Better chance in BC

HOUGHTON – On the surface, the news in January that Devin Kero had committed to the Michigan Tech hockey program did not seem all that surprising.

After all, his brother Tanner and cousin Blake Hietala are currently on the team, his sister played four years of Husky volleyball and his uncle Ryan Markham sported the Black and Gold sweater a decade ago. He has plenty of talent and Husky blood in him through and through.

But his journey from high school star at Hancock to newest Tech goalie was anything but conventional.

Or easy.

“Looking back on it now, it was a good learning experience,” Kero said. “But at the time – it was terrible.”

Kero is talking about his first year in junior hockey with the Coulee Region Chill in Onalaska, Wisconsin (near La Crosse), a Tier II squad in the North American Hockey League.

He is talking about the first time he has ever struggled on a rink, the first time he couldn’t overcome a problem simply with hard work.

And he is talking about the first time he ever considered quitting hockey.

“I’m not going to lie, there are days I would get down and think why I am I even doing this? What’s the point of putting in the effort and not getting results?” Kero said.

After a stellar high school career with Hancock, Kero was drafted No. 3 overall in May 2012 by the Chill in the NAHL Entry Draft.

Less than two months later, however, the coach who drafted Kero – Garrett Strot – was out, and John Hamre was hired as his replacement.

As it turns out, Kero was not in Hamre’s plans. For one reason or another that never quite became clear.

Kero ended up playing just 13 of a possible 60 games for the Chill, compiling a mediocre 4.64 goals against average and .888 save percentage in the sporadic playing time. No matter what he did in practice, Kero couldn’t convince Hamre he deserved to see more of the ice.

As it turns out, Hamre couldn’t convince Coulee management he deserved a chance either. He was fired after one season.

“When they changed coaches after I was drafted, something changed,” Kero said. “I was obviously put on the back shelf. I didn’t get a chance to shine there and that was really the story all year long there. I didn’t get a chance to prove anything.

“So once the season was over, I told them I wanted a release because I didn’t think I was getting a fair shot.”

Kero entered no-mans land for the summer.

He didn’t have a team, and he didn’t know what direction he should pursue.

Luckily, hockey runs deep in the Kero family. They came through for him on more than one level.

“My family really helped, they really supported me,” Kero said. “I didn’t know what to do since it was such a bad year. But I know I didn’t want to go out of hockey like that.”

The breakthrough came for Kero during a skate with his brother Tanner and some members of the Tech hockey team at the SDC.

“That’s a bizarre story in itself,” Kero said with a laugh. “I was skating with Tech guys, and it was two weeks before Merritt’s (a British Colombia Hockey League team) final camp. (Tech assistant) Bill Muckalt called Merritt coach Luke (Pierce) and wondered if they needed a goalie.

“Next thing I know, I get a call from Luke Pierce from Merritt – I packed up everything I had. One suitcase, one hockey bag and am off on a flight to BC.

“I ended up having a really good main camp, they ended up liking me.

“But I wasn’t even guaranteed a spot in camp. I just flew off to this place I had never been, didn’t know anything about, to give it a shot.”

As it all went so wrong in Coulee, everything broke right in Merritt. The talent he knew he possessed all along was given a chance to shine.

Kero took over the starting job early, playing 40 games last season with a 2.48 goals against average – a full two goals lower than his time with the Chill. His play convinced the Tech coaches to extend him an offer.

And in just one season, he was named the Centennials team MVP.

“Obviously going up there I didn’t know what to expect, but it all worked out better than I could have hoped,” Kero said. “I really enjoyed Merritt and the success after such lows the year before.”

As he prepares for his freshman season at Tech, Kero believes the adversity he faced early on can only help him now.

So much of a goaltender’s game is mental and he has hit upon the right balance after his down-and-up experience in juniors.

“That’s goaltending. Not getting too low on the lows and not getting too high on the highs,” Kero said. “Sometimes you let in four goals and you think you played great and sometimes you get a shutout and couldn’t see the puck all night.

“You have to approach it with an even keel.”

Kero has spent the summer preparing as best he can for his first season in college.

Weight room, yoga classes, reading – you name it. But the biggest comfort in his mind as he jumps up another level in hockey is this:

It can’t get worse than it was with Coulee.

“I really think I am a better person for it,” Kero said. “It was a great learning experience, learning how to handle struggles like that.

“It ended up working out great, clearly.”