When the puck drops on the 2021-22 BC Hockey League season, the Merritt Centennials will have a new face calling the shots on the bench for the third straight year.
After general manager and head coach Barry Wolff made his debut with Merritt at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, his successor Derek Sweet-Coulter was in that spot to open 2020-21. The Centennials sputtered to a 3-17-0 record during the pod season, at which time the team’s Board of Directors decided against renewing Sweet-Coulter’s contract.
According to Centennials’ director of hockey operations John Stuart, they are looking for a sense of stability in hiring Sweet-Coulter’s replacement. “We want and need to build stability for our organization moving forward. (And) not only for our community but for our players and potential recruits.”
The decade from 2009 to 2019 saw the Centennials have success with Luke Pierce behind the bench and then Joe Martin. Both were extremely hard workers who endeared themselves to the community of just over 7,100.
— Merritt Centennials (@BCHLCentennials) May 12, 2021
This isn’t to question Wolff’s or Sweet-Coulter’s work ethic or ability to endear themselves to fans and sponsors in the BCHL’s smallest market, but both had massive shoes to fill when stepping into the roles of GM and head coach of the Centennials.
Pierce was born and raised in Merritt, he and his family practically bleed Centennials red, black, and white. Meanwhile, Martin apprenticed under Pierce for four years before taking over the head job for an additional four seasons.
Trial by fire for Sweet-Coulter
Stuart acknowledges Sweet-Coulter was elevated to GM and head coach in a difficult situation. “He was thrown into the head coaching position after just one month. He fully expected to learn the league and be an assistant for two or three years, so he was put in a very tough spot, to begin with.”
“(It) was not only tough on him and our coaching staff but very tough on our players for what everyone went through last year. Then COVID-19 hit and put everything at a standstill with the unknown,” Stuart explained.
The pandemic and restrictions associated with it also put a major crimp in the Centennials’ plans. “Camps and fundraisers were cancelled, not knowing if and when we could have them. Then when we were allowed camps, rules and regulations were put in place that had to be followed. Then it was tough not knowing if we were going to have a season or even be allowed to hold practices.”
When it came down to it for the Centennials, this past season was really more about just surviving as a franchise.
“We made the decision early with border closures and the pandemic in full swing not to roster any American players,” Stuart said. “After all the hard work the BCHL put into getting us a 20-game pod season, decisions had to be made on who could or could not participate. This affected final roster spots for not only us but every team.”
— Merritt Centennials (@BCHLCentennials) May 17, 2021
As a result, the pod season gave Stuart and the rest of the Cents’ Board the chance to evaluate their roster, staff, and future. “At end of the day, we realized a lot of good things but also a lot of things that needed to be addressed. We are addressing things on a daily basis, trying to get back to the stability the Centennials had not so long ago.”
It comes down to finding the right fit
As for the right fit as GM and head coach of the Merritt Centennials? It starts with knowledge of this level of hockey.
“I think ideally someone with experience in the BCHL or equivalent. Also, (it’s) very important to get someone who has relationships with NCAA schools, and is experienced and successful in recruiting players,” Stuart described. “We are excited about going through the process to hopefully get the right fit for our organization.”
In addition to nabbing a new GM and head coach, Stuart and the Centennials’ scouting staff are also trying to find players to help the club climb out of the basement. 20 Cents players are eligible to return to the team in 2021-22.
“We have been working diligently contacting players (to recruit) and that is no different than other years.
Not being able to scout in person or see potential players in person due to COVID-19 is challenging for all teams, but hiring a new coach and GM is priority number one for us as an organization right now.”
Normalcy also equals stability
The desire for a return to business as usual permeates all facets of society right now, including junior hockey from the top down. It’s one of the biggest needs for the Centennials as they dive into the off-season.
“Hopefully getting some normalcy back will allow us to get out into the community to interact (face-to-face) with our sponsors and advertisers,” said Stuart.
“Fundraising has always been an integral part of the Merritt Centennials and we are very lucky with the amount of support we received from our season ticket holders, sponsors and advertisers, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. They all understand how important they are to the existence of the Centennials, and we thank them for their support during these tough times that have been hard on everyone.
With a landmark season just a couple of years away, the Cents have eyes on making it memorable in more ways than one. “We are approaching our 50th anniversary season in 2023-24, and being the BCHL’s longest continuously-run franchise is something we are very proud of.”