'My heart just dropped. It's very poor': Black player on UHL suspension for racial taunt
Jalen Smereck was so traumatized by the incident that he can't step on the ice. And while Black Lives Matter, they don't seem to in the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine
On Tuesday morning, Jalen Smereck woke up feeling pretty good, all things considered. He made his way to the Altair Arena in Druzhkivka, Ukraine, where his Donbass Donetsk team plays its home games with the intention of suiting up for practice with his teammates. But once he got to the rink, the same rink where 48 hours prior he had been subjected to the most hateful racial taunt imaginable, Smereck found the prospect of stepping on the ice that day impossible. Instead, he had a short meeting with team management and went home.
He has no idea when he is going to return, if at all. And while I’m no mental health expert, it’s pretty clear the reason Smereck couldn’t get on the ice and do the thing he loves most in the world is that he’s suffering from trauma. Being the only American and the only Black man in the Ukrainian Hockey League, then being subjected to an opponent taunting him by pretending to peel a banana and eat it, Smereck acknowledged that it was just too difficult to even think of playing hockey. “It didn’t feel right,” Smereck told Hockey Unfiltered in a telephone interview. “I was pretty uncomfortable. I went in and as soon as I walked in, the guys were talking and everyone is asking you how you feel and talking about the situation. And just thinking of practicing and playing, I wasn’t fully there. I don’t want to be there and just go through the motions or get in the way.”
That trauma was compounded Wednesday morning when Smereck learned that Andrei Deniskin, the player who directed the gesture at Smereck, was suspended a minimum of three games by the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, a body that is apparently trapped in a time machine and is operating in the 1950s. (It should be noted that UHL general manager Eugene Kolychev, pointed out that the league had no say in the decision and stands by Smereck.) Deniskin was actually suspended 13 games, but has the opportunity to buy back the final 10 games of his suspension by paying a fine of about $1,870 U.S. dollars. Smereck said when he first saw the news story of the suspension, he thought it was either some kind of cruel joke or inexplicable mistake.
“This morning I clicked on it and I was, ‘No way, man. This has to be fake,’ ”Smereck said. “I went on the page and my heart just dropped. It’s very poor. For them to come out with 13 games is bad, but the fact that he can pay his way (down to three games) is absurd. I think (the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine) is going to find itself in a real big problem when this really gets out. It’s bad.”
When he returned to the rink Tuesday, Smereck took a leave of absence from the game and has vowed not to return to league play in the UHL until the league reconsiders Deniskin’s suspension and increases it. Donbass Donetsk is also playing in the Champions Hockey League and has its next game Oct. 6. At this point, Smereck intends to limit his play only to the CHL. “I’m still not sure whether I’m going to stay in Ukraine or leave,” Smereck said. “I’m still thinking about it. I’m not the kind of person to abandon my teammates, and we’re in a good spot to move on in the Champions League. I really want to battle it out with them and finish it off and move on to the next group. If (the federation) does end up suspending (Deniskin) for a longer time, maybe I’ll change my mind and play. Or maybe I’ll just leave and go home.”
Nobody would blame him if he did just that. The Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine has failed Smereck in a big way. It’s almost as though it actually bought Deniskin’s tripe that he was caught up in the emotion of the moment and, as he said on social media, “Emotions in hockey are unfortunately different.” There is no lame hockey-culture excuse, no level of emotion, that can explain why Deniskin did what he did. Smereck called for Deniskin to be kicked out of the UHL for the rest of this season and banned from international play for the Ukraine national team. It remains to be seen whether the International Ice Hockey Federation and its new leader, Luc Tardif, have the courage of their convictions and will at least give Smereck some level of justice by banning Deniskin from representing his country. Because he did a terrible, terrible job of representing his country in a hockey game on Sunday.
Over the past couple of years, Black Lives Matter has done a wonderful job of making all of us realize that institutional racism is a plague that we must all work at to eradicate. We still have a ton of work to do, even more in the hockey world. As recently as the summer of 2020, the NHL still couldn’t even put those words on a banner in the Edmonton playoff bubble. Black Lives Matter indeed. They just don’t matter in the Ukraine Ice Hockey Federation. In its release, which was run through Google translate, the federation said Deniskin, “showed an unsportsmanlike gesture that contains elements that can be considered racial.” Ya think? And then it went on to say, “The written explanations of the player Deniskin Andriy (sic) state that such a gesture was demonstrated by him under the influence of emotional tension as a result of the conflict situation, in response to verbal provocations by the player of the Donbass team - Ceylan Smerek (sic). Player Deniskin Andriy (sic) notes the admission of his guilt for demonstrating an unsportsmanlike gesture, and the inadmissibility of such behavior for the athlete.”
The punishment, and the explanation for it, are almost as bad as the act itself. The Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine is part of the IIHF, which has to get involved at this point. If Tardif does not impose further sanctions against the player and the federation, he will have badly blown his first assignment as the president of the IIHF. It’s time for him to act.
“Not only are we fighting in the world,” Smereck said, “but we’re fighting in the hockey community as well. I mean, in 2021, I would think this situation would be more serious than a three-game suspension.”