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Latvia's Olympic Hockey Berth Helps to Honor Beloved Fallen Teammate

Latvia advanced to the Olympic Winter Games over the weekend, winning all three qualification round matches. In doing so, it marked a big moment for a team that's still recovering from the loss of a dear teammate, Matiss Kivlenieks
Latvia

There was no shortage of No. 80 jerseys in Riga on Sunday.

Just 100 days prior, the city took to the streets to celebrate Latvia's incredible 2-0 win to open up the World Hockey Championship. It marked one of the greatest games ever won by the nation – on home ice, to make things sweeter – and Matiss Kivlenieks' 38 saves that night was a highlight of the show.

Kivlenieks quickly became a star, ready to take on a potential full-time NHL season for the first time in his career.

But that all changed on July 4 at the age of 24 when Kivlenieks was fatally injured during a fireworks malfunction. A promising young goalie – a young man with big dreams – gone.

It was a horrific tragedy that put a damper on the early stages of the Stanley Cup final. Elvis Merzļikins, Kivilenieks' good friend, Blue Jackets teammate and fellow Latvian, was there when it happened at the house of the team's goaltending coach, Manny Legace. 

Kivilenieks was remembered as someone special by those who got to know him. At the memorial service in July, Merzļikins said Kivlenieks saved Merzlikins, his son and his wife in the accident. Merzlikins pledged to name his second son Matiss.

“He wasn’t my friend. He was my little brother," Merzlikins said at the time.

But Latvia's national team still had to move on. They were hosting the Olympic qualification tournament at the end of August, with hopes of being one of the final three teams to advance to the big show in Beijing next February. The best way to honor Kivlenieks' memory was to win the tournament, and after a close final game against France, that's exactly what Latvia did to book a spot in China.

It was clearly an emotional moment for the team. Some players held back tears. Some fans didn't even bother stopping themselves. Sure, Latvia was the favorite to win the group, but it still meant more than usual. Kivlenieks would have – should have – been there to be a focal point in the celebration.

It's all part of the healing process. Ivars Punnenovs, Kivlenieks' backup at the World Championship, was thrust into the starting role for the first time in a major IIHF men's tournament and couldn't have been much better. In three games, Punnenovs had two shutouts, a perfect 3-0-0 record and allowed just one goal in the final to a determined French team. 

Rudolfs Balcers, a year younger than Kivlenieks but a multi-time teammate at the junior national team level, led the team in scoring with six points. And of course, it came in front of a crazy home crowd that missed out on the opportunity of filling that same Arēna Rīga that Kivlenieks and Co. shocked the world in just months prior.

It felt extra good for the players and fans who didn't get to experience the tournament in 2018 after Germany beat them to advance. Of course, Germany went on to win silver – so the question many Latvians were asking was, "Why not us?".

They have that opportunity, and unlike a lot of the other more fringe teams, Latvia doesn't require a host of NHL talent to do the heavy lifting. While Merzļikins would definitely be the favorite to be the No. 1 goalie, Punnenovs has proven to be a reliable option whenever called upon. 

Balcers and Teddy Bleuger are both key members of the team, but Ronalds Kenins, Miks Indrasis and Rodrigo Abols are just as important. Lauris Darzins. The national team has a major contingent of Dinamo Riga players sticking together all year long, so that chemistry goes a long way.

But obviously, having someone like Merzļikins – especially with the opportunity to honor his good friend – would be a major boost. As we await a ruling on NHL participation in Beijing, Latvia could benefit from the league not sending its best players and allowing smaller teams like Latvia to have a better shot at a medal. But many just want to see the best team Latvia can ice, and that requires Blueger, Balcers and Merzļikins.

But that's a tomorrow problem to worry about. Today, it's all about honoring a beloved teammate, a friend and, most importantly, a good human being. And with a berth in the Olympic Winter Games, that's one way to do so. If you need a feel-good team to cheer for – a group with a mission – Latvia is a good choice.

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