Following a terrific 2011-12 campaign, the Merritt Centennials hockey organization and its fans are looking ahead to the new BCHL season with tremendous anticipation and excitement.

Things officially kick into gear this Sunday, August 28 with the beginning of the Centennials’ main training camp at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena. Close to 48 players, ranging in age from 16-20, will be on hand – hoping to secure one of the 22 coveted spots on this year’s Cents’ roster.

“We’ll have a good mix of players here,” states Centennials’ head coach and GM Luke Pierce, “from returning veterans to young, enthusiastic prospects. It’ll be a bigger camp than last year simply because of our increased needs.”

Unlike one year ago, when the Cents’ training camp opened with no fewer than 18 returnees from the season before, this August sees just 11 players from last year’s highly successful squad back lacing up the skates in Merritt.

The one-shy-of-a-dozen core group includes netminder Tyler Steel, defensemen Richard Sabourin, Tyler Martin and Dylan Chanter, along with forwards Brent Fletcher, Silvan Harper, Sean Maktaak, Regan Soquila, Brandon Bruce, Payton Schaefer and Brendan Lamont.

Gone from last year’s Cents’ team are graduated 20-year-olds Lino Chimienti, Bill Marshall, Carter Shinkaruk, Evan Stack and Chad Brears, as well as scholarship athletes Reece Willcox (Cornell) and Brandon Pfeil (Brown).

Added to the list of departures is retired defenseman Ross Mancuso, and forward Jakob Reichert who was traded during the off-season to the Langley Rivermen.

The Reichert deal in June brings two newly signed players to the Cents’ line-up, both with BCHL experience. Sebastien Pare comes over from the Rivermen while Derek Huisman played with the Chilliwack Chiefs last season.

In one other summertime transaction, the Centennials signed promising young forward Diego Cuglietta (95) from the Kamloops Storm of the KIJHL.

Pierce is very clear in his assessment of his team’s needs going into this year’s training camp.

“Defense is going to be our main focus. In hindsight, we perhaps could have been a bit more aggressive [in the summer] in checking out what was available on the blueline, but we’re not worried about it. We think that there are enough quality players coming to camp that we can make a strong core group of defensemen.”

Up front, Pierce feels that the forward depth this season could be better than it’s ever been.

“It’s not going to be a question of do we have enough talent, but rather do we have the right mix of players – enough speed, enough grit, and so on.”

Between the pipes, Pierce believes his team has a premier puckstopper in Steel.

“We expect and I think other teams expect Tyler to be one of the top, if not the top, goalies in the league this year.”

Of the roughly 34-35 invitees to the Cents’ training camp, over a dozen come with Junior B or previous Junior A experience, while the majority of the rest played midget AA, AAA or major midget last season. All but about a half dozen of the players have attended one or more of the Cents’ spring camps, and are well-known to the Cents’ coaching staff.

Some of the interesting players who will be in attendance at camp are Rhett Willcox and Jordan Steel, younger brothers of Reece and Tyler respectively, as well as the Merritt brother act of Russell and Zack Sanderson. Former Merritt minor hockey product Daylan Robertson will also be on the ice after a very successful year at the Okanagan Hockey Academy and with the Penticton Lakers.

Following Sunday’s orientation session and fitness testing, there will be just two full days of practices and scrimmages before the Centennials begin their exhibition schedule against the visiting Rivermen on Tuesday night.

“By the start of exhibition, we’ll try to get down to the 35 [player] range,” states Pierce. “Probably every day from that point on, we’ll be trimming down so that, hopefully, by Saturday [September 1], we’re down to 23-24 guys.”

“I can’t wait to get started,” Pierce concludes.