The New York Rangers released a statement Monday announcing that forward Artemi Panarin will take a leave of absence following the publication of what sources say is a “political hit piece” by Russian media. The report alleges a physical altercation Panarin had with an 18-year-old woman in 2011.
Rangers team leaders stood by Panarin on Monday, calling the allegation “fabricated” and an “intimidation tactic,” and that the Russian story is simply backlash for Panarin’s recent political activism, specifically for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. There are also concerns for the safety of Panarin’s family members in Russia.
According to the team:
Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story. 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.
Russian website sports.ru published an interview with Panarin’s former coach Andrei Nazarov of Vityaz Chekhov in Russia’s KHL. Nazarov alleges Panarin “sent an 18-year-old citizen of Latvia to the floor with several powerful blows” after Vityaz lost 2-0 to the Dynamo on December 11, 2011. The coach said the incident happened at the bar in the Radisson Hotel in Riga. Nazarov also alleges Panarin was detained by police but was released after paying a 40,000 Euro bribe.
Coach Nazarov, who is a “well-known” supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, also mentioned Panarin’s social media “provocations,” aka support, for opposition leader Navalny. Navalny, who has run for office against Putin and encouraged protests on an anti-corruption platform, was labeled “the man Vladimir Putin fears most” by the Wall Street Journal.
After Navalny was poisoned under mysterious circumstances, allegedly by Putin’s operatives, and after being imprisoned by Russian authorities multiple times including last month, many including Panarin threw their support behind the opposition leader. On January 21, Panarin wrote “Freedom for Navalny” on his Instagram page, along with a photo of Navalny and his family:
Putin denied his operatives poisoned Navalny, saying, “If [we] wanted to poison him, [we’d] have finished the job.”
There is no estimate at this point of how long Panarin’s leave of absence will last. However, members of his team have spoken out in support of the forward, who has helped the Rangers in their last two wins and has been a lead scorer for the team, with five goals and 13 assists in 14 games this season.
Rangers forward Ryan Strome said of Panarin:
(He) knows how much we love him, how much we care for him, how much we appreciate him (and) what he does for us. You guys get to see a small glimpse of what he does on the ice and in the media, but we see him behind closed doors every day, and the personality and the way he carries himself and his character and his attitude — he’s just an all-around unbelievable person. For us, just give him his time, give him the space, and whatever happens — whatever the timeline may be — we’ll welcome him back with more than open arms.
The Russian government has arrested thousands of people who protested Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment, including “5,646 people across more than 80 cities in Russia, including 1,861 in Moscow” on January 21.