Kero overcomes flu, Hancock holds off Houghton 3-2 in electric Region 17 opener

Hancock celebrates after defeating Houghton 3-2 in a Region 17 opener Tuesday at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — In the 1997 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz were tied at 2-2 when Michael Jordan woke up for Game 5 with the flu. If you’re a basketball fan, you know what happens next. Heck, if you’re a sports fan, you probably know what happens next. The flu game. Jordan went off for 38 points and hit a 3-pointer in the final minute to seal a victory.

It was such a heroic performance that it has morphed into almost a legend, talked about 20 years later.

But this is hockey country, and there are no professional teams for miles, so legends are built on the ice, not on the court.

Enter Dawson Kero.

He started feeling queasy on Monday and woke up with a full-fledged flu on Tuesday. Kero could only make it to half a day of school and spent most of the afternoon napping. He couldn’t eat all day until he forced down some spaghetti and chicken for dinner.

Then, Kero stepped onto the ice at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena for Hancock’s Division 3 Region 17 matchup with Houghton, made 27 saves and led his team to a 3-2 victory over its rival squad.

“That kid was so sick today and yesterday and everyone was asking me ‘How sick is Dawson? How is he going to do?’ And I said ‘You watch, he is going to have his typical Dawson game,’ “ Hancock coach Dan Rouleau said. “He is just so level-headed and such a great goaltender. To gut it out like he did was just awesome for us.”

Kero got off to a hot start, which was good for the Bulldogs because so did Houghton. The Gremlins controlled play for the first few minutes while Hancock settled in. Kero made three big saves in the opening minutes to help squelch what appeared to be rising momentum for Houghton.

But once Hancock got itself in gear, it became a tight contest. Both teams excelled defensively, making key stops and checking with authority.

Finally at 4:38 in the second, Hancock broke the shutout tie.

Austin Salani — who had gone down with a leg injury earlier in the game before returning — snagged the puck behind Hancock’s net and flung a long pass up the middle to Alex Nordstrom. Nordstrom, the Great Lakes Player of the Year, used the momentum of the puck and out-skated Houghton’s defense for a one-on-one chance against Will Stier in the net. He flicked the puck one way, then the other and snuck it past Stier for a 1-0 lead.

“Austin gave him such a nice pass from blue line to blue line, right on the tape,” Rouleau said. “We had so many chances just like that, and Alex finally buried one. It just got the bench so fired up. We had Alex being Alex again tonight.”

Hancock scored two more goals, one from Salani and another from Nordstrom to go up 3-0 in the third period. With four minutes to play, it appeared to be an easy win and a possible shutout for Kero. But anyone who has seen Hancock and Houghton play before knows nothing is easy in this matchup — especially considering when the two teams met last on Feb. 9. Houghton was down three goals in the third before completing a comeback for the overtime victory.

So when Dawson McKay scored with 3:31 to play, fans knew they were in for a doozy of a finish.

If Kero has any regrets about the game, it’s that goal. But generally when the game was going on, he could essentially forget about being sick.

“The sickness kind of goes away for the most part,” he said. “My energy level was down every once in a while, I could feel that, but other than that I felt pretty fine.

“I thought I did pretty well overall. I probably could have had their first goal, but (McKay) made a good move, and you can’t really do much about it now.”

Houghton emptied its net after McKay scored, and Kero came up with another key save with 1:45 to go. But then McKay found Taavi Rajala for another goal, cutting the lead to 3-2.

Despite the late-game flurry by Houghton, Hancock was able to hang on in the final minute, advancing to play L’Anse in the semifinals on Thursday at 8 p.m. in the MacInness Student Ice Arena.

“We kept competing right until the end, and I’m proud of them for that,” Houghton coach Corey Markham said. “But unfortunately we were down three again and the comeback just started a little bit late.

“It was such an evenly-played game, and I thought we were right there the whole time. I thought we had a really strong second period with a ton of shots, but we just couldn’t get a break, couldn’t get a bounce.”

For Hancock, it would make Rouleau feel a whole lot better if the Bulldogs quit with the late-game dramatics.

“We were just scrambling in the end again,” he said. “The guys have to learn to just relax and make an easy play. Clear the zone, get it up off the glass and do whatever you’ve got to do. We just had guys nervous.”

Going into the game, the Bulldogs knew in order to win they would have to stay out of the penalty box, especially Teddy Randell, who is at times aggressive to a fault. But Randell is a threat both offensively and defensively, so the Bulldogs need to keep him on the ice.

Hancock was only whistled once, for a Nordstrom slash in the first period.

“That was huge,” Rouleau said of limiting penalties. “Especially No. 12 (Randell). He is one of the best kids on the ice when he is out there, so for him to stay out of the penalty box was one of our No. 1 priorities to win this hockey game. He kept his composure pretty well, and we told him, ‘If you stay out of the box we have a good chance of winning.’ He stayed out of the box and we won the game, so you have to give him a lot of credit.”

Still, overall it was Kero’s moment, but the senior goalie was assisted by a defense that has been improving all season. No play was bigger than one made by Teddy Perrault with just seconds remaining in the second period. McKay skated around the back of the net and found Rajala, who was greeted by an open goal. But when he fired the shot, Perrault managed to get a stick on the puck, redirecting it and saving a goal.

“Our D makes some really good plays, and then they will turn around and make some plays that they shouldn’t be making,” Rouleau said. “But all-in-all these guys have shown such improvement from the beginning of the year, and our defense was a big part of our victory.”

Hancock’s defense had some late-game slip ups, but when it needed a stop — big time — the Bulldogs got it done with a minute remaining, pressuring Houghton and keeping the puck in the Gremlins’ zone for most of the final 60 seconds.

When the buzzer sounded, the Bulldogs made a beeline for Kero, who greeted his teammates with two arms up in the air in celebration.

Illness couldn’t stop Kero, and neither could Houghton. And so begins the legend of Dawson Kero, a high school goaltender who battled the Gremlins and the flu — and he won.

– – –

Houghton      0       0       2       —       2

Hancock 0       1       2       —       3

First period


Second period

Hancock — Alex Nordstrom (Austin Salani), 4:38, 1-0.

Third period

Hancock — Austin Salani (Nordstrom), 4:01, 2-0.

Hancock — Nordstrom (Austin Salani), Trevor Tchida, 7:15, 3-0.

Houghton — Dawson McKay (Patrick Donnelly), 13:24, 3-1.

Houghton — Taavi Rajala (McKay, Kevin Bostwick), 15:56, 3-2.


Houghton: William Stier 14; Hancock: Dawson Kero 27.


Houghton: 4/8; Hancock: 1/2.

Power plays

Houghton: 0/1; Hancock: 1/4.