If his first week on the job is any indication, the new president of the International Ice Hockey Federation has his work cut out for him.
Elected to the position last Saturday, during the IIHF’s semi-annual Congress in St. Petersburg, Russia, Luc Tardif was immediately faced with a social media firestorm. A video of Ukraine Hockey League forward Andrei Deniskin making a racist gesture toward opposing defenseman Jalen Smereck during a game on Sunday went viral.
Smereck, 24, is a Detroit native who is Black. After spending the last five seasons in the minor leagues with the Arizona Coyotes organization, this is his first season in the Ukraine.
Smereck told Ken Campbell of Hockey Unfiltered on Monday that, “aside from some strange looks, things have been very good off the ice for him” since arriving in Ukraine. And while he acknowledges that he has been the target of on-ice racist taunts in the past, while playing in North America, “That’s the deepest it’s ever been for me,” Smereck said of this latest incident. “Usually, it’s just words. But that was brand new to me. This is by far the worst.”
On Monday, Tardif issued a statement decrying the incident.
On Tuesday, Smereck announced on his Instagram that he will be taking a personal leave of absence and “I will not play another game in the (UHL) until Andrey Deniskin is suspended and removed from the league.”
On Wednesday, the Ukraine Ice Hockey Federation announced its punishment for Deniskin. Though it’s the maximum allowed by its disciplinary code — a three-game suspension, plus an additional 10 games or a fine of 50,000 Ukraine hryvnia (approximately $1,880 US dollars) — it’s been widely decried as little more than a slap on the wrist.
According to Gord Miller, the longtime play-by-play broadcaster for IIHF events, the federation can still hand down additional sanctions.
In recent years, the hockey world has taken plenty of criticism for its lack of diversity and inclusivity. Efforts are being made to improve hockey’s culture — too slowly, according to some. A watershed moment came in August of 2020, when NHL players forced a two-day postponement of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to stand in solidarity with other sports leagues protesting racial injustice.
Tardif now has the opportunity to make a strong statement, showing that these sorts of behaviors will not be tolerated on the international stage.
Will China Ice An Olympic Hockey Team?
Also on the new president’s plate — deciding whether it makes sense for the Chinese hosts to ice a men’s hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing next February.
Traditionally, the host country receives an automatic berth into the 12-team tournament, regardless of international ranking. The South Korean team, for instance, was ranked 23rd in the world in 2015, when the initial bracket for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games was set.
Despite the fact that most of hockey’s best players did not participate in the tournament after the NHL declined to release them for the event, the South Koreans were still thoroughly overmatched. They lost all four of their games, outscored by a cumulative total of 19-3.
After Beijing was awarded the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2015, Chinese sport officials amped up efforts to raise interest in hockey, the marquee team sport of the Winter Games, and to develop programs that would help the host nation deploy a competitive squad on home ice.
The task proved to be challenging, and the pandemic made matters worse. Now, less than six months from showtime, the Chinese men’s team is ranked 32nd in the world and hasn’t played a game since 2019.
Suggesting that the Chinese team carries an “insufficient sporting standard,” Tardif told France’s press agency AFP on Monday that “Watching a team being beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey.”
This time around, competition should be tougher, too, with NHL players set to return in Beijing. As a member of the IIHF Executive Committee, Tardif was involved in those negotiations with the NHL and the International Olympic Committee, which led to an agreement in principle in early September.
“We must now finalize with the NHL Players’ Association and other stakeholders,” Tardif told AFP. “The devil is in the details. There is a shared desire, everyone wants it.”
Tardif said that he plans to send a federation official to observe the Chinese team once it is back on the ice, and expects to make a decision on the team’s Olympic status by the end of October. If the Chinese men do not meet the desired standard, 11th-ranked Norway would likely be invited as the replacement.
With his election to the IIHF presidency, Tardif succeeds Dr. Rene Fasel, who had served in the position since 1994. Fasel’s legacy includes bringing NHL players to the Olympics for the first time in Nagano in 1998.
Fasel was originally set to retire after the World Championship in 2020, which was cancelled due to the pandemic. With the sporting world in upheaval, he stayed on for an additional 16 months — securing the deal to bring NHL players back to the Olympic stage and, despite a long list of tournament cancellations, successfully mounting the 2021 World Junior Championship in Edmonton, the World U18 Tournament in Texas and the Women’s Worlds in Calgary.
Tardif, 68, is a dual citizen of Canada and France. Born and raised in Quebec, he played hockey there through university before continuing his career in Europe. He eventually settled in France, where he remained after his playing days were over, continuing his work to grow and support the game.
In 2006, Tardif was named the first president of the new French Ice Hockey Federation, a position he has held ever since. He has also been involved in the French Olympic Committee as well as serving as treasurer of the IIHF since 2012 and chairman of the IIHF finance committee since 2016.
Tardif was named president in the fourth round of Saturday’s election, beating out four other candidates.
One day earlier, Fasel was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame as the sole member of the class of 2021.