It was a festive night at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena last Friday, September 23, as the Centennials kicked off their 2022-2023 campaign. Though the first game of the season represents a fresh start and excitement for what is to come for our town’s Junior A hockey team, Friday night’s game is also significant for another reason. The Cent’s officially started their 50th season in Merritt, a claim that no other franchise in the BC Hockey League (BCHL) can make.
To mark this special milestone, the organization invited players from their 1973-1974 team to come out for the season opener. The Herald spoke with then team captain, Darrell Zelinski to talk get his thoughts on this reunion and on the Cents turning 50.
Can you describe what it was like playing for the Cents?
“It was the first Junior A team and the town was very supportive of us and we fell in love with the town very quickly. We have great memories of being here. People were all in, they were very excited watching us play and they were very loyal to our team. There was no love for any of the opponents, especially Kelowna.”
Can you describe that 73’-74’ team?
“We were a first year team in the league and we went through a lot of adversities, starting in Whiterock, moving up here, having a coaching change, having another coaching change, and loosing players because of paperwork. Even though there were a lot of challenges, we were still a close-knit group and when we hit the ice, it was ‘game on.’ We played hard, even though some nights it wasn’t there, we still gave it our best.”
What was your most memorable game from that season?
“I don’t know if I could name just one, but probably when we played Kelowna, at home, in the playoffs. We were short on players but we took them to six games. They beat us and went all the way to the Western Canadian Championships. We gave them as tough a run as anybody did.
Out of all the hockey teams you played for, where would you rank this group of guys?
“Number 1! I had so much fun in town with these guys. They’ve produced memories for me for a lifetime for sure. I remember Danny Roda being a jokester, pulling pranks on the guys. Whenever him and Greg Agar, who was a hothead, got together, there were always good stories that came out of it. I was here in Merritt for three years then I’ve played in a senior hockey league in Kamloops for a few years, I linked up again with Danny and Greg for a few years there. We always had a good time when we get together.”
How do you feel being back?
“When Bryan (Barrett) called us to come we had to oblige. Us being here is to see old friends again but more importantly, to pay tribute all the people who’ve kept this team going for 50 years, that’s quite an accomplishment. Some of us haven’t seen each other since our year end banquet while some of us played for a couple more years here. The good vibes comes back pretty quick, guys are already poking fun at each other but it brings tears to our eyes seeing each other again.”
How do you feel about this franchise, which you played in first, turning 50 years old?
“It’s a bit of shock that it’s been that long. I’m 67 now and to think that the team is starting their 50th season here makes you realize how quick time passes by. There are a group of people that keeps this franchise going. They may go in cycles but their love for this hockey team keeps this program going in Merritt. There’s no other town or city in BC that has kept it going for this long and I am very proud to be part of the first group to suit up for them.”