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A young hockey player is gone too soon; His extended hockey family mourns together

FILE - Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks (80) is shown during the second period of an NHL hockey game in New York, in this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, file photo. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Latvian Hockey Federation said Monday, July 5, 2021, that 24-year-old goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks has died. The team said in a statement Kivlenieks died from an apparent head injury in a fall after medical personnel arrived. It was not immediately clear what caused the fall or where he was at the time of the incident, and multiple messages were left with team and national federation personnel that were not immediately returned.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

FILE – Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks (80) is shown during the second period of an NHL hockey game in New York, in this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, file photo. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Latvian Hockey Federation said Monday, July 5, 2021, that 24-year-old goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks has died. The team said in a statement Kivlenieks died from an apparent head injury in a fall after medical personnel arrived. It was not immediately clear what caused the fall or where he was at the time of the incident, and multiple messages were left with team and national federation personnel that were not immediately returned.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

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Life is fragile.

We are sadly reminded of that far too often. That kind of news is usually packaged in the first couple of sections of the newspaper, on news-based websites or in the A-block of the local television newscasts.

Sports, for most people, are — or were — an escape; a way to forget the problems of the world and enjoy the most basic form of entertainment — interpersonal competition.

Monday, the hockey community received a jolt of sobering reality when the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that top goaltending prospect Matiss Kivlenieks, who recently played for the Latvian national team in the IIHF 2021 World Championship, died suddenly, “the result of a tragic accident.”

Police told the Associated Press that Kivlenieks, 24, was fleeing a hot tub after a fireworks accident, slipped and hit his head on the concrete.

“We are shocked and saddened by the loss of Matiss Kivlenieks, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his mother, Astrida, his family and friends during this devastating time,” Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson said in the release. “Kivi was an outstanding young man who greeted every day and everyone with a smile and the impact he had during his four years with our organization will not be forgotten.”

Twenty-four. Years. Old.

There’s something about the death of someone younger than yourself that makes you cringe. In the immediate sense, you’re reminded of how fragile your own life is. But also, you mourn for those who knew the young person. You mourn for the untapped potential that passed along with them, and the number of “what-ifs” that will be buried alongside them.

What’s important to remember, though, is that you do not mourn alone. Those feelings are not unique to you, and no matter what you are feeling, there are others who share your grief.

Everyone has been affected by a tragedy that bites a bit harder than some others. My first was the death of a high school golf teammate the summer before my senior year in a senseless, preventable car-pedestrian collision. His career goals mirrored mine, yet I was the only one of us who had the chance to pursue those goals. It’s unfair, for sure.

Covering hockey for so many years, the number of tragedies like that of Kivlenieks feel disproportionately burdensome on the hockey family. It’s not necessarily true, but it feels that way.

There have been large-scale catastrophes: The Swift Current Broncos bus crash of 1986; the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash of 2011; and the Humboldt Broncos bus crash of 2018 come to mind immediately.

But tragedies smaller in scale, and sometimes less-publicized, affect the community more subtly, and perhaps more dangerously, as so many young men and women are affected in silence.

Whether it’s 16-year-old Jonathan Boyd, trying out for a junior team and collapsing on the ice during tryouts in Bathurst, New Brunswick, in 2013; or promising 21-year-old NHL prospect Luc Bourdon, killed in a motorcycle accident in the offseason near his hometown in 2008; or Timur Faizutdinov, the 19-year-old Russian junior player who died after being struck in the head by a puck during a game this past March …

… Or Steve Chiasson, the 32-year-old Hurricanes defenseman who died in a car crash in 1999.

Each of these untimely deaths weighs on their respective communities. But they should not — and do not — mourn alone.

Hockey is a fraternity. Sure, it has its pitfalls. There are parts of the sport’s history — like with any sort of history — that are less than flattering. Part of the evolution of sports — and life — is accepting those unflattering moments and striving to do better going forward, with an eye on not repeating past mistakes.

One thing the hockey community has always been good at is taking care of its own in times of grief. The sport lends itself to familial relationships. Through junior and/or college hockey, players develop friendships and bonds with people in and around the game, but also with those outside of it — host families, special fans. That extended network is part of what makes the community so strong.

The players themselves form bonds of friendship and camaraderie that is as strong as any bond formed in any other team sport. Equipment managers, athletic therapists, coaches, players, front-office personnel — it doesn’t matter.

And so, as news of another young life ended far too soon permeates the hockey landscape, it’s important to remember, for those who are directly affected: You do not mourn alone.

I never met Matiss Kivlenieks, but I know at least two people who have. And I mourn alongside them.

We mourn because we are family, hockey-blood-relatives who know firsthand the hours of hard work and sweat equity that had already gone into this young man’s career, just for the chance to play a sport we all love.

We mourn because this could have happened here; because it has happened here. And we know it.

The family has been scarred.

But like any hockey player worth their weight in pucks, this family will pick itself up off the ice, brush the shavings from its jersey, adjust its helmet, dig in and continue skating forward.

Life is fragile.

But hockey’s familial bonds are unbreakable.

Justin is a 20-year veteran sports journalist with stops in Lewiston, Maine (Sun Journal), and Boston (Boston Herald). A proud husband, and father of twin girls, Pelletier is a Boston University graduate and member of the esteemed Jack Falla sportswriting mafia. He has earned dozens of state and national sportswriting and editing awards covering preps, colleges and professional leagues.



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