Contributed — by Harit Joshi

As one enters the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena, the home of Merritt Centennials, a banner proudly states: ‘BCHL’s longest continuously-run franchise.’ However, what this doesn’t showcase is the unflinching support of the community that has helped the team sail for the last 50 years.

The community had to pass a litmus test in the last couple of seasons when a decision was to be made whether to keep going with the team or step aside this time with Merritt reeling under devastating floods, fires, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite these downturns, the community never stopped supporting the team,” says Kelly Bartch, president of the Merritt Centennials.

“They were the ones who said ‘let’s keep it going.’ It is indeed really unique for this community to do this. We are one of the smallest communities (around 8,000) in the BCHL. So, it is baffling to sometimes think about how we still exist and how do we keep doing it year after year. We take pride in our diverse community. As a team, we try to engage everyone.” 

He does not fail to highlight the proud moment for the community when local artist Kayla Philips’ designed Merritt Centennials Indigenous jersey was showcased during the Vancouver Canucks game recently.  

“Nobody quits even if we have had a bad season,” says Bartch. “I still don’t fully understand what makes the community support the team relentlessly. We feel guilty when we don’t do well because we want them to give the best experience every time. A lot of businesses have suffered due to the downturns but they still provide their support. We are working towards a self-sustainable model because as Kevin Rabbitt (Director of Operations and an ex-Centennials player) puts in, we can’t be playing around with other people’s money. We have to respect that.”

The ride was rough for the Centennials not just off the ice but on it too in the last few seasons.

The team managed just three wins each in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons from 20 and 54 games, respectively. Their best showing came in the 2018-19 season when they finished second on the BCHL table. However, the team is yet to achieve the glory of the 1977-78 season where they topped the league with a record of 50-15-1 and 101 points.   

There was a complete overhaul  of the coaching staff and players after the 2021 season, with Head Coach Curtis Toneff in charge of the ship and rebuilding the team. 

“Any time you measure success, the biggest thing we want to see is improvement,” noted Toneff. 

“This team has improved drastically from last season. It started off the ice last May and June where we got fresh faces involved. This team has established a good culture on the ice. The players like to be here, which is so crucial. We need to have more experience. This season we started off with an older team in terms of age. As the season went on, we went in with the younger players. To have success in this league, it is important to have experience and be a bit older.”

At the heart of Merritt Centennials are its hardcore fans and most loyal group of volunteers—the main reason for its longevity. From a group of six Merritt businessmen giving the Centennials their first ownership group back in 1974, the volunteers have since been the core.

Rusty Brewer is one of the longest serving volunteers of the Merritt Centennials, having been with the team since 1978.

“Given the small population we have, it becomes very difficult to operate a team because the expenses to run it are absolutely huge,” says Brewer, while lamenting that it is now incredibly tough to get volunteers.  

“People gave their time and donated money to keep the show on. There are many old-time volunteers like me who just do it for the love of it. The local businesses are wonderful as they donate and support the team wholeheartedly. Had it not been for the volunteers, probably this team would not have existed.”

While the businesses dug into their coffers to fund the Centennials, its volunteers conducted several fund-raising events like the parents weekend, and their ice-breakers to provide additional support to the team. The now defunct non-profit BoosterClub played a massive role in raising the funds.

“There were times when we raised over $75,000 in a year. If there was a team event planned, the Booster Club would support it. We would look after the food, the decoration etc. We did quite a bit of catering, weddings, and barbecuing, and raised funds essentially through food. Unfortunately, we had to shut the Booster Club a couple of years ago as older people like myself could no longer do heavy duty fundraising and there was no one else who wanted to take it forward,” says Brewer, who now, at 80, refers to herself as a member of the retired Booster Club.

Ask her about the results not going in the team’s favor, she quips:

“The team hasn’t done well in the last few seasons but we don’t look at it that way. In the end, yes it is about the results, but we want to tell them (the players) that we are right behind you and always give your best. We look forward with high hopes in the next game and the next season. I still wouldn’t quit if we didn’t do well this season. This is something that we all love doing for our team.”