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NHL's Panarin Returns To Hockey Rink After Alleged Russian Smear Campaign

New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin celebrates after a goal against the New Jersey Devils during the second period at Madison Square Garden in January.

New York Rangers star forward Artemi Panarin has returned to the rink after a brief hiatus from professional ice hockey, helping his team defeat the Boston Bruins 4-0.

The New York Rangers announced on February 22 that Panarin, 29, one of several Russians playing in the National Hockey League (NHL), was taking a leave of absence because of a Russian tabloid report alleging he assaulted a woman almost a decade ago.

Panarin, who has spoken out against Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied the allegations.

The Rangers called the story about Panarin fabricated and designed as an "intimidation tactic" due to his political views.

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 on 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 in 2010-12.

Panarin has a long history of criticizing the Russian government.

In some of his more recent comments, he showed support for Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, who was imprisoned in Russia following his return in January from Germany, where
he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he and his supporters say Putin ordered. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.

Panarin has played in the NHL since 2015. He signed an $81.5 million, seven-year contract with the New York team in 2019.

Based on reporting by AP