The Ukrainian Hockey League has suspended HC Kremenchuk forward Andrei Deniskin for a minimum of three games for making a racist gesture at defenseman Jalen Smereck of HC Donbass in a game Sunday. The suspension includes an additional 10 games that Deniskin can avoid serving if he pays a fine.
In the second period of their game, Deniskin shouted at Smereck, who is Black, and then pantomimed unpeeling a banana and eating it. He was ejected from the game, and both the UHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation began a disciplinary process.
Smereck, 24, a Detroit native, took a leave of absence from his team and said, "I will not play another game in the UHL until Andrei Deniskin is suspended and removed from the league."
According to the UHL, Deniskin must serve the three games. However, he can avoid sitting out the additional 10 games if he pays a fine that's equivalent to $1,870.
The punishment received immediate backlash from around the hockey world Wednesday morning for being insufficient. The official Donbass account tweeted "$1870 for racism?!" and said, "We demand a reconsideration of the decision."
Smereck told ESPN on Wednesday that when he saw the suspension, "My heart just kind of dropped."
"I'm not even looking at this as a suspension. This can't be taken seriously," said Smereck, who is playing in his first season 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."
When asked if he's played his last game in the Ukrainian league, Smereck said, "I'm not sure right now."
"I'm trying to figure out what the correct move would be. I'm just going to take a few days and think it over," Smereck said. "Once you leave Europe, it's hard to come back. Once you leave the States, it's hard to get back. It's a tough situation. I'm going to take as much time as I can to think it over, and make the best move that I can."
The IIHF said before the UHL decision that "we will ensure that all necessary ethics violation investigations occur to ensure that this behavior is sanctioned appropriately," which could mean additional sanctions against Deniskin for international play. He appeared in five matches for the Ukraine men's hockey team last season.
Deniskin posted an apology on Instagram, saying it was "a gesture that someone can consider as an insult in race," that his emotions got the best of him, and that "I respect all people regardless of their race or nationality." Deniskin appears to have since deleted his account.
The widely seen video doesn't include what led up to Deniskin's act.
"There wasn't a scrum or anything between me and this guy. I know a lot of the stories were saying that. He was fighting one of my teammates. He was on top of him, on the ground. He threw four or five punches while he was on the ground," Smereck said. "In North America, a guy does that, and [a teammate] is going to try and step in right away. So I tried to step in. One of my teammates grabbed me and a linesman grabbed me."
Smereck said he was calling to Deniskin to fight, an invitation which Deniskin declined.
"I don't know if he understood what I said. I don't know if he speaks English. It was just me telling him to fight me. And then he responded with that," Smereck said.
He hasn't spoken much with Donbass teammates about the incident. Monday was a day off. When he got to the rink Tuesday, he was uncomfortable about practicing, so he met with the coaches and went home. He hasn't been around his teammates in person, though they have reached out to him via messages.
Smereck said that many NHL players, current and former, have reached out to him. Seattle Kraken analyst J.T. Brown and Akim Aliu, one of the founders of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, gave him words of support. Among the current players who reached out was Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes, who Smereck said is a good friend.
"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the video. Just terrible to see that," Keller said. "I wanted to let him know I was thinking of him. There's no place for racism in hockey. I wanted to do everything I could to let him know I was there for him. I think the hockey community is so tight, and only continuing to grow. [Jalen] is playing for the next generation, to make sure this stuff never happens again."