Black sheep: Charismatic Elvis Merzlikins is a fast-driving Blue Jackets prospect on the road to maturity (written by Tom Reed / The Athletic)
Tom Reed / The Athletic
LUGANO, Switzerland — Easing his dark gray sports car from a parking garage, Elvis Merzlikins offers a word of caution about rush-hour traffic in the picturesque Swiss city with its steeply pitched shores and Italian accent.
“There are no rules,” he says. “You gotta go fast.”
Merzlikins loves fast cars. Loud ones, too. His Audi RS3 qualifies on both counts.
If you want to gain an appreciation for the reflexes, instincts and vision that make the Blue Jackets prospect the best goaltender in Switzerland, spend an hour in his passenger seat. Just make sure to buckle your seatbelt.
On a sun-splashed October afternoon, Merzlikins zips around the outskirts of old-town Lugano — with its boutique-lined streets and lakefront promenade — before accelerating through the winding roads of Mount Bre, a place that holds tremendous significance for him.
The 24-year-old star of HC Lugano wears a black T-shirt, casual gray pants and a black hat featuring a logo of a black sheep, a gift from a member of the team’s support staff.
“I am the black sheep,” he said smiling. “I am the different one.”
Blue Jackets fans have been bewitched by Merzlikins since the franchise selected the lanky Latvian in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
There’s the iconic first name given to him by his Elvis Presley-loving late father. There’s the budding talent that last season earned him Switzerland’s top goaltending honor. There’s the sense of mystery surrounding a prospect who chose to marinate and mature in his adopted hometown of Lugano rather than apprentice in North America the past few years.
And, of course, there’s the charisma. His mother, Sandra, said in an email that as a child Merzlikins would punctuate wins by moonwalking like Michael Jackson on his skates.
“There’s one word for him — refreshing,” said HC Lugano teammate Maxim Lapierre, who played 10 NHL seasons before coming to Europe. “When you play hockey, it’s the same routine every day. Guys come in and do their things. Elvis has that other level of passion. He’s happy, he’s fun. He has a little bit of that bully attitude before games that makes me laugh a little bit. He just loves hockey, and that’s fun to be around.”
Elvis intrigue has never been higher in Columbus given the uncertain future of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. He’s in the final year of his deal with the club. Merzlikins is, not so coincidentally, in the final year of his contract with HC Lugano.
It’s why I flew to Switzerland to learn more about his life, fast times and career aspirations. It’s why I try to remain calm as Merzlikins attacks a series of switchbacks, barreling up Mount Bre (elevation 3,035 feet) with no idea whether there are oncoming vehicles in the other narrow lane.
As he makes a sharp right turn, his passenger-side mirror and a jagged rock wall come inches apart. He never flinches. He’s lost in music and conversation.
Merzlikins mentions his affinity for Mustangs, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis. He traces his car fetish back to an ex-girlfriend who was an auto racer and says one of his offseason highlights was driving a Ferrari 488 on a closed race course.
As he talks, Merzlikins glances over and notices his passenger clutching the grab handle above the window.
“Do not worry,” he says. “You can trust me. Look at this car. Not a scratch.”
After I spent four days last week talking with teammates and coaches and corresponding with family members, it’s clear Merzlikins’ life has been a ride more wild than anything he takes behind the wheel of his Audi.
He’s overcome the disappearance and death of his father, Vjaceslav. He’s endured years of emotional and financial hardship. He’s escaped the temptations and dangers of the mean streets in Riga, Latvia, that claimed the lives of childhood friends. He’s worked through bouts of immaturity with the understanding he’s not a finished product.
Merzlikins has emerged from all of it — without a scratch. He’s as unique as Lugano, a city on the Italian border that has both snowfall and palm trees.
“Elvis back in the day was a black sheep,” his mother said. “All people didn’t watch him seriously because they didn’t believe that he can be something one day. Just me, my older son and our grandma we knew it and we believe that Elvis (would) be what he is now.”
John Tortorella often laments the declining number of characters in the modern NHL. The Blue Jackets coach is certainly among the vanishing lot.
Next season, the intense Tortorella and the driven yet fun-loving Merzlikins could be united if Bobrovsky or Joonas Korpisalo, a restricted free agent, plays elsewhere.
