NHL star Artemi Panarin is taking a leave of absence after his former coach accused him of beating up an 18-year-old girl in a Russian bar in 2011.
On Monday, Andrei Nazarov, a former Kontinental Hockey League coach, told Russian media that the New York Ranger forward “had sent an 18-year-old citizen of Latvia to the floor with several powerful blows.” News of his leave was first reported by the New York Post.
The Rangers described the piece as an “intimidation tactic” over Panarin’s outspoken criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers said in a Monday statement. “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.”
Panarin, a 29-year-old Russian national, had recently expressed support for the Kremlin’s imprisoned political dissident Alexei Navalny, posting a photo of the opposition leader with his family captioned, “Freedom for Navalny.” After suffering a poisoning widely believed to be an assassination attempt by the Kremlin, Navalny is currently serving a 32-month sentence in a case that has galvanized Russia’s opposition movement.
Andrei Nazarov, Panarin’s former coach and the man behind the allegations, is an outspoken supporter of the Kremlin and has criticized Panarin for speaking out against Putin. He has been fired by the KHL on several occasions for his own history of assault allegations, ranging from attacking fans with a stick to beating up the national team’s doctor.
In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Nazarov said that a criminal case against Panarin had been opened in Latvia, implying that it was closed after a 40,000 euro payment was made to stop the case from going forward.
Panarin had openly trashed the Russian president in a 2019 interview, saying that he thinks Putin “no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong. Psychologically, it’s not easy for him to judge the situation soberly. He has a lot of people who influence his decisions.” “If everyone is walking around you for 20 years telling you what a great guy you are and how great a job you are doing, you will never see your mistakes,” he added.
Putin is an avid hockey fan and has appeared in several annual hockey games on Russian TV. He has praised Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin for heading a pro-Putin “social movement” meant to “show everyone a strong and united Russia.”