Understanding true impact of racism in hockey is only way we’ll find progress

Jalen Smereck, pictured as a member of the Arizona Coyotes, skates with the puck during the preseason NHL game against the Los Angeles Kings at Gila River Arena on September 26, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

What are we doing here?

That question repeats in my mind every time we find ourselves back in this familiar situation, faced with another instance of racism in sport, and another round of underwhelming consequences that barely live up to the word.

This time it’s Andrei Denyskin who’s prompted the question, the Ukrainian Hockey League player having emerged from anonymity by targeting Jalen Smereck with a blatantly racist gesture during a game on Sunday. The details of the gesture need no repeating. They were impactful enough that Smereck announced earlier this week he would be taking a leave of absence from his club, HC Donbass, until Denyskin is removed from the league.

In response, the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine handed Denyskin a 13-game suspension, and a fine equivalent to roughly $2,400 CAD.

Speaking with ESPN after news of the meagre punishment came down, Smereck made clear how he felt upon seeing the decision. “My heart just kind of dropped,” he said, a sentiment shared by many, many others around the sport. “I’m not even looking at this as a suspension. This can’t be taken seriously.”

It won’t be. Not by BIPOC who play the game, watch the game, write about the game, or have any other connection to it. Not by those who’ve never experienced something similar, but see the need to eradicate racism from the sport. And certainly not by Denyskin or any other player who’s capable of attacking someone with such bile, all of whom have been sent the message that blatant, unflinching racism is akin to a questionable crosscheck.

It won’t be taken seriously because the decision itself fails to take seriously the weight of Denyskin’s actions. The only thing the ruling makes clear is how much work is still needed to move this sport to a place where all within it truly understand the impact of situations like these, of the damage done.

And that piece is crucial to this whole effort. It matters how we frame our understanding of these incidents. It matters how we conceive of the hurt that’s been caused — of what actually happened in that moment and what it means to feel the brunt of it. The need for a just result in cases like Denyskin’s isn’t because “racism has no place in the game,” or because we’ve heard players of colour tell us racism is something we all need to take seriously.

It’s because these acts are, very simply, abhorrent.

I can’t fully understand Jalen Smereck’s experience, what he felt in that particular moment on the ice, the impact it had on him. But myself and others who exist in this space with more melanin can understand what having racism directed at your skin feels like. And if that experience is foreign to you, it’s important you take the time to genuinely try to understand it.

Because it isn’t just that feeling of not belonging, of being othered, of being made to feel that you’re an outsider in an environment you’ve spent your whole life in. That’s part of it, but it goes beyond that. It strikes at something deeper.

At your family. At your culture. At where your parents came from, or their parents, or someone before them. At the traditions they’ve passed down to you. At the stories you’ve heard, of how they fought to get where they are.

To see someone, in one moment, reduce all of that to something so viscerally demeaning, to see them mock it so callously, and make a caricature of where you come from and who you come from, it hits hard. It leaves a mark.

Canadian writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud discussed the connection we feel to those who came before us, those who shaped us, in a piece about the gift and burden of our names. “All of us carry that unshakeable chain,” he wrote. “We come into this world tied to a lineage, and therefore a part of an ongoing story.”

So, put yourself in that mindset. How would you react to someone so recklessly demeaning those who came before you, who sacrificed for you, who penned the earliest chapters of your story? That’s a key part of this equation. Racist comments or gestures like Denyskin’s might seem vague and broad to those they’re not directed at, but they’re not. They’re precisely aimed, and as pointed in their damage.

We can’t grasp fully how that moment hit Smereck. But we should understand it enough to recognize the importance of protecting players from this type of harm.

Which is why the second half of stories like these continue to prompt so much frustration. Because time and time again, the lack of legitimate consequences shows a profound misunderstanding of the weight of what’s transpired. Every time another one of these situations brings a suspension that amounts to a brief break, or a token fine, those who do understand that weight wonder how we’re still stuck at square one.

And it’ll be impossible to move beyond this starting point until we stop hearing the usual caveats square one brings. You’ve seen them all before.

There’s that assertion that something like this “would never happen here.” The ‘here’ tends to shift around as needed, but in this particular case it’s North America, with Denyskin’s actions and judgement falling overseas in Ukraine. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a lengthy history of North American hockey exhibiting the same bigotry — and prompting the same frustrations. It’s been only 20 months since an AHL player was heard using a racial slur during a game, similarly directed at a Black opponent. Denyskin’s suspension is more than double what was handed out in that case.

There’s the argument that Denyskin himself claimed, that these things “just happen in the heat of the moment” or in the throes of “emotion.” Here’s the thing, though: Racism doesn’t just slip out of your pocket. It doesn’t appear accidentally. If the heat of the moment takes you to that place, if it releases something like this, the issue is that you had that hateful ammunition at all, not the emotion that brought it to light.

And then there’s our silver lining. That if there’s any positive to be gained from the past few days, it’s the universal condemnation that fell quickly on Denyskin’s actions, and then again on the misguided judgement of the situation. Make no mistake, the outpouring of love and support for Smereck was beautiful. But it’s also as low as the bar could possibly be set. Universal condemnation should be the first reaction to blatant racism. And, importantly, while that support from around the hockey world affirms some sense of unity and maybe a desire for meaningful progress, it matters little compared to actually seeing justice done.

Our support doesn’t make it safer for Jalen Smereck to take the ice in the UHL, knowing anyone who chooses to target him in the same way is facing little more than a few weeks off and a meagre fine. It doesn’t make it easier for the kids coming up after him either, watching the situation play out to its lacklustre end, wondering what’ll happen if they get pulled into the same ugliness one day.

Where do we go from here? My colleague Elliotte Friedman laid out what needs to happen next. First is the IIHF stepping in to ensure the consequences here have some genuine impact on whether players choose in the future to act as Denyskin did. Next is the hockey world ensuring Smereck doesn’t suffer further from a situation he didn’t ask for.

That point is a crucial one often lost in the aftermath of these situations, once everyone is cast in their roles, viewed only as one side of a high-profile conflict. But Smereck isn’t Player No. 2 in some sort of tumultuous back-and-forth that helps us find our way. He didn’t ask to be a stepping stone on hockey’s path to figuring out racism. He’s just a hockey player, who should have the space to simply think about being a hockey player, like everyone else on the ice.

Instead, Smereck told Ken Campbell following the incident that when he tried to return to the rink, “It didn’t feel right. … And just thinking of practicing and playing, I wasn’t fully there.” After the suspension was announced, he told Campbell he was unsure if he’ll return to the league.

So, again, what are we doing here, aside from running in circles?

There’s been a sense over the past year and a half that the hockey world is making progress on this issue. But that progress is only as good as the genuine change that comes from it. And right now, that second, crucially important bit continues to come up woefully short.

The best-case scenario, the one we’re aiming for down the line, is an environment where all involved are educated enough to understand the immense harm done by holding racist views, let alone expressing them. Until we’re there, the bare minimum is justly punishing those who make their racist views so blatantly, dangerously clear.

It should be simple. Racism isn’t a problem created by those it harms. Quite the opposite. And the onus is on the unharmed to step back, take stock, and find a better path forward. Because Smereck and every other player of colour who’s seen racism in the game go effectively unpunished up to this point deserve better from their sport — and from each of us.

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