“I have never met Tortorella, not had a chance to speak with him,” Merzlikins said. “I heard some voices that says he’s crazy. But I like that. I can’t judge a person I don’t know, but I like that he’s saying the truth in the face. That’s a huge part of being a human and being a man. He is building a family there.”
Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.
Elvis Merzlikins’ apartment in Lugano, Switzerland, is filled with his hockey memorabilia. (Tom Reed / The Athletic)
‘I think I’m ready’
Merzlikins hasn’t set foot in Columbus since he attended the Blue Jackets’ 2016 development camp. His interest in the club, however, is unmistakable.
He lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a hillside complex that sits less than a mile from Corner Arena, where HC Lugano plays. Next to every front door in the building there’s a small nameplate holder where tenants insert a piece of paper identifying themselves.
There’s only one exception.
ELVIS MERZLIKINS 90.
That’s the nameplate, supplied to him by the Blue Jackets, plastered on his apartment door above the peephole. It’s a souvenir from development camp in 2014.
“The postman definitely knows where I live,” Merzlikins said.
Everyone around town seems to know Elvis, who’s helped lead HC Lugano to the Swiss National League finals in two of the past three seasons. Fans sing out his name from the Curva Nord, the rabid supporters section situated behind one of the arena goals. Residents in this lakeside town of 63,000 people wave to him on the streets.
Merzlikins can greet well-wishers in Italian, English, Latvian and Russian. He can speak a few phrases in Spanish and Portuguese.
He’s also well versed in cop talk.
“I know the police and they know my car,” he said. “Sometimes, when I park where I’m not supposed to they write me tickets and write on them, ‘Elvis, you can’t park here.’ ”
The walls of Merzlikins’ apartment are festooned with hockey gear and memorabilia. His goalie masks from various teams are prominently displayed. So are framed jerseys from HC Lugano, the Latvian national team and the Blue Jackets.
Because most Columbus home games start at 1 a.m. local time, he usually only catches highlights. Merzlikins is excited about the direction of the club. He’s learned with the help of coaches to focus on what he can control, but he is eager to see how contract negotiations play out for Bobrovsky and Korpisalo.
Merzlikins had the opportunity to face Bobrovsky in the 2016 World Championship in Moscow. The Russians beat Latvia, 4-0, but Merzlikins drew strong reviews for his play in the tournament. It’s the only time the two goalies have been in each other’s company.
“I thought to myself, ‘Who is this Bobrovsky? How is he?’ ” Merzlikins said. “Most of the time, I only have him in my PlayStation. He is tough to beat.
“I think Bob is a great goalie. I think he carries, how you say, a lot on his shoulders. He’s one of the top goalies in the whole league.”
Bobrovsky has suffered through a trying start to the new season while his agent and Blue Jackets management appear nowhere close to a contract extension.
Merzlikins said his primary concern is leading HC Lugano on another deep playoff run. The netminder has been living in this region, known as the Swiss Riviera, since age 15.
He likes the high-end shops and outdoor cafes located in the old town, a part of Lugano built on banking and tourism. He enjoys the easy access to the mountains and outdoors and cherishes the beauty of Lake Lugano and all its spoils. He dabbles in high fashion and loves that Milan, a Xanadu for clotheshorses, is a mere 90-minute drive away.
Lugano, Switzerland, where Elvis Merzlikins lives, has been dubbed the “Swiss Riviera.” (Tom Reed / The Athletic)
“I feel I grew up in Lugano,” he said. “If some asks me, ‘What is your hometown?’ It’s a pretty tough answer to give them.”
And yet Merzlikins acknowledges change is coming. He turns 25 in April. There are 10 players on the current Blue Jackets roster younger than he.
“Yeah, it’s probably my last year in Lugano, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Merzlikins said. “I don’t know if Bob is going to re-sign or what. I am not thinking much about that because I need to focus on my season here. … There’s no time to look toward the future right now.
“But at the end of the season I will sit down with (my agent) and see where we go. Of course, the dream is Columbus, the dream is the NHL. I’m not saying I’m old, but the years are going by. The groins aren’t going to stay flexible until I’m 40.
