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Jalen Smereck's Road Less Taken

A path to pro and pay-it-forward approach as a black player in a predominantly white sport

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

Jalen Smereck knew hockey before he knew much else.

But the Coyotes prospect quickly learned that being a black hockey player would shape his experiences in a way that some fans might be just beginning to appreciate.

Those experiences would sometimes confuse, other times frustrate and madden, but ultimately strengthen.

Smereck is the only black player in the Coyotes organization. More than 95 percent of NHL players are white.

Born in Detroit, Smereck eventually got caught up in the devotion his father and two older brothers gave the sport.

"I just kind of grew up around the rinks when I came out of the womb," Smereck said. "It was straight to the hockey rink for one brother, and to a different hockey rink for my other brother." 

His father, Gary, coached both of his older brothers, Dwayne and Joseph. He put Jalen on skates when he was two.

"I was crying and screaming and wanted to get off [the ice]," said Smereck, 23, who has played in the Coyotes organization for four years. "Eventually ... and the rest is history."

Smereck began playing organized hockey in St. Claire Shores, a Detroit suburb. It wasn't long before he was playing for the city's prominent AAA program, Little Caesars.

For role models, Smereck mentioned P.K. Subban and Subban's brother, Jordan, who Smereck knew from youth tournaments. But Smereck's primary role model was his brother, Joseph.

"I watched him go through some things," Smereck said of Joseph, who played competitively until he was 21, including two seasons in the NAHL. "A big part of my life was just watching him play, watching how he handled himself on the ice, watching him after games, him showing me the ropes, really, talking on a daily basis, teaching me more about life in and outside of the rink. 

"He taught me how to kind of control myself when things got difficult. He showed me the right way to do all of that. He definitely led the way for me."

That mentorship helped Smereck through some challenging situations.

"I went through a bunch of stuff growing up," he said. "From the time I was seven, until this year, whether it was from a teammate, an opponent, coach, or parents. I've had it pretty much from everywhere. I would go to school and get teased for playing hockey, for being a 'white boy.' And then, I'd go to hockey practice and I'd get teased for being black and playing hockey. You know, I'd get asked why I wasn't playing basketball or football."

He continued: "You know, it was just kind of different when you hear certain things like 'Hey, you don't belong in this sport,' or 'You should be playing basketball,' stuff like that. For the most part when I was younger, it would hurt me. I used to come home and cry alone because I didn't want to tell my parents. I was afraid of what they were going to do. 

"It only made me tougher," he said.

Despite all that, Smereck continued to develop and advance. After a quick taste of the NAHL, he was drafted into the USHL in 2014, where he played one season before transitioning to the OHL.

He remembers one particular incident from his time at that level. It involved verbal harassment from an opposing coach and two players.

"There were a couple of racial slurs between those three people," he said. "And I kind of freaked out on the ice and got into a big argument with the ref. I was the one who actually ended up getting a penalty.

"I was basically crying because I was so angry. It was coming from an adult, a back-up goalie on the bench, and a player on the ice. It was kind of like 'Wow, I really don't know what to do here.' A tough situation, especially when a grown man is involved, a coach in the league." 

And there was no reprimand of the coach or the players.

"I was on the bus after the game crying, kind of freaking out," Smereck said. "My teammates were talking to me, and I ended up talking to our GM. It got to the league, I believe, and nothing happened. It's kind of hard to be put into those situations and have them not taken seriously. It's tough."

Smereck enjoyed plenty of success in the OHL. Ahead of the 2017-18 season, he was named the team captain for the Flint (MI) Firebirds.

"That was a pretty honorable moment for me," he said. "A big moment in my life. It was the first time that I had actually been a captain. So, it was kind of cool, and at the same time it taught me a lot. It helped me with growing as a person, as a teammate, and just life all around."

During his stretch in Flint, Smereck signed his first contract with the Coyotes. Since then, he's spent time with the AHL Tucson Roadrunners and the organization's ECHL affiliates.

His experiences in the AHL and ECHL, in general, have been good, but ... 

"This year, actually, I had a guy say something to me," Smereck said. "I was just like 'Alright, that's a little far. Come on man, is that really what you want to do?' I tried to fight him the next game, but he wasn't man enough to drop his stuff. That's just kind of the world we live in today. I just think if you're going to say something like that, you need to own up to it when that reality kicks in.

"When that happened, all of the boys had my back. I think that's the biggest thing, just that the guys that you're out there with and sitting next to in the locker room, knowing that they're all going to have your back in situations like that. It helps a lot. It definitely brings a lot of, well, it gives you that extra boost or that extra confidence. Just keep playing your game and keep being you. Don't let it faze you or knock you off. When you have that support from those guys, that's huge."

Smereck lauded the support from his teammates, though he's grown tired of filing official complaints.

"The coaches asked me, and I wasn't really pressed about sending it to the league," he said. "I've been in situations so often. You push it to the league; it gets to the board or whatever and nothing happens. You go through all of that just to see that nothing happens. So, I just try to put it past me and forget about it. I'd rather just try to do that then go through the long process of constantly repeating it, writing it down and everything, trying to fight for it. I think about it all the time.

"You just have to be strong and you can't really react a certain way. That's what they want you to do, they want to see you get out of your character and want to get you off your game, whatever it is, whether it's in life or on the ice.

"They want to see you react to their stupidity; I learned to kind of grow out of that."

That attitude drives Smereck's future objective, to start an alliance providing support for minority kids in sports.

"I know a lot of black kids are afraid of playing hockey," he said. "I want to offer support in those situations and help those kids, or adults, or whoever it is, just so they feel comfortable."

He often assists two good friends - Jason McCrimmon and Rico Phillips -- who promote youth hockey in Detroit neighborhoods. McCrimmon is the founder and president of "Detroit Ice Dreams Youth Hockey Association," which aims to expose minority youth to hockey.

Phillips, the NHL's 2019 Willie O'Ree Award winner and the founder of the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program, donates dozens of youth hockey scholarships annually.

"Jason and Rico run great programs for black kids," Smereck said. "I get out there and help them when I can. When I'm home, I make sure I get to any of their events to talk to and skate with the kids."

Smereck has begun his own involvement with non-profit organizations. One focuses on feeding the hungry. "Me and my buddy DeMaurio, we're just looking to better our community and our city," he said. "So, we were getting out once or twice a week to feed the less fortunate. We'll make 100-200 sandwiches, usually with some chips, fruit and water."

"Time to Eat" with Coyotes prospect Jalen Smereck

His other non-profit endeavor focuses on youth and sports. He wants young, minority athletes also to be exposed to sports such as lacrosse and golf, instead of only basketball and football.

Regarding the current protests and demonstrations, Smereck said, "I think it's important to have that right now."

But his focus is more long-term.

"You know, when I tell the kids that I'm a professional hockey player, they're shocked. They're surprised. They don't know what it is. Some kids will actually say 'We don't play hockey, we don't have that in the 'hood.'

Said Smereck: "That just opens my eyes and makes me want to be more of a leader."

Lead Photo Credit: Chicago Wolves // Second Photo Credit [Youth Portrait]: Provided by Jalen Smereck // Third Photo Credit [Locker Stall]: Provided by Jalen Smereck // Fourth Photo Credit [Flint Firebirds]: Dennis Pajot - Getty Images // Fifth Photo Credit [Tucson Roadrunners]: Shane Abbitt - Iowa Wild // Sixth Photo Credit [Hockey Clinic]: Provided by Jalen Smereck // Seventh Photo Credit [McCrimmon, Phillips]: Provided by Jalen Smereck // Footer Photo Credit: San Diego Gulls

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