On the ice, former Sioux City Musketeers goalie Matiss Kivlenieks was one of the best players in the USHL back in 2016-2017. Off of it, he was a much-loved member of the team, who provided his coach and teammates with plenty of fond memories.
Monday morning, news came down that the 24-year-old Kivlenieks died on Sunday in a tragic accident in Novi, Michigan. According to autopsy results, Kivlenieks died from chest trauma after being hit by a fireworks mortar blast.
The Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League announced the news on social media, saying: “It’s with a very heavy heart that we share the news that goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks passed away last night at the age of 24. We are heartbroken. Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers. Rest in peace, Kivi.”
Kivlenieks signed a three-year entry level contract with Columbus in May 2017, after helping lead Sioux City to the Clark Cup Finals in the 2016-2017 season.
Former Sioux City head coach Jay Varady, now an assistant with the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, said that Kivlenieks was an extremely talented player and a "really special person.”
“Any room he walked in, he always met you with a smile, and he had a really calm confidence about himself,” Varady said. “As a goaltender, I think that is really important. He was a part of a really special group, and a really good team in Sioux City. I think he was part of the energy source that led that team because of his positive attitude, and his approach to every day.”
The Musketeers took Kivlenieks with the number five overall pick in the 2016 USHL Entry Draft, and according to Varady, his positive attitude was one of the biggest reasons the team picked the native of Riga, Latvia.
“We started talking to him, and we could see his hockey skills, but we were really more impressed by just the person,” Varady said. “We took him with that pick, and he obviously came in and played fantastic for that team all year long, to the fact that he got an NHL contract out of it."
Former teammate Brady Ferner played with Kivlenieks both in Sioux City in 2016-2017 and the two seasons prior with the NAHL's Coulee Region Chill. Ferner said he was “heartbroken” to hear the news of his former teammate's death. He described him as the “heart and soul” of the 2016-2017 Sioux City squad.
“First and foremost, he was just an unbelievable person,” Ferner said. “I think any person that you ask about him, they will tell you right away that he was a phenomenal hockey player. The people that got to know him on a personal and deeper level knew that he was a super genuine person with a huge heart.”
As a player, Kivlenieks made an impact for Sioux City right away. In the regular season, he had a .932 save percentage as the team went 36-7-6, and won the Anderson Cup after clinching the regular season title. For his efforts, Kivlenieks was named the regular season Most Valuable Player, Goaltender of the Year and Player of the Year.
After the season, Kivlenieks inked his deal with the Blue Jackets, and made his NHL debut on Jan. 19, 2020, against the New York Rangers. In that game, Kivlenieks made 31 saves in a 2-1 Columbus victory.
“When you play with players like that, they are special, and there is something different about them,” Ferner said. “He embodied everything it was to be a true pro. He was a super genuine guy, but he was also a fierce competitor. He wanted to be the best and he loved to win.”
Kivlenieks also served as the goalie for his home country of Latvia at the 2021 IIHF World Championship this past May. He put up 38 saves in Latvia's 2-0 win against Team Canada.
“The Musketeers family is shocked by Matiss’ passing,” Musketeers managing partner Lloyd Ney said in a team press release on Monday. “Our love goes out to his mother, Astrida, and his family during this time of great sadness. Kivs' kind personality and fun loving attitude was only matched by his focus and determination in the net. He was a big part of Musketeer history and will be missed by all that knew him.”
Varady said that the thing he remembers most fondly about his former goalie was his bright smile. Even in more serious moments in the locker room, Varady remembers, Kivlenieks could puncture the tension with just a grin.
“I would have to turn my back. I would say something, in typical coach fashion, be serious and fired up with the moment that was happening,” Varady said. “He would just smile and look at me, and I had to walk away most times because I was getting ready to laugh myself.”
Ferner also fondly remembers Kivlenieks’ love of sugary foods, which he also had a big supply of after games. Any time the team would get on the bus, Kivlenieks would have either a Coca-Cola, a Twix, or a bag of Skittles with him.
“Anytime we went on road trips, those were his road trip essentials,” Ferner said. “We always kind of joked around with him, because it's not the healthiest snacks to be eating as an athlete, but it worked for him. He loved it and it was just kind of who he was.”
In statements from all over the hockey world, Kivlenieks was remembered as a good person, a favorite teammate, and someone who was just kicking off what looked to be a promising career.
"Matiss was someone that loved what he did," Ferner said. "And loved who he did it with every single day."