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Hancock native Kero reflects on 100 career NHL games

Dallas Stars forward Tanner Kero, of Hancock, skates around before a game against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on March 20, 2021, in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

DALLAS — It isn’t often that a hockey player from the Copper Country gets the chance to play his favorite sport at the collegiate level. Playing professionally is even less likely.

Making it to the National Hockey League is an even further difficult achievement. Factoring all of that in, what Hancock native Tanner Kero managed on April 20 was something truly special.

Kero played in his 100th career game against the Detroit Red Wings that night.

His head is still spinning a bit from the experience.

Given that a typical NHL season has 82 games in it for each team, reaching 100 games should not necessarily be as big a milestone as it is for Kero, but he has had to work his way there through a number of obstacles since turning pro following his collegiate career at Michigan Tech.

Dallas Stars forward Tanner Kero, of Hancock, scores a goal on Detroit Red Wings goaltender during the second period on March 20, 2021 in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

“It’s an awesome feeling,” he said. “When you’re working towards it for those first couple years, you know, it seems closer to grasp at that time. Then, when you’re out of the NHL for a while, it kind of, obviously, seems a little farther away. To get more games this year, and finally reach the 100 mark is pretty special.”

The 28-year-old center had not played in an NHL game since 2017-18 before dressing on Jan. 24 for a game against the Nashville Predators. 

Not getting opportunities to play in the NHL for a couple of seasons only motivated Kero to work that much harder. He spent time in 2018-19 with the Vancouver Canucks organization, but he was never called up from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Utica Comets. The same thing happened to him last season, his first with the Stars. He spent the entire season with the Texas Stars in the AHL.

“For me, it just seemed like, you have to be so mentally strong to go through that,” said Corey Markham, Kero’s uncle. “He felt like when he was with Vancouver, he played extremely well, in Utica. He didn’t really get a look at the big club at all.

“Last year, he was playing well, and had some deal with some injuries. When you haven’t been in the NHL for a while, you don’t know if you’re going to get another shot. He battled through and stayed mentally strong. So, he was able to gut it out and got another opportunity. He’s made the most of his opportunity so far.”

Dallas Stars forward Tanner Kero, of Hancock, is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal during the second period against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on March 20, 2021, in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

COVID-19 protocols hit the Stars heavily during the early portion of their season, and four days later, he found himself playing alongside the likes of Joe Pavelski, and he worked his way onto the scoresheet with a pair of assists.

He also had a season-high 24 shifts in the contest.

Getting to play alongside players like Pavelski is still like a dream come true for Kero and one that he has pinch himself about regularly.

“It’s fun playing with players like that, and you try to learn a lot from them,” he said. “There’s the day-to-day stuff that they do, on and off the ice. They’re such good pros and such skilled players that you’re trying to try to learn from them every day. When you’re going out there, you just, you want to play your game too, just make sure you’re doing all the little things to support them throughout the ice. Try to learn every day from them and try to be better.”

Kero remained a fixture in the Stars lineup over the next five games before enough players returned to the lineup that he found his way onto the taxi squad, a new gimmick added for this season. The taxi squad is a group of players who practice with the NHL squad, but do not participate in games unless the team needs them for a given night.

Dallas Stars forward Tanner Kero, of Hancock, skates in front of Detroit Red Wings' Dennis Cholowski during the second period of an NHL game at Little Caesars Arena on March 20, 2021, in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

He returned to the Stars’ lineup on Feb. 22 for a game against the Florida Panthers before returning to the taxi squad. He rejoined the big club again for two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets on March 2 and 4 before bouncing back down to the taxi squad again for two weeks.

Since returning to the lineup on March 18, he has seen action in 18 games.

The inconsistency is hard, but Kero knew he had to work hard to stick.

“It’s obviously been a roller coaster ride throughout the hockey career, which it can be for a lot of players,” Kero said. “(I’ve been) just trying to stick with it each year, and just hope for that chance again. Luckily, this year, I was able to get a chance early on and try to just prove myself each day, earn more games as it comes, and just kind of try to build off that. Keep doing the little things and earning more trust and more opportunities.”

Adding offense helps. He scored his first goal of the season on March 20 against the Red Wings. He added his second goal against the Red Wings on the same night he reached 100 games played.

Detroit Red Wings forward Robby Fabbri and Dallas Stars forward Tanner Kero, of Hancock, battle for the puck during the first period of an NHL game at Little Caesars Arena on March 18, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Having both the milestone and the goal on the same night carried a little extra meaning for Kero, given that they happened against Detroit, especially since he knew he had family back in the Copper Country who were watching because he was facing the Red Wings.

“I think that was kind of a little cherry on top of that game,” Kero said. “(That was) a special game, and you’re obviously happy for just being playing your 100th game. I think being able to score in that game and have it against the Red Wings, where you have a lot of family watching back home, I think that made it extra special.”

In a fun quirk of the schedule, Kero has two goals and four assists against the Red Wings this season. He jokes about how well he plays against Detroit, but also admits that he feels a little something more when playing against them because his family is watching.

“I seem to get more of my success, in points, against them,” he said. “It might just be knowing there’s more people back home watching, cheering me on. Luckily, I’ve had some good games against them so far.”

Markham, who coaches the Houghton Gremlins hockey and boys’ golf teams, is proud of the effort his nephew has put in to get to this point in his career. He also admits that it has not been easy. He spends portions of his summers, when he is not coaching, watching how Kero trains.

“He is extremely committed to his diet,” said Markham. “He knows exactly what to eat, what amount. He knows his body extremely well. He has all the recovery, everything to do with recovery, or muscle recovery, and training. He has learned and puts in tons of time on how his body performs the best. That’s a big part of him being where he’s at. He researches and studies and experiments with what diets and what he can and can’t eat to make him perform at his best.”

Despite all the ups and downs of his career, Kero owes a lot to his wife, Taylor, who has stuck with him through all of the long nights and frustrations that come with bouncing back and forth between the NHL and AHL as he has worked to carve out a career for himself. They have two sons who are old enough to watch their dad play on television, and they have all helped carry him through the tough points as he continues to work to improve himself and his chances of sticking with the Stars.

“Having my family there, especially during this season has been the best blessing you could ask for,” he said. “It’s just, it’s something that you don’t take for granted because it doesn’t matter how your day was at the rink. When you go home, your kids are excited to see you and you kind of forget about all the ups and downs of the hockey and your job and you can just be a family and be a dad. It’s been special having my two boys there and watching the games.

“My wife Taylor has been through a lot with me this whole journey and just her support has been tremendous. Through the down times, the up times, they’re always there for me, so that definitely helps.”

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