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Merzlikins' 'beautiful adventure' brings him to Columbus

Goaltender has started practicing with Jackets, getting to know city

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Goalies are interesting people. You always have to wonder about someone who sees a hard rubber object speeding toward them and decides to get in the way instead of out of it. 

Elvis Merzlikins concedes this.  

But even by the standards set by goaltenders over the past century of hockey, Merzlikins is one of a kind. 

Video: Elvis talks about getting settled in Columbus

As the Latvian goaltender by way of Lugano, Switzerland, gets his feet wet in North American hockey in the coming weeks by working with Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace, he comes to Columbus promising to challenge the NHL's best and celebrate when he turns them aside. 

Just how much the newly signed Blue Jacket wins those battles in coming years will determine whether he's beloved or bewildering in Columbus, but the soon-to-be 25-year-old Merzlikins has the confidence and belief that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the National Hockey League. 

MORE ON MERZLIKINS: Elvis ready to prove himself | Jackets excited to see what they have

"I love to challenge players, especially superstars," he said. "That's my job. I love it. And of course there are some times he beats me, but that's hockey. I love this game, and I am trying all the time to do my best on the ice as I can and enjoy the moment." 

That passion can come out in interesting ways. For example, Merzlikins once got in a fight -- with his own teammate during practice. He's known to celebrate victories on the ice in his full gear, and he's also been reported to have torn up locker rooms after losses.  

He wears his heart on his sleeve, and it's made him beloved in Lugano, where he was twice named the Swiss league's top goaltender and had a 2.63 goals-against average and .920 save percentage over his six-year career.  

"Goalies, we know they are special," he said. "They are living in their own world and they are thinking on their own. I am more the guy that if I am going to make a huge save, I am going to pump it up myself for sure. I was at the game (Tuesday) and I like the songs that are that are in the arena, so I'm going to dance for sure. 

"I try to bring the energy. I think the fans, the arena, the music -- in Switzerland, the fans, when they are singing, it's kind of a gift the fans are giving you that is free energy. You can take that energy and you keep getting better." 

How this will translate to the NHL remains to be seen, though it promises to be a "beautiful adventure," to use another phrase Merzlikins uttered Thursday when he met with the Columbus media in person for the first time to talk about his adjustment to North America this far. 

In many places in Europe, including Switzerland, the fans stand, sing and dance like a soccer game throughout. In the NHL, personality isn't necessarily frowned upon, but it can be hard to come by. 

At least, for Merzlikins' sake, he will play his home games in the only arena that boasts a working cannon that goes off after each one of his team's goals. He's already taken a liking to it, posting a video of its discharge on Instagram from his perch where he watched Tuesday's game. 

"I really wanted to hear the cannon, and I heard it and it's really loud," he said. "That was the first thing I posted on my Instagram because I had to. I really loved it. It's a really nice thing. Hopefully I'm going to hear it a lot more times." 

It will likely be until fall before Blue Jackets fans get to see him in action, assuming he and the club come to an agreement for the coming seasons after his entry-level deal expires after this year. His season with Lugano ended in the first round of the playoffs in March, and he just arrived in Columbus late Sunday after getting his visa situation figured out. 

With the Jackets already boasting three goaltenders, including the NHL's No. 2 star for the month of March in Sergei Bobrovsky, Merzlikins isn't expected to even practice with the full team down the stretch. Instead, he'll work with goaltending coach Manny Legace to start tailoring his game to the smaller rink and quicker pace of the NHL, and he took shots from forward Eric Robinson during a session before the full-team practice Thursday. 

He'll also get a chance to learn his new city with his girlfriend in tow -- and with the help of an Uber driver, Robert, he met upon arrival. 

"I am not taking Uber anymore, I am just texting him. At least I have a friend now," Merzlikins said with a laugh. "The people seem really nice here. I really like the city. It's really beautiful. Now I'm trying to look for an apartment and trying to figure out where things are." 

The two -- Merzlikins and his girlfriend, not Merzlikins and Robert -- have already started to explore Columbus, taking advantage of Wednesday's nice weather to walk through downtown and visit North Bank Park. He's also already tripped to Easton, but he'll likely have to find a dog-friendly place to stay going forward. 

"For her, even, it's fun to come here for her to start understanding the city," Merzlikins said. "I said, 'Let's go, come with me.' She said, 'Ohio? Where is that?' I said I didn't know either. 'I'm sorry, but it's nice.' I know a couple of places so I brought her to Easton and I was feeling like a really good boyfriend because I knew some places from being here at camps previously.  

"She likes the city. She really likes it, and she wants a puppy, so now I have to buy her a puppy." 

Robert did have one piece of Columbus knowledge - just where the Blue Jackets stand in the public consciousness in the capital city. 

"Everybody here loves the Blue Jackets," Merzlikins said. "He explained to me that the Blue Jackets, the hockey team, it has the most following, that everybody is following it - except even the football team from Ohio." 

That, of course, would be Ohio State, and he'll likely get further introduction to the Buckeyes and everything else Columbus as time goes on. But it's safe to say many in the capital city are looking forward to getting to meet the goalie, and the NHL's introduction will be coming soon enough. 

"The deal (right now) was that I would come here and start to understand what it means to be in the NHL, what it means to be in Columbus, looking around the city, and that's what I'm doing," Merzlikins said. "I'm enjoying every single moment." 

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