Detroit native Jalen Smereck is a professional hockey player, currently under contract for HC Don Bass, a team overseas in the Ukrainian Hockey League. Smereck, 24, is the center of national attention after being the target of a racist gesture during a game.
In a UHL game Sunday against HC Kremenchuk, opposing forward Andrei Deniskin shouted at Smereck and then pantomimed unpeeling and eating a banana. Prior to the incident, Smereck said he was trying to defend his teammate who was the victim of a dirty play by Deniskin and attempted to summon Deniskin at center ice to fight. Without provoking him, Deniskin performed the racist act after that and was ejected for the rest of the game.
“Once I seen the video, I was like wow he really went for a full on act,” Smereck said. ”That’s the farthest I’ve ever seen it go.”
The following day, expecting a suspension or disciplinary act from the UHL, Smereck was shocked to see that there was no further penalty for Deniskin. As a result, Smereck announced on social media that he would refuse to play another game in the league until there was a suspension for Deniskin. He felt uncomfortable being at the rink and his team and teammates of HC Donbass fully supported his decision.
"These situations are very tough and I'm a big believer in standing up for what is right. Therefore, I have been putting a lot of thought into what comes next for me in my career,” said Smereck. "As of right now, I have decided that I will be taking a personal leave of absence from HC Donbass and I will not play another game in the UHL until Andrei Deniskin is suspended and removed from the league."
On Wednesday, the UHL announced Deniskin would be suspended for a minimum of three games, with an additional 10 games. However, Deniskin has the option to pay out the additional ten games at a fine that measures out to less than two thousand dollars.
“I honestly feel terrible,” Smereck said in reaction to the weak discipline on Deniskin. “This morning when I seen the suspension my heart just dropped. I was actually puzzled. I was pissed off and I didn’t know what to do.”
Despite not supporting the suspension Deniskin got, Smereck said he will join his team on the ice again. He said he stood up for a suspension and he hopes the league and the International Ice Hockey Federation considers a stricter sanction. On Thursday, Ukrainian Hockey League General Manager Eugene Kolychev was fired by the Ukrainian Hockey Federation, according to his Twitter.
"My voice has been ignored in the decision over the penalty against Andrei Deniskin, who showed a racist gesture to Jalen Smereck," tweeted Kolychev. "I am publicly appealing to the IIHF to conduct its own investigation of the incident and help #endracism. Jalen, we got your back!"
While Smereck says he has never received a physical racist gesture, he has received racial slurs at every level of hockey he has played at, from the minor leagues to the professional level. He says it isn’t an often occurrence and that it doesn’t happen every year, but it happens more than he thinks it should.
“I’ve had numerous people reach out to me sharing their stories,” Smereck said in acknowledgment of racism’s existence in the sport of hockey. “It is sad to see. There are people in North America who have reached out. There are guys who don’t play anymore, there are guys playing college. There are guys I talk to, people saying hockey is for everyone and all of these phrases, all these sayings. I think it’s a little outrageous. I would like to see everyone play the game and not have it be entitled for one race or one culture.”
Smereck felt that this type of situation would be handled very differently in the United State of America and that the way Ukraine has handled the incident is disappointing. He said there is a lot of work left to be done to ensure that all races and identities feel welcome in the sport of hockey.
“We’re just getting started. This is going to take years, it might not be done before my career is over or before my time is over, but I think we need to make a change so things can start moving in the right direction.”
Smereck is a graduate of Martin Luther King High School in Detroit. He is a former member of the Arizona Coyotes organization and also played in the OHL for the Flint Firebirds.
To watch Jeanna Trotman's full interview with Jalen Smereck, head to Trotman's facebook page.