Jalen Smereck returns to HC Donbass, but eyes AHL/ECHL future

smereck
Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Jalen Smereck returned to HC Donbass’ lineup days after being the target of a racist gesture during a Ukrainian Hockey League game.

Smereck was on the blue line during a 5-2 win over HC Kramatorsk, moving Donbass to 5-0-1 on the season.

The return to Donbass won’t last long. Smereck told the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran he will play in Wednesday’s Champions Hockey League match against Klagenfurt AC and then pursue a contract in the American Hockey League or ECHL. TSN reported last week that several AHL teams were interested in signing the 24-year-old defenseman who was once in the Arizona Coyotes’ system.

Not wanting to let his teammates down was one reason why Smereck suited up again even after saying in the wake of the incident that he wouldn’t play in the UHL again until Andrei Deniskin was removed from the league. Deniskin was suspended 13 games, which is the maximum allowable under the league’s Code of Conduct, after pantomiming peeling a banana and eating it after shouting at Smereck, who is Black.

“I’m not even looking at this as a suspension,” Smereck told ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. “This can’t be taken seriously. You get more games for a cross-check or a stupid hit … for hockey plays. And this is completely un-hockey-like. It’s just a bad thing all around.”

[Ukrainian league suspends Andrei Deniskin for racist gesture]

Deniskin posted an apology on Instagram that said his actions were “a gesture that someone can consider as an insult in race” and “being in negative emotions, showed a gesture that someone can consider as an insult in race. I respect all people regardless of their race or nationality. Emotions in hockey, unfortunately, are different.” His account has since been deleted.

Evgeniy Kolychev, who served as the UHL’s general manager, said he was fired from his position after being outspoken in his criticism of racism in hockey.

“I was accused of publishing a video on the league’s website and spreading it all over the world,” Kolychev told Reuters. “And I did not interfere with the publication of the video. Indeed, I did not interfere with this because the League would not want to hide this fact.”

Worldwide support for Smereck

After video of the incident went viral, Smereck was backed up from many all over the hockey world. His team stood up for him, calling for an appeal of Deniskin’s suspension and Donbass fans also showed their support in the one game he missed:

“I’ve had numerous people reach out to me sharing their stories,” Smereck told Detroit’s WXYZ. “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.”

While Deniskin was given a 13-game ban and fine from the UHL, more could be coming. While the IIHF condemned his actions, there could be more punishment coming that could affect his standing with the Ukrainian National Team.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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