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Centennials celebrate 50 years in Merritt

By Kenneth Wong

The Merritt Centennials are the longest continuously run franchise in the BCHL. The team began life back in 1961 as the Kamloops Rockets in the first year of the league’s existence. The Rockets were one of four Okanagan junior teams which joined together to create the Okanagan-Mainline Junior Hockey League (OMJHL), the first iteration of today’s BCHL. Kamloops dominated the early days of the league, winning league titles five times in their first 10 years.

Finding a Home

In 1973, for one year, the franchise moved to White Rock under the name White Rock Centennials. The Centennials began the 1973-74 season in White Rock but finished in Merritt, which would turn out to be their home for the next 50 years and counting.

Brian Barrett, who has been with the franchise in many different roles since the 1970s, but is now retired, describes himself as “more of a fan than anything” at this point, but helps out where he can.

During the 1970s however, Barrett started off as a the team’s general manager and head coach, a role which he filled off and on until 1999. More recently, he would also go on to serve as their team governor and director of hockey operations

Barrett fondly remembers the early days of the Centennials.

“The fans [were] almost right on the ice with the referees,” he said. “We didn’t have any glass on the sides and we had chicken wire on the end when the club first came here. It was fun to be in the building. It was a great atmosphere.”

During the 1975-76 season, Greg Agar would go on to be the first player to be chosen in the NHL Entry Draft, not just for the franchise, but the entire league. 1977-78 was somewhat of a high-water mark in the history of the Centennials during their time in Merritt. That year, the team scored 489 goals, led by six players with 90-plus points, and a record of 50-15-1.

The Centennials once again rebranded from 1985 to 1987, as the Merritt Warriors. Along with the name change, they also switched their colours to white, black, and yellow. Unfortunately for Merritt, the new look did not result in positive results on the ice and the team quickly reverted back to their familiar red, black and white look in 1987-88, which they continue to wear to this day.

Many accolades were achieved the following year with goalie Barry Rysz being awarded the league’s Top Goaltender Award, while head coach Ed Beers was named Coach of The Year.

During the 2000-01 campaign, the Centennials secured second place in their division with a record of 30-21-9 and 69 points. They defeated the Prince George Spruce Kings in the first round and then faced the Penticton Panthers, who had finished the season in first place and were 29 points ahead of the Cents. However, Merritt managed to pull off a surprise upset by sweeping the Panthers in four games and would go on to finish one game short of a Fred Page Cup championship, losing to the Victoria Salsa in Game 7 of the league finals.

Beyond the Game

Phyllis ‘Rusty’ Brewer has been volunteering with the team for over 30 years. Brewer has a hand in almost everything to do with the team, from working the gate at Cents games, helping with gameday programs, facilitating player autograph sessions and so much more. Former Centennials player Chase Bell (2016-2018), described Rusty as the “the backbone to the Merritt Centennials hockey team.

Brewer believes that the most important thing about the Centennials is the community. Much bigger than any score, the team has become a vital part of the town. When off the ice, players get involved with the community, volunteering weekly to help children learn to read. Merritt residents know if they need help moving, they can make a phone call and the Centennials will send a hockey player to help out.

“A lot of kids [at first] don’t like being traded to Merritt,” she said. “But when they get here, they struggle to leave. They get very close with their billet families. They get close with the volunteers, they get close with the fans. People, they know them by name, they recognize them on the street, they recognize them in a restaurant. There’s a lot of value to that.”

Moving Forward

Even after a couple of difficult years where the team finds themselves outside of the playoff picture, veterans like Barrett and Brewer remain optimistic.

“I think all of us old timers that have been here are looking forward to the day when we can become a champion club again and raise a banner,” said Barrett. “But I think down the road here, that we will have a lot better team in the future here.”