Michigan football is going to Italy. The Wolverines will spend a week of spring football practice in Rome come April, the latest in Jim Harbaugh's globetrotting efforts to expand the Michigan football brand to every corner of the Earth.
According to the school, which announce the Rome trip Monday, Michigan players will spend a week practicing as well as immersing themselves in the Italian culture, visiting historic sites and visiting orphanages and with U.S. service members.
"We were looking to provide our student-athletes with a great educational, cultural and international football experience," Harbaugh said in the announcement. "I am excited that our student-athletes will be able to take advantage of this amazing educational opportunity, be exposed to another culture and be ambassadors for the United States and the University of Michigan during our visit to Rome."
On the surface, this looks like yet another wild stunt in line with Harbaugh's satellite camp tour an offseason ago, where he seemed to hold camps in every state and wear a jersey of every NFL team.
But really this isn't much different than what college basketball programs do all the time. Programs from large conferences routinely take overseas trips to play against pro teams in foreign countries. Michigan State recently took a trip to Italy. Northwestern recently visited Spain. Illinois recently took an offseason trip to Europe.
Of course transporting a college football team across the ocean is a bit more logistically involved than a basketball team, given the roster differences, but this is something plenty of college athletic programs do on a regular basis. And it is an awesome opportunity for these student-athletes, the kind of experiences universities should be providing.
"Over the past few decades student-athletes in other sports have had the opportunity to participate in international training trips to practice and prepare for the upcoming season," Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel said in the announcement. "This is a tremendous opportunity for these young men to learn about and experience another culture, connect with the people of Italy and showcase American football internationally. The University of Michigan has always encouraged our students to gain knowledge through international experiences, and we are so glad to provide them with this opportunity."
Still, because it's Harbaugh, it's sure to draw a ton of attention. And surely that can't be viewed as a bad thing for Harbaugh and his program.
Incentive. For many young prospects trying to latch onto an NHL roster, there's already plenty of it there. It's a chance at playing on a bigger stage, a bigger opportunity for a career and, if you're on a two-way contract, a bigger paycheck.
Tanner Kero already had that incentive but in November, received an even more special one: he and his wife welcomed their first child, a boy. Now when Kero plays, it's not just what it means for him. It's what it means for his family.
"It's been a fun experience. It's something a little extra special that you play for," Kero said. "You get your mind away from the game when you go home. You just relax and enjoy that part of life. It's just something extra to play for and it's been special."
Kero has been making the most of his second shot with the Blackhawks, recording two goals and two assists on the Blackhawks' dads trip. That included a three-point night against the Colorado Avalanche and a building chemistry with line mates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa.
Coach Joel Quenneville likes what he's seen thus far.
"He did a great job for us," Quenneville said. "Defensively, we like his availability in his own end. We like his positioning offensively. He had a nice couple of games to finish the dads trip but he's been good for us. I like the consistency."
Rockford coach Ted Dent said Kero started playing better in November, not long after Kero became a dad. Whether or not that had anything to do with it Dent didn't know, but the results were there nonetheless.
"I think he'd be the first to say his season started off slow with us and he finally caught his stride, maybe 15-20 games into our season," Dent said. "He was skating better, skating stronger, he had more confidence with the puck and things just came together."
Kero's line is a good blend of familiarity, defense and skill. Kero and Hinostroza are good friends who played together plenty in Rockford. Hossa is... well, Hossa, and pretty much benefits any line mate.
"It's been good," Kero said. "We've been trying to continue, get some secondary scoring. But we also want to be relied on defensively, be counted on to play in big situations, a defensive draw, at the end of a period or end of a game. We're trying to focus on being good defensively, being simple and hard to play against. We're getting fortunate enough to contribute offensively as well."
Hossa, whose game-winning goal in Boston came off a Kero feed, said the 24-year-old is adapting well.
"Since they called him up he took it to his advantage. Right now he's playing the 200-foot game, [he's] real smart in our zone, doesn't panic, makes the right play at the right time, and he's showing more offensive abilities," Hossa said. "It seems like things are going well for him and we're glad we can help as a third line right now in scoring some important goals. With young players, that's definitely big."
Kero's made an impact and an impression with the Blackhawks. Quenneville said on Sunday that, even when Marcus Kruger returns from his injury, Kero will likely remain where he is – "I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.
"That comment tells you the trust level he's gained in Kero," Dent said. "I knew over time that Kero was a player that Q was going to love. I've gotten to know Q over the years and in talking to him I know what he likes in players and it was just a matter of time because Kero's a responsible two-way player. He doesn't cheat the game and he's very aware of his defensive responsibilities and that's what Q loves, first and foremost. A lot of us coaches love that."
Kero is making strides in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He already had plenty of incentive to make an impact on this roster. Now a new father, he has that much more of one.