Blue Jackets, Merzlikins pay emotional tribute to late goalie Matiss Kivlenieks

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The number 80 is shown painted on the ice in memory of goalie Matiss Kivlenieks of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who was killed in a fireworks accident over the summer. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
The number 80 is shown painted on the ice in memory of goalie Matiss Kivlenieks of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who was killed in a fireworks accident over the summer. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

The Columbus Blue Jackets started their season on the right foot, both on the ice and in their hearts.

As they clobbered the Arizona Coyotes 8-2 in their season opener at Nationwide Arena on Thursday, it was all in an act of remembrance for a teammate they lost.

Goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks tragically passed away at the age of 24 this summer after a fireworks accident, shocking the entire hockey world. Before the puck was dropped on Thursday, a memorial banner was unveiled in the arena.

The player hit the hardest by this loss was fellow netminder Elvis Merzlikins, who called Kivlenieks a “hero” for standing in the way between the malfunctioning fireworks and Merzlikins' family.

"He saved my son, he saved my wife and he saved me," Merzlikins said at the memorial service in July.

After Thursday's strong statement win, Merzlikins spoke at length about the memory of his friend and how much the victory meant to him personally.

“This night; it was my most important night,” Merzlikins told the Columbus crowd after the game. “I am so thankful to the boys — we destroyed them. I am happy that they shoot the puck, they block for me; they know how important this game was for me. ...And I am really thankful for this crazy atmosphere. Thank you very much, guys, thank you.”

Merzlikins was wearing the jersey number of his late friend and teammate throughout the whole game. A sign of respect usually restricted to the team’s warm-ups, the Blue Jackets starter was able to keep it on his back all night.

“It was tough,” Merzlikins said, reflecting on how he felt while wearing the No. 80 sweater. “It was really tough, it’s tough now. In my mind, even my wife before I left the house said ‘Don’t f— it up.’ It was a big responsibility. I didn’t want to [hurt] the number. It meant a lot to me. Again, this was really my most important game, I think.

“I’m going to be honest, I slept really bad last night because I was really nervous. I knew I was going to be really emotional. It was hard to focus, it was hard to get dialled in and be in the moment. Just on the blue line, when I saw his family coming out, I started crying. It wasn’t easy.

Merzlikins saved 36 of 38 shots he faced against Arizona, well deserving of the 1-0-0 start to his 2021-22 season. Kivlenieks would certainly be proud.

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