Smereck on racism he faced in UHL, what he believes response should be
After a racist taunt that was directed at HC Donbass Donetsk defenceman Jalen Smereck went viral after being captured on video, there are calls from across the hockey world for harsh discipline.
During a Ukrainian Hockey League game on Sunday, Andrei Denyskin, a forward with HC Kremenchuk, made the racist gesture towards Smereck, who is black. On Wednesday, the UHL handed Denyskin a 13-game suspension and a fine. Several NHLers have since weighed in on the incident and many in the hockey community want the International Ice Hockey Federation to get involved and impose sanctions.
TSN’s Salim Valji reached the 24-year-old Smereck in the Ukraine on Thursday to talk about the racist incident, Denyskin’s suspension, and Smereck’s own future in the league.
TSN: How are you feeling? How are you doing over the past couple of days?
Smereck: I’m doing pretty good. The first day after the video started to spread, it was kind of tough to see yourself in that situation and then the first 20, 30 minutes after seeing the suspension I was kind of heartbroken. But I’m doing really good and pretty satisfied.
What was your initial reaction when you saw the gesture on the ice?
I really didn’t see it that much. My teammate was holding me back because he was fighting another guy, he was throwing him around on the ice. I tried to get in there and defend my teammate. Then my other teammate, my D partner, grabbed me and pulled me out. The benches were screaming my name. I was looking around, seeing what they were screaming about and trying to figure out what was going on. At the same time, I was trying to tell him to come fight me fairly. Let’s have a real fight. I kind of only caught a glimpse of it and then I saw it after the game. I was pretty pissed off.
What was your reaction to the suspension? It looks like it’ll be 13 games.
I say heartbroken. I was really angry, disappointed. With everything that’s going on in the world, I figured this would be a time to really step up to the plate and show that Ukraine isn’t a place where this is tolerated.
I’ve experienced all good situations here with really nice people. I just felt like they would definitely make the right choice here.
We’re you consulted by the league prior to them giving out the suspension?
Yeah, I talked with the general manager for a couple of minutes the next morning after it happened.
Did Andrei reach out at all for an apology and did you see the apology he issued on Instagram?
He tried after the game, but after you lose the game and something happens like that, my teammates told me. I didn’t really know what was going on. The doctor in the hallway was trying to find a translator to tell me he was in the hallway waiting for me. My teammates were like, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t go.” He wanted to apologize, but it’s just not the time to apologize after something like that, especially something that deep. If it was words, maybe yeah we can talk after. But something like that? There’s no apology for that.
Are you surprised this incident garnered as much attention as it has? NHL players are weighing in, it’s been a part of the sports news cycle in North America. Is this surprising?
Not really. At first it was kind of surprising because my phone was going off like every 10 seconds, but when you look at what he really did, it’s one of the worst moments we’ve had in hockey as minorities, as African-American, since the Wayne Simmonds incident.
I just think that at a time like this, we had the whole movement of All Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, all that crazy stuff, I figured this would really blow up once it got out there.
Has anyone from the NHL, like players or other people, reached out?
Yeah, I’ve actually had a lot of guys. J.T. Brown is one of the first guys, Akim Aliu, the NHL guys started coming. I talk to Clayton Keller pretty often and he reached out right away, Max Domi reached out, (Anthony) Duclair reached out. Akim helped me talk with the guys with the Alliance program (Hockey Diversity Alliance). There have been numerous guys I played with who are in the NHL now. There have been so many guys. It was unconditional and so much love that I can’t even name all the people that have reached out over the past 48, 72 hours.
There are lots of calls for the International Ice Hockey Federation to step in and administer harsher discipline or react in a tangible way. What would you like to see the IIHF do?
I would hate to say that he needs to be banned, but he just has to get banned. There’s no other way forward, there’s no other way around it. From what I’m hearing, this is the second time. He had an incident in North America, I think the North American League or something, so there’s so many things flying around right now. I think just no excuse for it. There was no apology. The apology he did give on Instagram was really, really bad. I think there’s no other way around it, just a ban from the whole game.
Now, what’s your relationship with your current team? Your former general manager says he was fired in part for speaking out publicly to support you and pushing for punishment. What’s your relationship like with your team right now and do you have any sense of what your future will be in the sport?
My relationship with the team is pretty well. I had a meeting with the head coach just the other day. They strongly support me and they’re still fighting this. We just talked about me getting back on the ice and getting ready to play in the Champions Hockey League [European tournament), so that’s my goal as of right now, to play Wednesday. I just wanna get ready with the team. They’ve been pretty supportive. They’ve put stuff out on social media to let the league know that this wasn’t right.
I don’t really know what my next stops will be after that. As of right now, my plan isn’t really to play too much. I would say my future is very, very short with the Ukrainian Hockey League. Seeing that we play on the 6th and 13th of October with the Champions Hockey League and we have a couple of UHL games in between, depending on what the staff wants me to do, I don’t really want to play in those games but if I want to play in the Champions League I’ll probably have to play in a couple of those games. I’m pretty sure that after the Champions League, I won’t play another game in the Ukrainian Hockey League.