When it came time for Matiss Kivlenieks to sign with an NHL team last year, the free-agent goaltender had plenty of suitors. But the road to that point – and the season that followed – involved a lot of grinding.
The 22-year-old Latvian netminder first came to America in 2013-14, where he played in an obscure Minnesota junior league that was eventually swallowed by the USPHL (which itself isn’t well known outside of hardcore hockey insiders). From there, Kivlenieks went to the NAHL, then the USHL, where he was a star for the 2017 Clark Cup finalist Sioux City Musketeers. For a kid from Riga, living in the American Midwest was quite the experience. “Minnesota was more what you see in the movies, downtown, huge buildings,” he said. “It was a lot different from everything back home. Sioux City was more flat farmland, really similar to back home. Riga is a big city, but if you take a car 10 minutes in either direction, you’re on the farms.”
Had the CHL not banned European goalies for the past few years, the athletic Kivlenieks likely would have played major junior, but the USHL got him the exposure he needed to attract NHL interest. He signed with Columbus because of the Blue Jackets’ development ideals and the comfort he felt with the franchise. “It was the organization,” he said. “I talked to the staff and coaches, and right after that conversation I knew that was the place I wanted to play.”
However,Kivlenieks probably didn’t anticipate playing quite as much as he did as a rookie pro with AHL Cleveland. “Our starting goalie, Brad Thiessen, went down (with a season-ending injury), and the weight of the world went on Matiss’ shoulders,” said Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace. “He hit bottom, he struggled with it, as you would expect with a young guy, but by the end of the season he was right back up. It was a great learning year for him.”
This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.