Where does time fly?

Yes, another exciting season of Merritt Centennials hockey is only days away, with the start of training camp scheduled for this coming Monday, August 24 at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena.

An estimated 45 skaters will descend upon our valley for the Cents’ main camp, which will run until September 5, and include a pair of intra-squad games and four exhibition matches against BCHL rivals.

Each player attending Merritt’s training camp will be vying for one of 22 coveted positions on this year’s Cents’ squad, and the opportunity to compete in arguably the best Junior A league in North America.

With only nine returning players from the Merritt team that went 32-22-0-2 for 66 points to finish third in the Interior division of the BCHL last season, the 2015-16 edition of the Centennials will feature plenty of new faces.

The veteran group includes goaltender Anthony Pupplo (95), defencemen Malik Kaila (96), Cole Arcuiri (96) and Tyrell Buckley (97), along with forwards Gavin Gould (96), Zak Bowles (95), James Neil (95), Nick Fidanza (96) and Colin Grannary (97).

Gone from last year’s Cents’ team are 20-year-old graduating players Jonah Imoo, Shane Poulsen, Jake Clifford (Arizona State), Griffyn Martin (Trinity College), leading scorer John Schiavo (Missouri, ECHL) and captain Sam Johnson.

Also departed from last season’s squad are scholarship athletes Josh Teves (Princeton University), Michael Ederer (St. Lawrence University) and Diego Cuglietta (Lake Superior State).

Other players not expected to return are defenceman Matt Foley and Brandon Duhaime who have signed with teams in the United States Hockey League (USHL), and forwards Cole Chorney and Stephan Seeger, both of whom are trying to land spots with major Junior teams in the Western Hockey League (WHL).

One final player who won’t be suiting up for the Cents again is two-year veteran Rhett Willcox. The pugnacious but popular forward was sent to the Trail Smoke Eaters in the off-season as compensation for the acquisition of Griffyn Martin from the Smokies at the trade deadline back in January.

As a result of of all the departures, Centennials’ new head coach and GM Joe Martin and his new assistant, Matt Swanson from North Vancouver, have been busy this summer recruiting players from across North America.

Off-season signings include goaltending prospect Colten Lancaster, originally from Charlie Lake, B.C. The hulking 17-year-old (6’3”, 200 lbs.) played the last two seasons with the elite Pursuit of Excellence program in Kelowna (see p. 28 for more details). Lancaster is expected to begin this season backing up Pupplo in net.

On defence, the Centennials have committed to three newcomers — Tyler Wickman from Abbotsford, and Americans Michael Faulkner and Nick Fiorentino who hail from  Norwalk, Connecticut and Hartsdale, New York respectively.

Last year, the young Wickman (98) played in 27 games for the Yale Academy U18 team in the Fraser Valley, registering three goals and 17 assists for 20 points. He also dressed for six games with the Centennials as an affiliate player (AP).

Faukner (96) has played the last three seasons with the Brunswick Prep School in Connecticut. In 32 games last year, the Bruins’ captain scored seven times and chipped in with 35 assists for 42 points.

The 19-year-old Fiorentino  played the past two years with the New Jersey Rockets of the Eastern Hockey League. (Read more about Fiorentino on p. 28).

Up front, the Cents signed another trio of players — Michael Regush from White Rock, Nick Jermain out of Norfolk, Connecticut and Ryan Finnegan who hails from Tecumseh, Kansas.

Playing for the Delta Academy Prep team, Regush (98) tallied 33 points (17 goals, 16 assists) in 28 games. He also appeared in three BCHL games with the Langley Rivermen as an affiliate player.

Jermain (96) suited up for the Connecticut Oilers of the EHL this past season, tallying 14 goals and 35 assists for 49 points in 49 games.

Meanwhile, Finnegan (97) played the last two seasons with the Baltimore Skipjacks of the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL). Last year, he netted 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists) in just 31 games — good enough to be chosen to play in the league’s all-star game, and good enough to have earned an NCAA Division scholarship to Quinnipiac University.

With nine returning players and seven signed recruits, the Cents 22-man roster for this upcoming season still has room for at least one defenceman and as many as five frontliners.

Martin states that some of the players scheduled to be at camp next week are strong contenders for those available positions this season, while others are more long-range prospects that the team would like to keep track of for the future and possibly AP for the 2015-16 campaign.

“At every position, we hope to identify players for our affiliate group this year, and for our team in future years,” Martin said. “We have a very young group coming into camp.”

Notable camp participants vying for positions include 18-year-old Hunter Kero from Michigan, the younger brother of former Cents’ standout goalie Devin Kero, as well as a trio of local younsters — Riley Barnes, Sunil Sahota and Marcelo Bose.

The 18-year-old Barnes spent last season with the Golden Rockets of the Koote-nay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL). In 42 games, he scored one goal and added four assists.

Sixteen-year-old Marcelo Bose has spent the last two seasons with the Merritt Jr. Cents Tier 3 midgets, while Sahota, 16, suited up for the Thompson Blazers of the B.C. Major Midget League.

The Cents will practice from Monday to Thursday on their home ice (see schedule), with intra-squad games slated for Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. Both games are open to the public.

“By the time we finish up Thursday, we hope to get our numbers down to slightly over 30,” Martin said.

Friday, the Centen-nials travel to Prince George for the front half of a home-and-home exhibition series with the Spruce Kings. The two teams will renew acquaintances one night later at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena starting at 7:30 p.m.

“Come the end of the month, our goal is to be at 25 players. I don’t want to drag out the process too long,” Martin said.

After another solid week of practices, the Cents’ pre-season schedule will wrap up with a second home-and-home series — on September 4 and 5 against the Langley Rivermen.

Martin is looking for a high level of competition throughout training camp and the pre-season.

“It’s going to be a good camp. Hopefully, the new guys coming in can push [the veterans]. I think the exhibition games will really tell the story.”