By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) - Ukrainian Hockey League (UHL) player Jalen Smereck told Reuters on Friday he would return to the ice despite an opponent targeting him with racist behavior, but the American said reform was long overdue for the sport.
A video showing HC Kremenchuk forward Andriy Deniskin peeling and eating a banana in a gesture directed toward the HC Donbass defenceman, who is Black, during a game shocked the global hockey community this week and prompted outcry over racism in the sport.
Deniskin was suspended for 13 games - only three of which are mandatory if he pays an additional fine 50,000 hryvnia ($1,900) fine - leading to further outrage as critics, including numerous National Hockey League (NHL) players, called the penalty too lenient.
"When I came here I kind of figured I’d be on my own and, you know, it’d be tough," Smereck, 24, told Reuters. "I kind of knew that I would face some racial incidents but I definitely never thought it would be something like this.
"It’s gone too far. I think, 2021, this type of stuff shouldn’t be going on."
Smereck said Deniskin had not reached out to him directly, aside from an attempted apology immediately after the game.
The American has been in touch with Evgeniy Kolychev, the former general manager of the UHL who told Reuters on Friday he was sacked for speaking out against racism and not preventing a video of the incident being published on the league's official website.
But Smereck said that no one else from the league had contacted him since the incident - something he did not find particularly surprising.
"It’s everywhere you go," he said. "I’ve faced it in every league, OHL, American League, so it’s going to be everywhere you go. There’s no way to hide from it, there’s no way to go around it."
Born in Detroit, Smereck picked up ice hockey when he was two years old and quickly fell in love with the sport, relishing the chance to meet new people and travel.
He had a stint under an entry-level contract with the NHL's Arizona Coyotes prior to joining HC Donbass and said he generally liked playing in Ukraine, where he gets along with his team mates while daily errands like grocery shopping prompt attention from onlookers.
"I feel like the president or like LeBron James," said Smereck, who idolises Jackie Robinson, a player who broke the racial barrier in Major League Baseball, and said he hopes to emulate the late sports pioneer.
Smereck has returned to the ice - largely out of loyalty to his team mates - but said he would not settle for the status quo in the sport and was determined to create change for the next generation of players.
"I really want to take advantage of the moment while there’s kids out there seeing this, just to let them know and try to really get on top of this and flip it around so that the kids don’t look at this the wrong way, and encourage them to play hockey."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; additional reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)