New York’s professional ice hockey team says star forward Artemi Panarin has been targeted for his support of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in what the team called a “fabricated story” in a Russian tabloid alleging he assaulted a woman almost a decade ago.
The New York Rangers announced on February 22 that Panarin, 29, one of several Russians playing in the National Hockey League (NHL), is taking a leave of absence because of the report.
Panarin, who has spoken out against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past, “vehemently and unequivocally” denies the allegations, according to a statement from the team.
“This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events,” the statement said. “Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team.”
The Rangers fully support Panarin and will work with him to identify the source of “these unfounded allegations,” the statement said.
The source of the story, Andrei Nazarov, is a former NHL player who briefly coached Panarin in Russia. Nazarov told Komsomolskaya Pravda in a story published February 20 that Panarin knocked the woman to the floor with “several powerful blows” in a hotel bar in Riga, Latvia, following a game in December 2011.
Nazarov added that he later heard that Latvian authorities took no action after “authoritative” locals negotiated with the police not to pursue the case, alleging that money had changed hands.
Nazarov said he was motivated to speak out because he disagreed with Panarin’s criticism of the Russian government. Panarin played for Nazarov with Vityaz Chekhov of the Kontinental Hockey League from 2010-12.
Panarin’s most recent comment on the political situation in Russia came last month in a social-media post showing support for Navalny, who has been jailed in Russia.
Last week, Navalny’s prison sentence was upheld by a Moscow court but reduced to a little more than 2 1/2 years. Navalny also was fined a large sum of money in an unrelated case on charges of insulting a World War II veteran. The opposition politician has called the charges politically motivated.
Navalny was detained last month upon his return from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he and his supporters say Putin ordered. Russian authorities said he violated the terms of his probation in an embezzlement case while he was outside the country.
Panarin has played in the NHL since 2015 and leads the Rangers with 18 points on five goals and 13 assists. He signed an $81.5 million, seven-year contract with the New York team in 2019.
In an interview that year with the Russian-language Vsemu Golovin YouTube channel, Panarin criticized Putin and lawlessness in Russia.
"I think [Putin] no longer understands what's right and what's wrong," Panarin said. "Psychologically, it's not easy for him to soberly judge the situation."
He added that it disturbed him that Russia has “no agencies that would regulate big companies” and “everything is bought,” causing suffering among regular Russians.
“I am Russian and I am used to [the United States].... But, again, lawlessness is very painful for me. No freedom of speech. You can't point out any negatives. This is what I don't like."