Lebron James once said, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” Matiss Kivlenieks embodied this phrase. He was not given a contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, nor was he given a prominent role on the Cleveland Monsters. Both of those things were earned with his hard work and cheery disposition.
It was only fitting that he started his professional hockey career in Cleveland, Ohio.
Kivlenieks took the path less traveled jumping from the USHL to a pro contract in one year, a feat which many have yet to do. But Kivlenieks was special.
Fearless is one way to describe Kivlenieks on the ice. There were times when he would race down the slot to smack a puck out of the range of an oncoming opponent. Sometimes Kivlenieks would fake a clear attempt, instead choosing to shoot the puck off the boards behind the net for his teammate to catch. Smooth movements and energetic saves made him a joy to watch. Understanding the game beyond his position made him a threat coming off the bench.
Monsters Head Coach Mike Eaves always preaches T.W.I.G. — Take What Is Given. Kivlenieks was one of those players who always seemed to take what was given and try their hardest to turn it into something good. Whether it be only five defensemen in front of him for the night or having to play with a broken stick, Kivlenieks always seemed to rise to the call.
No, Kivlenieks wasn’t a perfect goaltender. Mistakes were made and goals were let in, but he never let that slow him down. Every misstep was a chance for him to be a better player.
Off the ice, Kivlenieks was charitable with his time towards the team and the fans. “Of all of the players we’ve asked or approached with a task, he did it with joy and that’s what we are going to miss the most about him,” said Ben Adams, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for the Cleveland Monsters. In the days following Kivlenieks’ death, the Monsters and I received an abundance of photos and stories involving fans’ time with the young goaltender. Based on the sheer amount of photos taken during warmups, post game, and after practices, Ben and I joked that we have no clue how Kivlenieks managed to find time to play hockey.
The stories from fans shed light upon the intentionality of Kivlenieks’ word and how he was fully present with each fan. Almost every story touched on how well he treated the children in the fanbase. “My favorite with my son,” said Monsters fan Valarie Lloyd. “Matiss always had a high five and smile for him.” Lisa Marie also echoed this sentiment, stating: “Matiss was such a sincere and kind hearted guy. He always made time to connect with the kids.”
Kivlenieks took the time to offer up words of encouragement for fans. “He came back and talked to my daughter about leadership and what it meant to him,” said Monsters fan Becky Harmotta, “He told her he did not see himself as a leader and my daughter told him he was in her eyes.” Harmotta noted that upon hearing those words, Kivlenieks’ face lit up. It’s a memory her daughter will surely never forget.
Making children feel comfortable enough to come out of their shells is another thing Kivlenieks excelled at during his time with the Monsters. This was highlighted in a story by Cleveland fan Ashley Smith who attended a “Cave Crew” event where fans lined the hallway, giving high fives to players as they head out onto the ice. Ashley was standing next to a mother with two young children. One was a “young girl who was enthusiastically high-fiving all the players as they went by” and the other was a toddler aged boy sitting on the top of a trash can. “Most of the players were rushing to get to the ice and not really interacting with the toddler,” said Ashley Smith. “Matiss was the last player to come by and he took the time to pause and coax the toddler into giving him a fist bump.”
It wasn’t just children whom Kivlenieks created a bond with while in Cleveland. An iron clad memory and a penchant for hugs allowed fans to feel a connection with him. “One of the first times meeting Matiss, I joked with him that I was afraid to hug him because I might break him,” said Molly Elisabeth. With a big smile on his face, Kivlenieks convinced Molly that a hug should happen. “After the hug, Matiss responded that it was a good hug that almost rivaled ones from home.” At the next team event, Kivlenieks let Molly know that he had remembered her spectacular hug.
Going above and beyond for fans was something he did on a regular basis. “One day, Kivi was one of the stars of the game and I asked if he could take my shirt and get it signed by Gerbe and Dano,” said Angelina Calderon. “He brought it back with way more than that.”
At the end of the day, I think it was his humility and humble demeanor that made Cleveland fans draw to Kivlenieks. “I purchased his Jackets jersey after he dressed for them the first time,” said Crystal Tackett-Eller, who wore the jersey to a Monsters game and asked him to sign it after the game. “He told me that he thought only his mom had his Jackets jersey.”
Chris Sutton also shared a story of Kivlenieks’ humility. Days after a Monsters fan event, Kivlenieks walked into Chris’ store and gave him a friendly wave. When Chris walked over to say hi, Kivlenieks shook his hand and introduced himself. Then, while still shaking his hand, asked Chris for his name. “I was taken back,” said Chris. ”I didn’t expect a man that shakes hundreds of hands a week and the other responsibilities of being a celebrity would even bother asking.” Every time the two saw each other after this moment, Kivlenieks greeted Chris by name.
There are hundreds of stories like these floating around Northeast Ohio. Kivlenieks touched the hearts of every person he met and his memory will continue to live within all of us. Let these stories allow us to move forward together embracing the happiness Kivlenieks brought into our lives. As Eriks Zarins said at Kivlenieks’ Memorial Vigil put together by Monsters fan Stefan Knaack: “I can’t really shed tears because I just want to celebrate his life.”
So, today and every day, let’s celebrate and smile like Kivi.
They filled my inbox with an abundant of photos.
— Elaine Shircliff (@imaraindancer) July 6, 2021