This week has served as an unfortunate, blunt reminder that, for all the good work the NHL has done to champion diversity and live up to the “Hockey is For Everyone” credo, there are miles to go for the both the National Hockey League and the rest of the expansive hockey world.
It all started with a horrendous example of racism, hate and flat-out ignorance in the Ukrainian Hockey League where HC Kremenchuk forward Andrei Deniskin drew a deserved firestorm of criticism for a plainly racist gesture on the ice to HC Donbass defenseman Jalen Smereck.
The disgusting, hateful act was caught on video, as everything is in this day and age of course, and the reaction was swift and unanimous around the hockey world that Deniskin needs to pay a swift, severe price for his actions. There’s been tons of lip service from the NHL, the IIHF and others about embracing diversity, something that spurred on the creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance a few years ago in the wake of deep discussions about race and hockey.
Lead voices in hockey diversity like ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes called for Deniskin to be suspended for a year minimum to set the example that deplorable, racist behavior won’t be tolerated on the ice.
That seemed to be the reasonable, level-headed take on the situation, but apparently the Ukrainian hockey folks thought differently.
Everybody else was obviously dumbfounded when the UHL announced Deniskin would serve either a three-game or 13-game suspension and pay a nominal fine equivalent to $1,870 for his grotesque on-ice behavior. No one was more stunned than Smereck, who is taking an understandable leave of absence from the UHL while he reflects on what to do next in his hockey career.
"My heard just kind of dropped. I'm not even looking at this as a suspension. This can't be taken seriously," said Smereck to ESPN.com, who was in his first season playing overseas. "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."
There may be excuses that the UHL can hide behind limitations on the lengths they can go with player suspensions, or some other spin that hasn’t come to light publicly as of yet. But the truth is these kinds of actions merit a league breaking precedent to set the example, and in doing so actively show minority hockey players around the world that they are valued, protected and respected as they simply try to play the game they love.
If not, then the sad reality is that hockey may lose the very diversity it contends is so very important.
Instead, the UHL treated it like a run-of-the-mill dirty head hit or a nasty cross-check rather than the civil rights violation it clearly was.
It has resulted in a cascade of outrage across the hockey world with NHL players weighing in, Smereck’s own HC Donbass team calling for a reconsideration from the UHL and the hockey world being almost unprecedentedly unified in slamming the suspension as “not good enough.”
Obviously to everyone except the inept UHL, the punishment isn’t anywhere close to severe enough for the clearly purposeful actions.
Now it’s the IIHF’s turn to act and ban Deniskin from international competition where the 23-year-old forward played a handful of international games last season for the Ukrainian national hockey team.
This should be a slam dunk decision for the IIHF to pick up the disciplinary slack for the UHL after a weak-kneed punishment, and that goes doubly so after speaking so decisively about sending a message prior to the suspension announcement.
“The IIHF condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions of Andrei Deniskin,” said IIHF President Luc Tardif in a statement. “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.”
Beyond ensuring that Deniskin gets the book thrown at him and that Smereck is being supported while he takes a completely understandable leave of absence from the UHL, it’s also up to the IIHF to sanction the Ukraine for their stunning inaction. Whether that means barring them from international competition, fining the league or withholding financial aid to keep the league afloat, it’s being left up to the IIHF to come down with the judge’s gavel.
They need to slam it down with unmerciful force to send a clear, strong message that hockey truly is for everyone, and isn’t just a slogan trotted out at the appropriate times.