“I think I’m ready.”
“I have considered myself lucky having gotten to play with Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider — some of the best goalies — and Elvis is right up there in terms of great preparation,” Lapierre said. “He’s always on a mission. It doesn’t matter if it’s practice, optional practice. He has his routine. He’s competing for everything. I would not feel shy at all to say I think he will have an unreal NHL career. I believe that’s going to happen.”
The Blue Jackets are keeping close watch on Merzlikins’ development on and off the ice. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen visited him in August for a Champions League game. (European seasons start earlier than the NHL.) Other members of the organization also have paid visits to Lugano.
“He’s been very good on that level,” Kekalainen said. “Now, I think he’s ready for a challenge on the next level.”
A decade ago, nobody dreamed an NHL general manger would make such a comment about Merzlikins. The troubled teen was just trying to survive.
Elvis Merzlikins’ mother, Sandra, and father, Vjaceslav, were the portrait of a happy couple. (Courtesy of Elvis Merzlikins)
‘My father is helping me’
As the Audi RS3 roars up the mountainside, Merzlikins instinctively reaches for the volume control on his radio. Normally, he blasts music at ear-splitting decibels. When he approaches a cemetery, however, he passes in silence.
“You must show respect for the dead,” he said.
Merzlikins pulls the car to the side of the road and parks it near a boarded-up restaurant. It’s here where every time HC Lugano plays a home game that Elvis speaks to his father.
The entire ritual lasts no more than five minutes.
“Usually, I’m just saying I am thankful for what I have,” Merzlikins said. “I ask him, ‘be with me during the game.’ ”
He recalls an instance in Game 5 of the last season’s championship final series in which he felt his father’s presence. It was right before a defensive-zone draw. His team was on the verge of elimination and Merzlikins stood in his crease feeling he had “no power.”
Then came a moment of serenity. There was a point shot through a maze of players and the puck landed in his catching glove.
“It looks like I make a save, but I did nothing,” Merzlikins said recalling a series that HC Lugano extended to seven games before losing 2-0 to Zurich in the clincher. “I didn’t even see the puck. It’s those lucky moments when I know my father is helping me from up there. He’s taking care of me, he’s protecting me.”
Vjaceslav Merzlikins died at age 31. You don’t need to look at many old family photos to see the striking resemblance to his youngest son. The dark hair. The eyes.
Merzlikins has almost no memory of his father, but he pays tribute to him in many ways. His right arm is covered in tattoos, including a script “Vjaceslav” with a teardrop. The son also wears a small crucifix on a chain around his neck similar to one his dad often wore.
There’s almost no subject off the record with Merzlikins, but he does not wish to make the details of his father’s disappearance and death public knowledge.
“It’s too personal,” he said.
Sandra said she held out hope for her husband’s safe return for months. The family waited nearly three years to let Elvis know the truth.
“I was telling him that father is in Moscow for work,” she said. “But when Elvis was 6, he was already understanding some life things and I told him that, ‘Daddy is dead and he’s in another world, in paradise.’ He took it really emotionally and he was (still) waiting (for) him.”
Teammates and coaches rave about Merzlikins’ intellect and how he looks to others for fatherly advice. His older brother, Renars, 31, played a major role in shepherding him through his darkest times.
Merzlikins playfully refers to men he respects and admires as “Daddy” and “Daddio.” Lapierre is one of the father figures who’s earned the distinction. But sitting on his balcony, Merzlikins acknowledged the void in his life.
“What I am missing is, I don’t know, never in my life have I been able to say, ‘I love you, Dad’ or ‘how are you doing, Dad?’ ” Merzlikins said. “What I know is that from up there he is helping me. I know this 100 percent.
“There were times I did crazy things with a car, but I’m still here because I think my father is helping me.”
Merzlikins is thankful to everyone who helped him cope with the tragedy. He reserves special praise for Sandra.
“I call her super mom,” he said. “When I was a kid, it was my dream to buy her an apartment in Miami and buy a little white dog so that when she’s old, she can walk and see the beautiful sea and she will be relaxing. This is the dream and that’s the plan.
“I always find a way. I get that from my mom. When I needed something she always found a way to help me.”
