Christina Jean Photography

New look Centennials seek success

With a new look team, the Merritt Centennials are showing signs of success early on this British Columbia Hockey League season.

New head coach Brian Passmore’s squad had 22 points in the standings, as of this writing. The Cents sported a 9-12-2-1 record. “I think we’re exceeding some expectations that were surrounding us coming,” Passmore said. “I think no one really thought much of us. That’s fine. We’re just worried about what we’re trying to build here.”

The past few seasons have been challenging for Merritt. At this exact moment, they are only four wins away from matching last season’s win total of a dozen. During 2022-23, the Cents finished last in the Interior Conference with 29 points and a record of 12-37-3-2. In the 2021-22 campaign, Merritt only won three of its 54 games.

Early success in 23-24

So, what has allowed the new-look Cents to see some success early on? “Everyone has kind of come in and bought into the team-first attitude and really caring about winning,” said Passmore, who praises Merritt as a great hockey town.

Early on, the head coach said the team’s strengths have been its goaltending and size while taking advantage of the smaller dimensions of the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena ice surface. “No superstars here,” Passmore said. “I think we have a lot of depth (and) an older team.”

The head coach emphasized the parity in the BCHL this season. “The games are so tight in this league. I don’t remember a year when every game was so tight. At the end of the night, you can just look at the special teams, whoever wins that battle, most times wins the game.”

Special teams have made a difference for the Centennials this season. The power play is converting at 23.8 per cent to rank fifth in the BCHL. The Merritt penalty kill is fourth in the league — at 80.6 per cent.

Returning players lead the way

While the Centennials have more than 20 new players this season, a handful of returning athletes have helped. Leading the way is captain Aidan Lindblad, who joined the squad from the Salmon Arm Silverbacks partway through last season.

“The first thing I asked a kid when I was recruiting him this summer was, ‘Do you want to be here?’ If they say ‘no,’ then you move on. The first time I talked to Aidan, he was ‘I want to be here. I want to turn this around. I believe in it,’” Passmore said.

The 20-year-old forward has 11 points in 21 games through Dec. 7. The Cents received a big boost in late October when 20-year-old forward Jaxson Murray rejoined the team from the Aberdeen Wings of the North American Hockey League. He led Merritt with 43 points in 52 games last season. Murray had nine goals and 16 points over his first 14 games back in the Nicola Valley.

“We welcomed him back with open arms and he’s been great for us,” Passmore said.

Defender Jonathan Wong and forward Jacob Smith are also back this season. Forward Ryan Spinale returned to the team and had 18 points in as many games before leaving for the United States Hockey League’s Lincoln Stars midway through November.

Building the new Cents

It was a busy offseason as Passmore, who serves as Merritt’s assistant general manager, and general manager Kevin Rabbitt worked to rebuild the team.

“The way the league has gone I think it was a great opportunity to go out and completely rebuild the whole team,” Passmore said. “Twenty-two new players here this year.”

When trading for or recruiting players, the Merritt staff had a few focus areas. Passmore was looking to build a team that was bigger, stronger, and older. The Centennials sought to bring in players from winning programs. For example, after watching the Ottawa Junior Senators make it to the semifinals of the Centennial Cup, Canada’s national Junior A championship, Passmore brought in two of Ottawa’s players. Forward Zachary Losier is fourth on the Centennials in scoring with 15 points in 24 games and defender Ranvir Gill-Shane has seven points in 22 games.

When looking at bringing in 18-year-olds, Passmore said he was seeking players who could contribute in a top-six role or on the power play. They found that in Losier, Dylan Lariviere — who is second on the team in scoring with 20 points through 23 contests — and Cullen Emery, who has seen limited action due to injury.

The Centennials staff utilized various connections to help bring in new talent. They also hit the road. A visit to the Boston, Massachusetts area helped land top scorer Michael Felsing and defender Kiernan Poulin. Felsing leads the club in scoring with 30 points in 25 games.

Poulin is committed to play at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and is one of six Centennials who have announced commitments. The others include Felsing (Robert Morris University), Michael Stenberg (Providence College), Tyler Wishart (Cornell University), Sawyer Prokopetz (University of Nebraska-Omaha), and Lariviere (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Goaltenders coming up big

A key to the Centennials’ success has been its goaltending — and both netminders have contributed. “They’re having great starts and it’s hard to decide who is going in,” Passmore said.

Both are listed at 6-foot-3 and their listed weight ranges from 185 to 194. “They both look the same in the net,” Passmore said. “Really calm.”

The 2003-born Karlis Mezsargs hails from Latvia. As of this writing, he had a 3.73 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage in 10 appearances. “He’s really mature (and) a leader for our team,” his coach explained.

Meanwhile, Andrew Ballantyne, a 2004-born goalie, has been in nine games and has a 4.01 goals-against average, and an .878 save percentage.