Sadly, the issue of racism in the sport reared its ugly head this week.
For those that are unaware, an incident occurred in a Ukraine Hockey League match between HC Donbass and HK Kremenchuk on Sunday.
Kremenchuk forward and Ukrainian international Andrei Deniskin made a racial gesture towards Donbass American defenceman Jalen Smereck, who is black.
The incident, with accompanying video footage, was first reported by the Twitter account of World Hockey Report and led to widespread condemnation and disgust from hockey players, reporters and supporters across the globe.
Since the incident Smereck has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the league, saying on his Instagram account:
“These situations are very tough and I am 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 but 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 [Ukrainian Hockey League] until Andrei Deniskin is suspended and removed from the league. Thank you.”
— World Hockey Report (@worldhockeyrpt) September 26, 2021
The actions were also condemned by the International Ice Hockey Federation, whose president Luc Tardif added: “There is no place for such a blatantly racist and unsportsmanlike gesture in our sport and in society.
“This 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.”
However, since this statement the IIHF have not said any further or taken any action.
On Wednesday, the Ukraine Ice Hockey Federation banned Deniskin for 13 games and fined him the equivalent of $1,880 US Dollars.
There was some confusion as initially it was thought Deniskin had been banned for three games, plus a further 10 which could be bought out with the fine, however the federation confirmed that the fine and 13 games stood.
It was the maximum punishment allowed by the league under their disciplinary code, which calls for a mandatory three game ban with and additional ban of three to ten games for ‘the use of player expressions, gestures related to racial discrimination.’
The Ukrainian Hockey League and I stand with Jalen #Smereck and thank all of the fans and media who have offered their support to him. The @uhlua believes that there is no place for racism in the world in which we live, let along in the hockey community. (2/3)
— Eugene Kolychev (@EvgeniyKolychev) September 29, 2021
There is an awful lot to pick apart here, not least because this incident has caused massive outrage and has, frankly, damaged the game.
Firstly, this was a deliberate, abhorrent act. There is no way Deniskin can use the defence of a ‘spur of the moment’ reaction in the heat of the game.
From the video footage, it is clear he knows what he is doing. For that reason alone, a 13-game ban is pathetic.
I appreciate that the Ukraine Federation have their code of conduct and can present that as the reason why the suspension is what it is. Fair enough, but where are the IIHF in all this?
As I said earlier, they have been silent since their initial statement on the incident. Surely this was a huge opportunity for them to draw a line in the sand and declare that racism isn’t acceptable.
In my opinion, Deniskin should have been made an example of and banned for life, but the longer that the IIHF stay silent, the more damage is done.
— Eugene Kolychev (@EvgeniyKolychev) September 30, 2021
This was a huge opportunity to do the right thing and declare that racism will not be tolerated and, for me, both the Ukraine Hockey Federation and the IIHF have massively failed here.
As a footnote to this, the General Manager of the Ukraine Hockey League, Eugene Kolychev, tweeted his support for Jalen Smereck once he had announced the ban for Andrei Deniskin.
On Thursday, Kolychev announced on his Twitter account that he had been fired from his role, hinting heavily that it was because he spoke out against racism, yet another sorry story to add to an already sorry story.
Incidents like this are very rare in hockey, and at least I’ve been heartened by the sheer volume of disgust and outrage at the incident.
However, very rare is still too many. Racism is abhorrent and should be eradicated from modern society.
This incident was an ideal opportunity for the powers that be to send a stern message that racism will not be tolerated in the sport, however I feel that hockey has been failed by the Ukraine Federation and the IIHF, and the sport is now in a worse place for it.