Artemi Panarin taking Rangers leave of absence after Russian hit piece – New York Post

New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin is taking a leave of absence from the team in wake of a politically motivated article from Russia, in which his former Vityaz head coach alleges that the ex-forward of the Moscow Region club beat an 18-year-old girl in Riga, Latvia in 2011, The Post’s Larry Brooks reported Monday morning.

Andrei Nazarov, who is currently the head coach of the KHL’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, has repeatedly criticized Panarin for the forward’s outspoken beliefs regarding Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s regime. Nazarov is a known Putin supporter.

“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers said in a statement. “This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events. Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team. The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations.”

In the article published Monday, and translated by The Post, Nazarov puts forth a detailed account from Dec. 11, 2011. The former Russian hockey player alleges that after Vityaz lost to Dynamo 2-0, in which Panarin didn’t have a great game, a then-19-year-old Panarin and other teammates were out at a hotel bar when he “sent the 18-year-old citizen of Latvia to the floor with several powerful blows.”

Nazarov claims Panarin was detained by the police before there was an eventual criminal case and a trial. But Nazarov alleges that there was a bribe of 40,000 euros in cash to let Panarin off the hook.

Panarin’s grandparents still reside in Russia, as well as a few other family members.

The 29-year-old Korkino, Russia native has openly – and strongly – opposed Putin in the last few years. As recently as last month, Panarin showed his support for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Instagram post ahead of planned protests in Russia.

Panarin posted a photo of Navalny, a high-profile critic of Putin, and his wife and two children, with a caption that translated to: “Freedom for Navalny.” The post is still up on his page as of Monday.

Navalny had recently put out a message on his YouTube account to his supporters: “Don’t be afraid. Take to the streets. Don’t do it for me, do it for yourselves and your future.”

In July 2019, Panarin sat down for an interview with the Vsemu Golovin YouTube channel and eviscerated Putin. It was a bombshell interview in which the 2020 Hart trophy finalist – barefoot in his living room in Saint Petersburg – criticized Putin’s entire regime.

Panarin discussed Russian politics, economy, freedom of speech and drew several unflattering comparisons of his homeland to the United States. He was also questioned why he used to be supportive of Putin in the past.

“Because I was never really interested in politics. Never read the news,” a translation from reads. “I was thoroughly focused on hockey and my progress… Besides, it’s not like I crossed the [American] border and got enlightened right away.

“It took me something like two years before I thought, ‘Something is wrong [in Russia].’ I began feeling, with time, that at the end of summer I started to want to get back [to America].”

Panarin’s public opposition of Putin is extremely notable considering how rare an occurrence it is for Russian athletes. North American athletes, like LeBron James, Megan Rapinoe and countless others, have engaged in political conversation for years. Russian athletes are expected to show nothing but loyalty to their country, making Panarin’s stance all the more earth-shattering.

For comparison, fellow NHL star Alex Ovechkin had founded an entire political movement called “Putin Team” and sold Putin-themed merchandise leading up to the 2018 presidential election. Other Russian-born players such as Evgeni Malkin, Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Kovalchuk have expressed support of Putin himself or his politics.

The Blackhawks’ Nikita Zadorov has mildly shown support for Panarin, once commenting on Panarin’s Instagram account with a “thumbs up” and “fist” emojis. Panarin and Zadorov previously criticized a Russian law that sought to give the government greater control of the Internet, which prompted the Russian Embassy in the United States to issue an open letter to both NHLers.