The family moved in with Merzlikins’ grandmother, Milda, when he was 7. They lived briefly on a farm where young Elvis learned to “take the milk from the cow” and “walk around without the shoes.”
Sandra remarried and relocated to Lugano, where Elvis lived for the first time until he was 10. But the relationship dissolved and soon the family returned to Latvia. It was like a chapter out of “Angela’s Ashes” when the McCourts, who emigrated to New York, were forced to go back to Ireland.
A rebellious Merzlikins started to hang out with the wrong crowd. He said two of his childhood friends are dead of overdoses and a third is in jail.
Fortunately, Merzlikins developed a love for hockey after watching the national team on television. His brother started taking him to games and once got him into the national team’s locker room, where Merzlikins recalls hugging the pads of legendary Latvian goalie Arturs Irbe.
Initially a defenseman, coaches converted young Elvis to goaltender. His older brother remembers him sleeping in his first pair of secondhand goalie pads. Hockey equipment and ice time are expensive, but Sandra and Renars kept finding money to feed Elvis’ dream.
The Merzlikinses knew sports, not education, was the youngster’s ticket out of the hardscrabble region of Riga where they lived. Sandra often did his homework and Elvis occasionally resorted to stunts not even Bart Simpson would consider to get out of tests he wasn’t ready to take.
“I would put a petard (a small explosive device) inside the bathroom so everything would be exploding and the fire guys are coming to the school and closing the school,” he said. “There were times I cut power lines in school so the lights went out.
“But when it came to final exams, I was the good guy who was bringing the flowers and the chocolates to my teacher so she would help me pass the year.”
Merzlikins’ work ethic at the rink, however, was exemplary. After showing little promise during his first few seasons, he began to blossom and played well enough to earn a chance with HC Lugano’s U-17 squad in 2009.
While he’s proud to represent his native Latvia in tournaments, Merzlikins said leaving the environment in Riga at that time was a life-altering experience.
“If I didn’t have this luck of coming back to Switzerland, I probably right at this moment would be selling the drugs or be in prison,” Merzlikins said. “I know my character and I know I was hard to control. My mother was doing everything she could but it was really hard to control me. So I was really fortunate to get back here.”
Michael Lawrence has served as Elvis Merzlikins’ goalie coach at HC Lugano for the past two seasons. Merzlikins was named the top goalie in Switzerland last season. (Courtesy of Michael Lawrence)
‘Tuesdays with Morrie’
Corner Arena, the 23-year-old venue that’s home to HC Lugano, is at full throat. The low ceiling offers no escape for the noise, and midway through the third period of Friday night’s game, the black-and-gold-clad fans have the building rocking.
HC Lugano is holding a tenuous 4-2 lead and trying to emerge from a funk that’s seen it lose five of the previous six games. Suddenly, HC Davos attacks off the rush, working a two-on-one down low. Anton Rodin accepts a cross-ice pass and has plenty of open net to shoot.
But Merzlikins, who’s worked hard the past two seasons to narrow his stance, quickly goes post to post to make a stunning glove save.
The Curva Nord, where fans stand the entire game waving banners and singing songs, erupts. Everyone in the building is applauding. Meanwhile, the man who wants to shout the loudest sits quietly in the press box, satisfied the adjustments he’s helped make to Merzlikins’ game continue to pay dividends.
“Elvis used to sit in a wide stance, but now his feet are more narrow and with a good pivot he has a lot of power going across to make that athletic save,” HC Lugano goalies coach Michael Lawrence said. “The corrections he’s worked on put him in that situation, allowing him to use his big frame and athleticism.”
The strong relationship between Lawrence and Merzlikins might be the best example of the goalie’s growing maturity. They have been working together for two seasons, and in that span HC Lugano’s wild child has become more economical in motion and less flamboyant in style of play.
Great saves like the one against Rodin no longer produce exaggerated celebrations. A few tough goals don’t lead to shattered sticks and icy stares at teammates who might have contributed to the quality scoring chances.
“I can’t do that now,” Merzlikins said. “We’re a family. We all make mistakes. I know how hard the guys are playing for me, how they are blocking the shots in front of me.”
