Black player says racial gesture in UHL 'is by far the worst,' wants offender banned for life
Jalen Smereck was subject to a shocking racial taunt on Sunday in Ukraine. He now wants the offending player banned from the national team for the rest of his career
In the two decades he has been playing hockey, Jalen Smereck has had almost every possible racial epithet thrown his way, terrible and unspeakable taunts that left him leaving the arena in tears. Four years ago, he was actually suspended five games in the Ontario Hockey League for his response to an opponent’s toxic words. It’s been bad, really bad sometimes. But it has never, ever been as egregious as it was on Sunday in the Ukrainian Hockey League.
“You don’t really think it would go that far,” Smereck told Hockey Unfiltered in a telephone interview from Druzhkivka, Ukraine, on Monday. “That’s the deepest it’s ever been for me. Usually, it’s just words. But that was brand new to me. This is by far the worst.”
In case you haven’t been made aware yet, Jalen Smereck is a Black hockey player and native of Detroit. The former Arizona Coyotes prospect plays professionally in the UHL for Donbass Donetsk. During a game on Sunday, Smereck got involved in an altercation with Andrei Deniskin of HK Kremenchuk. The 6-foot-6, 243-pound Deniskin had been involved in a fight with one of Smereck’s teammates and, according to Smereck, punched the player a number of times after he had already been knocked to the ice. The 6-foot, 190-pound Smereck came in to intervene and was being held by one of the linesmen when Deniskin mimed peeling a banana and eating it.
It was a reprehensible act that was condemned in all corners of the hockey world. Smereck said that Deniskin was waiting outside the Donetsk dressing room to try to apologize after the game, but Smereck stayed in the room, not because of what he was afraid of what he would do to Deniskin – he’s been dealing with this garbage for a long time and has learned to control himself. “There’s no chance in hell I was going out there,” Smereck said. “There’s just no apology for that. If you said something, OK, maybe it slipped out. But a full act like that? I think personally it was talked about before the game. It may have been a joke in the locker room or with another teammate. For him to instantly respond with a reaction like that, it was something that was talked about before for sure.”
Unable to apologize personally, Deniskin put out his own lame and insincere mea culpa on social media. “I, being in negative emotions, showed a gesture that someone might consider as an insult in racial affiliation,” he said. Ya think? Then he went on to say, “I respect all people regardless of race or nationality. Emotions in hockey are unfortunately different."
No, no they’re not. But this kind of misinformation has been a guiding principle for the toxicity of hockey culture and those who support it. For too long, miscreants have received a free pass, whether it’s from their violent actions to their racist words, by using the well-worn excuse that this game is somehow on a different emotional level than the others and that occasionally people will go over the line in the heat of the moment. It is, of course, complete and utter bunk. Hockey players are no more competitive or determined or emotional than those who play other sports. They just happen to play one that allows them to often get away with this kind of behavior.
There was a time when Smereck, a former captain of the Flint Firebirds who spent the past five seasons in the Coyotes organization, would not have handled this situation the way he did. Smereck didn’t actually see the entirety of what Deniskin did, but said that even if he had, he would have remained calm and channelled his inner Jackie Robinson, who also learned to control his emotions in the face of racist attacks. “I caught a glimpse of it and I was kind of confused by what it was, but when I actually thought about it, I was like, ‘Wow, is that actually what he just did?’ ” Smereck said. “I’ve had my share of cases where I’ve been on the ice in tears, losing my mind and going crazy trying to go after a guy and everyone is holding me back. I’ve prepared myself for these situations over the past couple of years. They kind of looked at Jackie like he was the problem, he was the bad guy in the situation because of how he reacted. But really, we know who the bad guy is.”
It will be really interesting to see how the UHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation deal with Deniskin. He’s actually something of a star player over there. The winger has three UHL titles to his credit and played five games with the Ukraine national team last season, scoring four goals. In 2019-20, he led the Romanian League with 39 goals, then came back to play in the playoffs for HK Kremenchuk, where he led his team to the championship with 17 points in 11 games. Last season, he was named the top forward and a first-team all-star in the UHL. Whatever the UHL does in terms of discipline, the league will be losing a big star. A lot of people think he should be banned for life.
Smereck said he spoke to the league office Monday morning and is hoping the punishment will be severe. “I definitely think he should be done for the year,” Smereck said. “For me, I would think his career is pretty much over…(he should be) suspended for this year (from the league) and get a suspension for the rest of his career from Team Ukraine. There’s no way to apologize for that. And even the apology he gave was really bad.”
Smereck has been in Ukraine since early August and said that aside from some strange looks, things have been very good off the ice for him. But this incident, combined with a difficult adjustment and the fact that he misses his four-year-old twins back home, has him contemplating ending his season. His team plays again on Friday night and Smereck said he will take the time until then to decide whether he wants to continue playing in Ukraine. “I’ll take a few days off here and decide what I want to do with this,” Smereck said. “I’m thinking about it right now and I’m just trying to figure it out. To be honest, it’s up in the air. I want to see what will happen (in terms of a suspension) and regardless of what happens, I might change my mind and head home. Or I might stay. I just don’t know right now. I’m in a tough headspace.”