Blue Jackets' Merzlikins struggled with fireworks, goal cannon after teammate's death

Columbus Blue Jackets Goalie Elvis Merzlikins played with a heavy heart this season. (Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ celebratory cannon that goes off after every home goal caused some traumatic recollection for netminder Elvis Merzlikins this season.

Last summer, Merzlikins’s teammate and off-ice friend, Matiss Kivlenieks, tragically died at the age of 24 during a fireworks accident during a July 4 celebration. Just months removed from his death, the current Jackets goalie had an especially difficult time hearing the sound of explosions ringing through Nationwide Arena.

“I’m gonna be honest, for the opening night, I didn’t have time (to prepare),” Merzlikins said via the Columbus Dispatch during the team’s exit interviews on Saturday. “We all know what happened to him. When I heard the cannon, my heart … I felt my heart. I never heard in my life my heart beating that alive. That was a really weird feeling, what I had.

“Even when we scored goals, I was always closing my eyes and getting myself ready. I think that’s just the trauma, but it went away. Obviously, now when I hear the cannon, I’m happy. But that was the feeling I had in the start of the season.”

It was not just the celebratory cannon that has caused some distress for the 28-year-old goaltender this season.

“I wasn’t here mentally (for a while), because I felt that Christmas was coming closer, and Matiss was always with us on Christmas and the New Year,”’ Merzlikins said. “Then I heard the fireworks.”

Before Columbus hosted the Hurricanes on New Year’s Day this season, Merzlikins went to head coach Brad Larsen and reportedly could not even speak after hearing countless fireworks the night prior. The scheduled starter was removed from the lineup and rookie Daniil Tarasov took the opening job. But unfortunately, Tarasov was injured early in the game and Merzlikins had to take the ice. The established netminder went on to allow four goals in the third period.

“I knew in my head that I couldn’t play that game because there was gonna be fireworks, and if I heard them, it’s gonna be a problem,” Merzlikins said. “I remember I walked to [goaltending coach Manny Legace] and just started crying. I couldn’t even express myself. Manny brought me to (Larsen) … That period, that week, that couple weeks … it’s just something that I couldn’t control.”

Losing his friend and teammate went on to affect his season and his outlook on his career. Merzlikins admitted that there is an empty feeling around the locker room — for him personally — without Kivlenieks.

But thankfully, the Blue Jackets staff has been there to support their goaltender and to grieve together as a team.

“I’m gonna be honest, there was a couple games I was just going out there, and I didn’t care, because I wasn’t there,” Merzlikins said. “I was playing hockey. The guys (on the opposing team) are coming (at) me, and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, last year he was here with me, and this year, there’s gonna be an empty seat at my table.’ It was hard. But they helped me to go through it.

"Manny helped me a lot to go through that. It’s always nice when you have somebody with (whom) you can cry together. That hug … that hug is helping you. I think this is a really nice and important thing for me, to have such a good friend as Manny.”

Merzlikins appeared in 59 games for the Blue Jackets in 2021-22, the sixth-most appearances by a goaltender in the NHL this season.

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