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The Legace Project: Trust helps CBJ goalie coach build young netminders

Korpisalo, Merzlikins have made big strides under fun-loving mentor

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

As his summer was slipping away, Elvis Merzlikins could have continued to spend August at his home in Lugano, Switzerland, with picturesque Lake Lugano on one side and the rugged, beautiful Alps on the other. 

Or he could have flown to Detroit, a fine Midwestern city in its own right but not exactly overflowing with lakefront palm trees or mountain vistas. 

Merzlikins chose the latter for one big reason -- to spend time with his new goaltending coach, Manny Legace. 

The two didn't come together to spend any time on the ice, though hockey talk surely peppered the conversation. Instead, the Blue Jackets goalie mentor and his newest pupil hit the links, talked about life and watched their dogs become best friends over a two-week span. 

Video: Legace was Mic'd Up working with the CBJ goaltenders

Yes, their dogs. By the end of Merzlikins' time staying with Legace in the suburbs of the Motor City, the goalie's cavapoo puppy, Koby, and the coach's lab, Cooper, had formed a canine bond that took Legace by surprise. 

"Our dogs are like best friends now," Legace acknowledged. "(Cooper) will go over and nudge their dog, like, 'Let's go.' My dog is gonna be 13 years old. We've never seen this energy before. It's awesome." 

While all that was going on, Merzlikins and Legace were doing a similar form of friendship building on the human side. Trust is perhaps the hardest earned but most important quality in Merzlikins' life, and the goaltender admitted when he first met Legace, it simply wasn't there. 

After the time in Detroit over the late summer, it was a totally different feel.  

"I started to trust him the last two weeks at his home when I was there," Merzlikins said when he arrived in Columbus this fall. "Now I'm trusting him 100 percent. He's one of my best friends here that I have. I think it's important to build a relationship because this person knows when to push you and when to leave you alone and maybe give you a rest.  

"I think this is really important. I had this kind of relationship with my ex-goalie coaches, and it worked really well so I'm happy." 

There's no hiding from the fact that what happens between the pipes will be one of the most important storylines to follow as the Blue Jackets look to make a fourth consecutive playoff appearance and contend for the Stanley Cup. 

With Sergei Bobrovsky gone, the Blue Jackets enter the season with the lowest combined total of NHL appearances among its goalies in the league. Four-year reserve Joonas Korpisalo has 90, including 81 starts, and Merzlikins has a grand total of zero having spent the past six years with HC Lugano. 

But if there's any major stress about the situation, a look at the average goalie practice wouldn't show it. From Legace's trademark over-the-top celebrations any time he scores on one of his backstops in a drill to the smiles on the goalies faces as they mess around with pucks after practice, there's a work-hard, play-hard mentality under Legace that appears to be getting the most out of each netminder. 

Going into a season in which veteran wiles have been replaced by youthful exuberance -- and plenty of teachable moments -- Legace appears to be having the time of his life. 

"I love it," Legace said. "This is not a job for me. This is fun. My wife tells me all the time, 'You don't even have a job, you do something you love.' It's fun when you get guys like (ours) that just want to get better and want to learn, watching every video, every game, every shot. It's fun to work with these guys. It's awesome." 

For Korpisalo, who has worked with Legace both in the minor leagues and with the Blue Jackets, the relationship is the perfect way to bring the young but talented goaltenders along. 

"The way he thinks the game is similar to mine," Korpisalo said. "The style he coaches, having fun and doing things with really good quality at the same time, it's like we're working but not too seriously. I think that's the way you get the most out of people. It's not like you get to the rink and it's like, 'Do this and this.' It's always fun to work with him." 

But make no mistake, Legace knows his stuff. The Toronto native has a Stanley Cup ring, an Olympic silver medal and an All-Star bid on his resume, all part of an 11-year NHL career that included stops in Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Carolina. 

On the coaching side, he opened his first hockey school in 1996 and currently operates the Legace Hockey Academy near his home in Detroit. He also spent five years as the goaltending coach for the Blue Jackets' AHL squads in Springfield and Cleveland before being named the NHL club's goaltending coach before last season. 

When he thinks about the kind of goaltending coach he wants to be, he pulls from both the technical side of the game and the emotional side. He points in particular at former Red Wings goalie coach Jim Bedard, of whom Legace says, "I could be in a two-game losing slide and playing awful, and after talking to him, it was like I'd won 10 in a row." 

"It's extremely important," Legace said of the relationship aspect of the job. "When I played, if you didn't trust your goalie coach, you wouldn't listen to him or believe in what he's teaching you. It's a huge, huge part of it, and every goalie is different in how you have to earn the trust." 

From shepherding Korpisalo through his growth over the past few seasons to spending his summer teaching Merzlikins the sport of golf in addition to how to adapt to North American hockey, Legace has done exactly that with his young charges. 

"It's about how you spend the time together, it's about what you are talking about, how open you are with me when we are talking," Merzlikins said of Legace. "He's honest. He's open. That's what I like from people."  

Time will tell what that will mean when it comes to stopping pucks when the lights are the brightest, but through the smiles and laughs, rest assured the work has been put in. The trust is there, and it could pay big dividends for the Blue Jackets this season. 

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