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Flood-ravaged Merritt celebrates triumphant return of their Cents

BCHL team returns to Nicola Valley Arena for first time in three weeks while residents salvage their damaged homes

The city of Merritt needed a lift and Ben Ward was the elevator.

The 20-year-old centre took the win-starved Merritt Centennials and their flood-ravaged fans on his back Friday night at Nicola Valley Arena, scoring three goals and an assist, including the game-winner 3:54 into overtime, in a 4-3 victory over the Wenatchee Wild.

Goalie Keegan Maddocks made 50 saves to backstop the win - the first in 15 games this season for the team. The Cents hadn’t played a home game since Nov. 12, three days before the Coldwater River breached its banks and flooded the city.

Jenny Pierce was there at the rink with her family, visiting people she hadn’t seen in nearly three weeks, when the entire city of 7,000 was evacuated.

“The whole city needed that, it was real exciting, they definitely made it a nailbiter, going into overtime, said Pierce. “I just was thinking in the back of my mind how Merritt could use a win, any win, not just the boys but the whole city.

“People were (crying) in the stands. Emotions are high right now. There’s a lot going on and it was the first time that people have been able to get together since the floods to even see each other. We’ve all been evacuated to different cities or hotel rooms or whatever.”

Pierce lives near the Coldwater River and her house was swallowed by floodwater in an area of the city known as Phase 4, where the worst damage occurred in the four-day rainstorm. On Friday, Phase 4 residents were allowed into their homes for the first time to begin the cleanup, but they still face daily 3 p.m. curfews which require them to leave.

“There’s lots of homes that are uninhabitable and city still needs to do some work to get services back,” said Pierce. “The last couple days since we were allowed back have been quite emotional because now you’re starting to see familiar faces bringing their belongings out onto the street in heaps and piles -  furniture, toys, beds, all of it, and it’s sad. People’s houses that maybe look untouched, there’s just debris coming out of their houses and being left on their front lawns.”

Most Merritt residents do not have flood insurance and Pierce said some will be ineligible for disaster relief in cases where insurance companies determine the homeowner could have purchased overland flood policies but chose not to.

“You think disaster relief should be open to everyone but it’s not,” said Pierce.

“The real hard part is the water and the mud has been able to sit in people’s home for so long that now we’re getting into issues of mould where it’s dangerous for people to go in and clean their own homes.”

That Nov. 12 game in Merritt was a heartbreaker for the Cents. They gave up a 6-4 lead and lost to the Coquitlam Express 7-6 in overtime. Ward led the Cents in scoring in the 2021 pod season but had just one goal this season heading into Friday’s game. He picked a great time break out of his slump, scoring the winner on a 2-on-1 rush.

“It was awesome, we definitely needed that win, it wasn’t just the team that won, it was the town,” said Ward. “This is my fourth year here and it’s a great place to be. Everyone is super-happy. It worked out perfectly, Keegan played an unreal game and he was the backbone for us.

“It’s a learning curve for us and that overtime loss was a terrible feeling, especially when you haven’t won a game, and it was great for us to come out with a win there.”

Cents forward Blake Astorino watched the game from the stands after he hurt his knee in practice Tuesday. The 20-year-old from Prince George has found a new billet home in Merritt with the Pierce family just beginning to clean up the flooded remains of the house Astorino used to call home.

The Cents had been practicing this past week at the Lower Nicola Indian Band’s Shalus Arena near Merritt and were given the green light by the city to return to their home rink Friday. The players have been helping with cleanup operations and moving in supplies. Ward knows the community-owned team will play a significant role this over the next few months helping city residents rebuild from their disaster.

“We came back to pull some stuff out of our billet houses and the town is doing what they can,” said Ward. “I have buddies in the city and they’re working day and night and it’s awesome to see them come together like that, everyone pitching in, and the army was up here not long ago helping out.

“We have to walk down to the gas station (to pick up ice) and they know we’ve been out helping in the community and they’re all super-happy, like everybody looks up to us. We opened the doors for by-donation (for fans who attended Friday’s game), so we had a good turnout. It just gives everybody a break from shoveling crap out of their basement to come to the game and have a beer and talk to everybody and just tell their story about where they’ve been at.”

Head coach and general manager Dave Chyzowski took the over a Cents team that struggled to a 3-17 record in the B.C. Hockey League’s Chilliwack pod season last spring and was on Friday he was relieved to see the joy expressed by his players when they finally getting the chance to celebrate.

“We had a lot of laughs and giggles, the kids were pretty excited, we finally got to turn the music on after a game,” said Chyzowski. “One of my board members texted me with some of the feedback from fans and said there was such a neat vibe leaving the rink last night. He’s one of the billets, too, and he said it was a pretty special night for the fans. Overtime goals are always great, especially if they’re your team.”

Chyzowski lives in Kamloops, 70 kilometres north of Merritt, and it’s gut-wrenching for him to see so many people affected by the flood, which happened four moths after the city was evacuated by wildfires.

“It’s going to take a while, It’s actually looking worse and worse,” he said. “People you didn’t realize have damage have all their junk and mud and shrapnel on their front lawn. It’s not a pretty site, and I really feel for the city and the people affected by this.

“They just went through the fires and now this happens to them. All the ranchers, it just kills me, they’ve lost their livestock and it’s extremely sad.”

The arena is on the north side of the city and was not flooded, but Merritt Secondary School, where some of the players had been attending school, is near the river and it remains closed. Temporary classrooms have been set up at Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and high school classes will resume next week.

“They hadn’t been going to school and they go back to school on Monday - I gave them the bad news after the win,” laughed Chyzowski.

The Cents tried to make it two in a row Saturday but lost 9-2 to the visiting Trail Smoke Eaters.