DETROIT — The Kero brothers and their cousin, Blake Hietala, spent Christmas on a bus heading downstate from Houghton, Michigan to Detroit along with their Michigan Tech hockey teammates and support staff.
It was the final time that Hietala and fellow senior forward Tanner Kero will make the holiday ride down for the annual Great Lakes Invitational tournament, which runs Sunday and Monday at Joe Louis Arena.
It was also the first time Devin Kero, a freshman goaltender, made the trip as a Tech player.
Playing for Michigan Tech is all the cousins dreamed about as they grew up skating on outdoor rinks in their respective backyards in Copper Country, which is considered the birthplace of organized professional hockey.
The Keros grew up in Hancock, Michigan. Their father, Dale, is involved in fund-raising efforts for the Tech hockey program, and their older sister, Jordanna, played volleyball at Tech from 2010 to 2013.
Hietala grew up in Houghton. His mother, Jane, is Tech’s hockey secretary and his father, Paul, occasionally drives the team bus.
Hietala and Tanner Kero are part of a senior class that has helped restore pride in Tech hockey during the past four years since head coach Mel Pearson returned to his alma mater after being a longtime assistant at Michigan.
“It’s pretty hard to describe for me,” Hietala said when asked what it means to be part of the best stretch of Tech hockey in two decades. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. When you’re a young kid and you see [Tech players] running out to the fight song … just to finally be able to do that was pretty awesome. I still get chills when I do it now.
“And the fact that we’re having success and I know so many people in my community makes it extra special for me.”
Hietala was redshirted in 2010-11 with a shoulder injury. That was the last of Jamie Russell’s eight seasons behind the Tech bench. The Huskies won four games that season to finish with a total of 15 wins in a three-year span.
Hietala wanted to return for his final year of eligibility, but Pearson didn’t promise him any playing time. Hietala has three goals and five assists in 12 games.
“I’m glad he came back,” Pearson said. “The way things have turned out, I think he’s really happy he came back and is part of this.”
Tanner Kero has five goals and leads the team with 14 assists and 19 points in 17 games.
“He’s everything you want in a student-athlete,” Pearson said of Kero. “He’s very soft-spoken, but he does everything you want, both in the weight room, in practice. Top student and has become maybe our best forward.”
Devin Kero hasn’t played yet this season, but that’s because the Huskies are getting spectacular play from junior goaltender Jamie Phillips.
The fifth-ranked Huskies (13-4-0) fell to Michigan 2-1 on Sunday in the GLI tournament.
Despite the early loss in the tournament, Tech has had plenty of high points this season, including a 10-0-0 start to the season.
“That 10-0 start was huge,” Tanner Kero said. “We knew going into the season we had a good team. But I don’t think anyone was expecting that great of a start.”
It’s just the latest in a string of accomplishments Tech has made since Pearson returned to the program.
Pearson scored 56 points in 97 career games for the Huskies from 1977 to 1981. He scored the game-winning goal in the championship game of the 1979 GLI, breaking a 4-4 tie to beat Michigan in the longest game in the history of the tournament.
After four years as a player, Pearson spent six seasons going to the tournament as a Tech assistant, then another 23 years as a U-M assistant and now the past four as Tech’s head coach.
— Mel Pearson
Hietala said Pearson brought a winning attitude.
“He’s told us he thinks we’re as good as anyone,” Hietala said. “If he’s telling you that, you start to believe it and it starts to become true.”
Pearson said he’s glad that he has been able to bring Tech’s program back to prominence, but they have much more room to improve.
Folks downstate might not understand just how important Tech hockey is their community.
“You go in the local hardware store or grocery score, anywhere, people are into the game,” Pearson said. “They want to talk hockey and that’s good. I like that. I appreciate that.”
“The passion that people have up here is next to none,” he said. “It’s just on a little bit of a smaller scale than those big schools. It’s great to play in front of people every night that have that passion and know hockey.”
Pearson said he believes this group of Tech players can do things that haven’t been done since he was a player.
“We’ve made some strides,” he said. “The next stride is, we haven’t had home ice in the playoffs since I don’t know when. We’ve put ourselves in a good opportunity to do that. It would be a huge thing for our program and our fans.
“Secondly, we have a lot of hockey left, but we’d like to get back to the NCAA tournament. Those are a couple thing that stick out.”
Tech, which won national titles in 1962, ’65 and ’75, hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since ’81, when Pearson was a senior. He said: “We’re overdue.”