Several years ago, when the goalie opted to re-sign with Lugano, many were surprised he didn’t make the jump to the Blue Jackets’ organization. But those around the club, including Merzlikins, agree he wasn’t mentally ready for the transition.
The goalie needed more time. He needed to grow up. Latvian national coach Bob Hartley, who led the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup title in 2001, said last spring Merzlikins’ passion for the game reminds him of Patrick Roy.
That’s an eye-popping statement, but unless properly harnessed such emotion can consume a player and his team. Merzlikins’ teammates have seen the goaltender dial back his outbursts. There are still flashes of rage, but they are more well timed and directed.
“It’s a typical example of a young kid,” Lapierre said. “He wants to compete so much that when things don’t go his way he becomes even more of a competitor. That’s why I think he’s going to play in the NHL. You need that special fire inside of you, and he definitely has it.”
At first glance, the impetuous Merzlikins and cerebral Lawrence are an odd pairing. One is a 6-foot-3 goalie on the cusp of making the NHL. The other is a 5-foot-6 former goaltender who never advanced beyond Tier II juniors in Canada.
Lawrence is part technician, part therapist. He keeps a journal that he calls “a book” on all his dealings with Merzlikins.
“(NHL insider) Elliotte Friedman has his 31 thoughts,” Lawrence said. “And, I have my weekly thoughts on Elvis. Everything from practice habits to body language to what’s going on away from the ice.”
Merzlikins laughed when asked about the journal.
“I like to have fun, I like to see life with colors, not just with the white and the black,” Merzlikins said. “Mike has his own book. He’s writing stuff down. I don’t know what the hell he’s writing, but I trust him. He’s more than a coach, he’s a friend.”
Lawrence is one of many North American coaches and players making a living in the thriving European hockey market. HC Lugano head coach Greg Ireland used to run the Blue Jackets’ ECHL entry in Dayton.
The position coach for Merzlikins has his own loose connection to the Blue Jackets. Lawrence, 37, dropped out of college to pursue his love of coaching more than a decade ago.
His career at an early crossroads, Lawrence begged Mike Foligno, then coach of the OHL Sudbury Wolves, for a chance to interview for a vacant position on his staff. Foligno is the father of Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno, who also was a member of that Wolves squad.
“I called him every day in the summer when I was 25 and I annoyed the shit out of him,” Lawrence said. “I had $130 in the bank and I had to fill up the Jetta. I went up and sat with Mike and was hoping he’d pick up the bill because I probably didn’t have enough money.”
Lawrence parlayed his big break into future gigs with Hockey Canada, the ECHL, Kontinental Hockey League and Swiss National League. He spent several seasons coaching HC Lugano’s big rival, HC Ambri-Piotta, from 2014-17 before deciding he needed a new “project.”
There was an opportunity to join HC Lugano, but first he wanted to meet Merzlikins to gauge compatibility. After taking the job last season, Lawrence quickly understood some unconventional approaches would be necessary.
The coach had been watching Merzlikins play for several years and wanted to make some adjustments to his game. The first meeting at the rink did not go well.
“I saw a kid who was being pulled in a lot of different directions and his game was overcomplicated,” Lawrence recalled. “He was playing the hard way. Everything was a big save.
“When I first got here, I could hardly have a meeting with him in the coach’s room. While I was his coach, he had almost zero trust in me. I learned from the beginning we couldn’t have meetings in the coach’s office. If you wanted to make suggestions about something that needed fixed, he wouldn’t get aggressive, but he would get loud. We would react. It was his defense mechanism.”
Lawrence knew he had four things working in his favor. The kid was extremely bright, he cared deeply about the game, he worked his ass off and he had NHL-caliber talent.
Coach and player decided to start meeting weekly away from the rink for coffee. Lawrence calls the 30-minute chats his “Tuesdays with Morrie” sessions in reference to the Mitch Albom book.
Trust began to build, but it remained fragile. After a good start to last season, Merzlikins began to stray from instruction, thinking he had the position figured out. A few poor outings followed and teacher and student sat down for a critical midseason meeting.
“We were in our coffee shop and doing video and Elvis said, ‘Everything is criticism, everything is negative.’ ” Lawrence noted. “I said, ‘Stop, I’m this hard on you because you can handle this. I’m hard on you because you have the goods. I’m hard on you because this is what you could represent. But if you want me to just give you good mental pictures all the time and for you to just plateau, then we will do that from here on out.’
