. No broken leg, fingers, nose, whatever. Everything was fine."
But it quickly became clear Kivlenieks was in shock. He was struggling to breathe. Sabrina Legace, a nurse, rushed over to help. Somebody else called 911.
Sabrina Legace helped Merzlikins stabilize Kivlenieks' neck by resting it under some towels. Merzlikins tried to stay calm. He was holding Kivlenieks' head, scratching him, kissing him. Since English was their second language, Merzlikins thought it was best to talk to his friend in Latvian.
"You're totally fine," Merzlikins told him in Latvian, knowing his friend's biggest fear would be whether he could play hockey again. "You might have a concussion, maybe because you fell from the hot tub, but you have nothing else."
"I keep talking to him, keep talking to him," Merzlikins said. "I see he's trying to breathe in each time."
The ambulance arrived 4 minutes, 38 seconds after the 911 call. Merzlikins tried to jump into the ambulance with Kivlenieks. The paramedics kicked him out.
"I had a feeling that he's going to talk in Latvian because he is under shock," Merzlikins told the paramedics. "Do you understand Latvian? No. So I'm your only help right now."
His pleas didn't work, so Merzlikins followed the ambulance to the hospital in his own car. In the waiting room, he was joined by Manny and Sabrina Legace and Legace's son.
The doctor came out to meet them and began asking questions. And then the doctor delivered the news: "He passed away right in the ambulance before we took off," he said.
Merzlikins stood in shock. "I couldn't breathe, I wanted to throw up," he said. "In my hands, I had his wallet and I dropped it."
And then another wave of nausea: They had to tell Kivlenieks' mom. It was early morning in Latvia when Merzlikins reached Kivlenieks' mother, Astrida Meldere, who was on her way to work. He could tell that she was driving, so he asked her to pull over. "Do you speak any English?" he asked.
She responded no. Merzlikins didn't know what to say. He had asked the police officer if he could deliver the news instead, but Meldere wouldn't understand the officer. It had to be Merzlikins.
At this point Meldere was panicking. "What is it, Elvis?" she asked. "What is going on?"
"Then it hit me again. I told her your son passed away," he said. "And then inside of my head, I'm realizing like, holy crap, 45 minutes ago, I was drinking wine. Then I held him, he was dying in my hands. So I was kissing an already dead body and now I have to call his mom and tell her her son was dead, and how would she like the body, and when is the funeral."
When he hung up with Meldere, he FaceTimed Aleksandra, who was back at the house with Giana Legace. Still crying, he told them Kivlenieks had died.
"It's weird to see the people that don't cry," Merzlikins said, "because they can't believe that it's possible."
THE BLUE JACKETS HOSTED a memorial service for Kivlenieks on July 15 in Ohio. Nearly the entire team showed up -- including Pierre Luc-Dubois, who had requested a trade earlier in the season, and John Tortorella, who had mutually agreed to part ways with the team in May.
"You guys don't know Kivi. He wouldn't want this," Manny Legace told the congregation. "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."
Merzlikins spoke next. He told everyone that Kivlenieks died a hero; who knows how many people he shielded. "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. He saved my son, he saved my wife, and he saved me."
The Merzlikins planned to ask Kivlenieks to be the godfather to their son that day. But Kivlenieks was so excited for the Fourth, they decided to let him have his fun and instead ask him later.
Aleksandra gave birth to a baby on Aug. 20. His name: Knox Matiss Merzlikins. It's a beautiful new chapter for their family, but it doesn't erase anything that happened.
"We're not even close to getting over this," Legace told Bally Sports Detroit last week.
The autopsy revealed that Kivlenieks died of blunt force trauma to the chest. In the days following Kivlenieks' death, Novi police officials have said they believed it to be a tragic accident, and the case of a mortar style firework tilting slightly and misfiring toward the spectators. However, three months after the accident, an official police report has still not been released. The police turned the investigation over to the Oakland County prosecutors office, who told ESPN this week that the case remains under review.
It's one of the motivations Merzlikins has about sharing his story. He knows the tragedy has brought more questions than answers; Merzlikins is still looking for answers himself, but he'd like to tell his truth of the events before "people invent stuff."
He also wanted to talk about grief. The last thing he wants is to be treated like a victim. He also doesn't want people to assume how he should feel.
"I asked Manny, 'Am I going to be all right for the season?'" Merzlikins said. "Like, this is a lot to take in, holding your little brother that is dying in your hands. And then 10 minutes later, you have to call his mom and ask her how she wants the body of her son. That's a lot. And so I was worried."
Grieving hasn't been linear, and Merzlikins admits he doesn't always know how he should be acting.
"Sometimes you don't control it, it just hits you," he said. "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 ..."
One night this summer, Merzlikins began listening to the saved voicemails he had from Kivlenieks.
"It was like having him right there with me," he said. "And that was the nice, but hard part."
The most important part for Merzlikins is not ignoring what happened. Life is about experiencing emotions -- all of them, even the ones that are uncomfortable. Merzlikins likes to feel. He likes to cry. Sometimes he even likes to talk to himself. He also likes laughing about the good times -- like how funny it was to him and Aleksandra to have Kivlenieks FaceTime them from the world championships, only to ask to see his beloved BMW.
"He asked me, did you turn it on?" Merzlikins recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, four days ago,' 'Oh no, you have to turn it on now.' I said, 'No, I'm not going to do it.' What did he do? He went on his phone app and he turned on the car from Latvia here in my house."
In September, Merzlikins signed a five-year, $27 million contract extension. He is grateful for the opportunity to plant roots in Ohio, to start his family there, and to continue his career.
"I'm going to try to do my best just for him and that's my hope," Merzlikins said. "This season is just a season for him. ... Not having him anymore here with us, this is the minimum of what I can do. ... His spirit [is] with me, I hope, he's going to be always sitting behind me here and helping me out."