The whole point of the BCHL pod season was to get players showcased.
Whether it was the 20-year-old veteran preparing for his last hurrah or a wide-eyed rookie getting his first taste of junior hockey, the experience was one and the same.
Both players signed with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the new year after their Under-18 season with the Prince George-based Cariboo Cougars ended up being scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merritt’s rookie season
Merritt had 22 points in 40 games for the Cougars in the 2019-20 campaign and was expected to dominate in his final season at the U18 level.
While leaving the elite program he grew up under was tough, the 17-year-old cherished the 20-game journey inside the Port Alberni pod.
“Growing up I always dreamed of playing for Cariboo, but then getting the chance to take that next step up (with Alberni Valley) because of the pandemic and to play games, getting to know the league a little bit was a good experience.”
“With COVID, we were not playing any games in major midget and the coaches were talking to us and then (Bulldogs general manager and head coach) Joe (Martin) phoned me (to see) if I wanted to come down here and I took the jump. Brady (McIsaac) was already here, so it made it that much easier to come and settle down on the Island and it’s been good.”
Merritt was quick to admit playing in front of no fans took some getting used to.
“It was definitely weird playing with no fans but it’s better than not playing any games. It’s good to have them, and to be in the bubble and hosting them was pretty cool. We were kind of in an NHL schedule playing every other day, making rest a pretty big key, but everyone loved it so it was good.”
Merritt scored his first BCHL goal against the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Apr. 17, which turned out to be a 4-0 shutout victory.
“It kind of happened off a misplay. It was just a chip out of the zone and onto a 2-on-1 and I was coming down the wing with the defender coming towards me so I dragged it around him. I took the shot and it ended up over the goalie’s glove.”
McIsaac’s rookie season
In the case of McIsaac, he was one of just two 16-year-olds on the Bulldogs roster. The other was standout forward Ethan Bono who recorded 16 points in 18 games.
“It’s been great so far. The coaches were awesome and they gave me a lot of opportunity for a young guy coming into the league just to get experience and to get my feet wet. The team did pretty awesomely, probably a lot better than a lot of people expected us to do.”
Alberni Valley ended the pod season with an 11-5-3-1 record, only two points back of the Victoria Grizzlies for top spot.
McIsaac admitted the biggest on-ice adjustment turned out to be the caliber of players he was lining up against on a nightly basis.
“In midget, you don’t get the 18, 19, or 20-year-olds, so a lot of the guys are bigger and stronger for sure.”
McIsaac didn’t play a game at the U18 level for Cariboo thanks to the pandemic.
He was a star in the Under-16 age group, notching 24 goals and 19 assists in 30 games and playing on the same team as fellow PG product and Kelowna Rockets rookie Scott Cousins.
Like Merritt, McIsaac also scored his first BCHL goal against Cowichan Valley in a rather dramatic fashion. He recorded the game-tying goal with three seconds left, resulting in a Bulldogs 5-4 overtime victory.
The Prince George product is also the son of a coach. His dad Brent McIsaac played in the BCHL for three seasons with the Spruce Kings as well as the Chilliwack Chiefs.
“He has been a big help. He has played at this level himself so he has tips for me on what to improve and how I can be the best player I can be. He does a lot of ice with me in the summer to work on stuff,” added McIsaac.
When the BCHL drops the puck in the fall, you can rest assured that both players will relish playing in front of a crowd at the Dawg Pound at Weyerhauser Arena.