“I needed him to come into meetings with an open mind and without emotion.”
Merzlikins got the message and took his play to another level. He finished the season with a .921 save percentage and a 2.71 goals-against average. In the spring, he backstopped Latvia to its first quarterfinals appearance in a decade at the World Championship.
This season, Merzlikins has posted a 2.25 GAA and .931 save percentage with HC Lugano, which has won three consecutive games. The goalie is starting to understand the importance of not “skipping steps.” He acknowledged doing it again prior to the winner-take-all Game 7 at home against Zurich last season.
“My dream at that time was to buy a watch for my mom and write inside, ‘Mama, I’m finally a champion,’ ” he said. “I got a little ahead of myself.”
Lawrence believes his goalie is in a great place mentally.
“He’s a man now,” the coach said. “He’s become very consistent. He has the respect of his teammates. He has grown up tenfold.”
Elvis Merzlikins helped lead Latvia to a stunning quarterfinals appearance at last season’s World Championship. (Getty Images)
‘Illegitimi non Carborundum’
Merzlikins brings the Audi to a crawl as he reaches the top of Mount Bre. He drives past a restaurant and steers the sports car down a narrow strip of roadway that opens up to the most spectacular view of Lugano, its Alpine lakes and the surrounding mountain ranges.
“I love it up here,” he says. “Look at your phone — no service. I like that.”
There are several benches where young couples sit and admire the view. Merzlikins occasionally brings others with him, but mostly he enjoys being alone in his thoughts.
“When there’s a lot of pressure and I have a lot on my shoulders I like to come here and just let it go,” he says. “You know those times in your life when you don’t feel like you can breathe.”
Life is starting to move really fast for a young man who normally craves speed. The top of Mount Bre is where he pumps the brakes.
Merzlikins finds himself in a long-distance relationship with a young woman named Elizabeth, a former Latvian javelin thrower who’s studying tax law in Moscow. Tortorella would love this woman’s attitude.
“I was feeling sad this morning because we have been losing and I didn’t really want to talk,” he says. “She basically told me, ‘What are you some kind of little girl? Suck it up.’ ”
Elizabeth flew in for Game 7 last season even though she didn’t have a ticket. She stood outside the arena just to support Merzlikins. He only allowed one goal, but the SC Bern added an empty-netter and celebrated a title on Lugano ice.
A few weeks later, Merzlikins became a national hero, leading Latvia on a surprising run to the world championship knockout round in Denmark.
Elvis and Renars Merzlikins are extremely close. Renars helped introduce his younger brother to hockey and took him to early morning practices. (Courtesy of Elvis Merzlikins)
“There were big emotions that I cannot describe, but I remember the last three minutes (of the final round-robin game) I was on my knees in front of my TV watching it,” Renars said. “It was awesome and huge happiness. Elvis looked really stable that game and the whole tournament. We’re really proud of him and happy that Elvis could give the happiness to our country.”
In the spring, Merzlikins returned to the Latvian school that he attended. He arrived bearing flowers and chocolates. Turning a corner, he saw one of his old teachers.
The woman wept with joy.
Nobody can predict the future. Maybe this season ends with a title celebration in Lugano and a contract signing in Columbus. The Blue Jackets would love to get him some late-season games either with them or their minor-league affiliate.
If he decides to commit to the Blue Jackets, there’s going to be a learning curve and an adjustment period. The Swiss league is good and it’s fast, but it’s not the NHL.
Is Merzlikins mentally equipped to handle the highs and lows of hockey played at an elite level? Can his big personality energize a new team or will it become a distraction?
So many questions to ponder while gazing across Lake Lugano.
What Merzlikins knows is his family life has never been stronger. “Super mom” is good. His older brother is building a new house. His father is always watching over him no matter where he calls home.
Across the top of his right arm a mock-Latin aphorism is scripted: Illegitimi non Carborundum. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The black sheep has come a long way. More important, Elvis Merzlikins knows he can’t skip any more steps to get where he wants to go.
Tom Reed / The Athletic