Elvis Merzlikins struggled with Blue Jackets' goal cannon after teammate's death in Novi
For the first time since Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks was killed in a fireworks accident in Novi on July 4, 2021, teammate Elvis Merzlikins discussed the devastating impact of trying to save Kivlenieks before paramedics arrived at the home of former Detroit Red Wings goalie Manny Legace and how Merzlikins struggled to cope when the Blue Jackets' cannon was fired after home-team goals were scored at Nationwide Arena in Columbus this season.
In an interview with Columbus Dispatch writer Brian Hedger after season-ending media availability on Saturday, Merzlikins, a native Latvian and goaltender like Kivlenieks, said his life will never be the same after Kivlenieks died by blunt-force trauma to the chest after mortar-style fireworks misfired toward spectators in Legace's backyard.
There were no charges pursued by the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office and the death of Kivlenieks was officially ruled accidental on Dec. 21, 2021.
“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 told the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday during exit interviews at Nationwide Arena. “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. (Goaltending coach) Manny (Legace) 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 said hearing the cannon going off during the early part of the season was hard to handle. The cannon and the name Blue Jackets pays tribute to the major contributions the state of Ohio made during the Civil War.
“I’m gonna be honest, for the opening night, I didn’t have time (to prepare),” Merzlikins said. “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.
“I’m gonna be honest … 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.”
During the regular season, Merzlikins decided to not speak publicly about dealing with the death of his friend and fellow Latvian. He said he relied on friends and family, including his wife, Aleksandra, their son, Knox, and Legace.
“Manny and his wife, ‘G’ (Giana), they became (like) my parents,” Merzlikins said. “I call ‘G’ as my mom, and Manny I call as my daddy. It’s completely nothing to do with the hockey. When you come to the rink, he’s your coach.
"When you’re outside the rink, you can tell him to … you can tell him a lot of things. We just became so close, as family. I really love him. This is a business. We never know how the things are going (to go), but I’m sure that he’s gonna be, always, my best friend for the rest of my life.”