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Blue Jackets players remember those lost to cancer

Merzlikins, Nash among those to feel the impact of disease

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

There's no shortage of connections to cancer throughout the entire Blue Jackets organization. 

That's just how the disease is. Its tentacles touch everyone at some point.  

There's Nick Foligno, who lost his mother, Janis, to breast cancer in 2009, one reason he's one of the most visible NHL players in the community. There's assistant general manager Bill Zito, whose frequent brushes with cancer - including the ongoing breast cancer battle of his wife Julie - inspired him to become the highest-raising fundraiser ever in the annual Pelotonia bike ride this summer. Even Mr. Blue Jacket, Bill Davidge, has been fighting multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, since 2014. 

It's one reason why nearly every member of the organization took to the ice Wednesday for a team photo showcasing lavender Hockey Fights Cancer cards detailing who they fight for. 

Tweet from @tjansley: For Uncle Keith and Uncle Kia.#CBJ | #HockeyFightsCancer

HOCKEY FIGHTS CANCER: CBJ visits Nationwide Children's Hospital | Details of tonight's game 

Some of the cancer battles become public rallying points; many others get fought behind closed doors in clinics across the country and world.  

Unfortunately, battles of loss have struck two members of the Blue Jackets family who will suit up on the ice Friday during the organization's annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night game, presented by OhioHealth, against St. Louis.  

Just this past week, rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins received some bad news. A friend growing up, one he went to lengths to stand up for, is now facing a cancer battle.  

"Just in Montreal, my best friend texted me," Merzlikins said. "A friend when I started to play hockey, I remember he was a small boy. We were bigger boys than him. He was a pretty good player, and in school I remember because he was small, a lot of guys were making fun of him. I was the guy who was defending him. I wasn't scared to get in trouble because I was in trouble all the time in school, so I was defending him. 

"I just found out in Montreal he has cancer and he is fighting. I don't know how it is, but I feel really bad for him. I wish the best of luck to my friend, and I think he's an example for us, everyone, how we have to battle." 

It's not the first time the disease has touched Merzlikins' life. His former goaltending teammate at HC Lugano, Viktor Östlund, survived a cancer fight and continues to play professionally. 

Then there's the woman that Merzlikins has memorialized with a pair of tattoos and a name in cursive on his right forearm. When the Latvian goaltender first moved to Switzerland to chase his goaltending dream, he lived with a family featuring a host mother named Aurora who helped support his vision. 

"When I went to Switzerland, I was living in her house, so for me she was like my stepmother," he said. "She really took care of me. She taught me a lot in life, and we were very close. She was the closest person that I had." 

Unfortunately, Aurora's cancer battle does not have a happy ending, as she has since passed away. 

"When I lost her, my year went really bad," he says now. "I lost my mind. I couldn't play hockey, if I am honest." 

When Merzlikins first joined the Blue Jackets, he had little familiarity with the Hockey Fights Cancer campaign. His first introduction came Nov. 1, when he was the starting goaltender in St. Louis and the Blues hosted a pregame ceremony on the ice that honored a longtime fan who was battling the disease. 

Merzlikins at first didn't know how the leaguewide campaign would unfold, but he's now excited to do his part for the Blue Jackets' Hockey Fights Cancer Night game tonight. For Thursday's practice, he took the ice using his usual red stick but adorned it with lavender stick tape as a nod to those he's known who have fought.  

"For me, this Hockey Fights Cancer, I am going to be part of that," he said. "I am happy (this) is the day." 

For veteran center Riley Nash, the cancer fight has impacted his immediate family. Nash has lost two grandfathers to the disease. 

"I was talking to somebody the other day, (it seems like everyone has) at least one or two people close to you that have been affected by it if not passed away," he said. "It seems like one of every three people now comes down with this disease and is battling it. Obviously there are a lot of people in this world that have been touched by it. It's nasty." 

Nash called the team's Thursday visit to Nationwide Children's Hospital a "good reality check" and pointed out, now that he's a professional athlete, there's an importance to do his part to help people who need it through causes like Hockey Fights Cancer. 

"I think (tonight's game) has a little bit of extra meaning for everybody," he said. "If it doesn't, you need a nice big whack across the head. With our platform and just being able to give back, we can have an impact on lives." 

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