Hockey: Maple Leafs, sport officials denounce racist act in Ukrainian league
The racist taunt happened on the ice in Ukraine. It was condemned worldwide.
During a Sunday game, HC Kremenchuk forward Andrei Deniskin mimed peeling and eating a banana in the direction of Jalen Smereck, a former Oshawa Generals defenceman, who is Black.
“Obviously, it was a horrible act,” said Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Disgusting. I mean, there’s no place for that in our sport, or in our society.
“It’s just a sign that there’s more work to be done.”
Eugene Kolychev, general manager of the Ukrainian league, said there will be a disciplinary investigation, adding via Twitter that there is “no place for #racism in Ukrainian professional hockey.” Smereck, once a prospect in the Arizona Coyotes system, used a thankyou emoji in retweeting Kolychev’s message.
The new president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Luc Tardif, promised sanctions.
“This is a direct assault on the ideals and values of our game, and we will ensure that all necessary ethics violation investigations occur to ensure that this behaviour is sanctioned appropriately,” he tweeted.
Deniskin was ejected and has since apologized, but his actions reverberated through a whitedominated sport that is trying to diversify both its fan base and player pool.
Hockey has made some strides toward acknowledging systemic racism. The diversity file is first and foremost on the desk of Kim Davis, the highestranking Black member of the NHL front office: vice-president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. The Hockey Diversity Alliance, led by Black players, was founded following the death of George Floyd last year, though it has no formal connection to the NHL.
But the NHL — whose slogan is Hockey Is For Everyone — still stubs its toe when messages supporting minorities or the LGBTQ+ community are awkward or emerge too slowly to have an effect.
The Leafs are one team that has gone to great lengths to diversify, however, at all levels.
“It’s well-established that none of those things can be tolerated, and certainly wouldn’t be tolerated by me or our organization whatsoever,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
But over the summer, even they hired a goalie coach who retweeted a number of posts featuring blatantly discriminatory rhetoric, as well as others supporting the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol and antivaccination sentiments. Dusty Imoo was fired two days after his hiring had been announced.
As players emerged from Monday’s practice, a handful responded to questions about race and the incident.
“Well, obviously, there’s no place for that in society. I think that’s just terrible, and that should be punished accordingly,” said forward William Nylander. “You don’t want to see it anywhere,” added goalie Jack Campbell.
The most thoughtful answer came from forward Josh HoSang, one of the few visible minorities on the roster. The Toronto native is in camp on a professional tryout. He hadn’t heard about the incident in Ukraine.
“People who feel the need to go toward your ethnicity, your sexual preference and or anything like that, I think anyone who goes after that is low. It’s low. There’s no reason. And I think that’s just a lack of understanding,” said Ho-Sang. “I hope that the person who made the (gesture thinks) about what they said, why they said it, and gets the help that they need … I think as people, we need to be better.”
Smereck is 24 and was born in Detroit. The defenceman played 63 games for Oshawa in 201516, 60 the following season for Flint of the OHL, and 46 more in 2017-18. He played professionally in the AHL for the Tucson Roadrunners, and in the ECHL with the Norfolk Admirals and Rapid City Rush.