Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins said he struggled with the various pyrotechnics displays employed – as well as the famous cannon fired after home-team goals – during Columbus games several months after teammate and friend Matiss Kivlenieks was killed in a fireworks accident.
Kivlenieks was killed by blunt force trauma to the chest after mortar-style fireworks misfired toward spectators at a July 4th party at the house of goalie coach Manny Legace in 2021. Merzlikins, who feels that his fellow goalie teammate saved the lives of his wife, his then-unborn child, and others at the party by being between them and the fireworks, held Kivlenieks until paramedics arrived. Kivlenieks died on the way to the hospital.
According to Columbus Dispatch writer Brian Hedger, Merzlikins had a rough season because of absence of his friend and fellow Latvian.
“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 Saturday, as the Blue Jackets 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. 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 revealed the emotional trauma on Saturday during the Blue Jackets' season-ending media availability.
“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 Manny and just started crying. I couldn’t even express myself. Manny brought me to (coach Brad Larsen) and Lars, as well. … Lars was the first guy who was there (in Michigan) the next morning. Lars understands it. I got close to Lars as well. Not as close like with Manny … but, yeah, they understand. That period, that week, that couple weeks … it’s just something that I couldn’t control.”
The Blue Jackets, whose name is inspired by Ohio's volunteerism on the side of the Union Army during the American Civil War, employ a replica cannon that is fired after the home team scores at Nationwide Arena. It's known to catch unaware players and spectators alike off-guard.
Merzlikins said the first few games hearing the cannon were hard to take.
“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.”